For a week, Beijing and Tokyo have been challenging each other in the China Sea. They are playing a dangerous game in a high-risk zone. Any day now, an incident could degenerate into an armed confrontation. The U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is currently in Beijing trying to calm the waters.
We are way past a bilateral disagreement, however explosive. The crisis demonstrates the general attitude of China toward all its Pacific neighbors. It is no doubt linked to a difficult power transition in Beijing, a few weeks before the 18th party congress, in which the country's leadership will be shuffled. This mix of internal problems and nationalist hardline attitudes toward a foreign country is a political time bomb.
The reasons for the China-Japan quarrel are well known. China claims sovereignty over a small archipelago of islands, which have been under Japanese control because of historical circumstances. China calls them the Diaoyu Islands and says they have been Chinese since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands. The United States put them under Japanese control in 1972, after having occupied them during the Second World War.
Today, both countries claim inalienable rights over the islands, rich in fish, and probably in oil and gas. Extremists on both sides have turned the issue into a question of national pride. This is never a good sign. The two countries have never been able to erase the painful and tragic memories of their joint history.
For several days, Beijing allowed a wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations to take place. There were violent protests against Japanese interests in China. Factories were burned or closed; there was a torrent of fury on the web. A flotilla of Chinese fishing boats is making its way toward the islands, which are protected by the Japanese coast guard.
The anger of Beijing was set off by the decision of the Japanese government to "nationalize" the islands. In fact, Japan bought them from their private owners so that the owners would not sell the islands to Japanese ultra-nationalists. Some might view this as a gesture of appeasement.
But for reasons which no doubt have much to do with internal debates of the Chinese leadership, Beijing has chosen this pretext to launch a campaign against one of its main commercial partners. Is this perhaps a pledge to the most nationalist part of the Chinese communist party?
All this gesturing is in line with the rather aggressive tone China has always used in its disagreements with its neighbors in the Pacific. China claims sovereignty over the whole region and presents itself as the preeminent regional power. Its neighbors are afraid, and are asking for help from that other great Pacific power, the United States. It is the most dangerous kind of strategic face-off.