Territorial sovereignty is a serious matter, as are resources like fish and gas to a hungry economy. The Diaoyu Islands embrace all three, which is why they have stirred nationalist fervour in China and Japan and sent a shiver through fraught diplomatic relations. Tensions have been escalated by the Japanese government's decision to buy the rocky outcrops from their indebted private owner and Beijing's ordering of patrol boats to reassert its claim. Were conflict to erupt, the US would be dragged in through its security treaty with Tokyo.
Confrontation and war are never difficult words for avid nationalists to chant. On both sides of the East China Sea, they are egging on their governments for a final solution. But there could be no worse time for the crisis to have erupted. China's once-in-a-decade leadership tussle is not going well and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, although likely to win a challenge for control of his Democratic Party of Japan in a vote on September 21, faces a general election before the end of the year and is faring poorly in opinion polls.
Leaders cannot be seen to be weak at politically sensitive times, particularly on foreign policy. Beijing's rhetoric towards Japan on the Diaoyus has been scathing and anti-Japanese protests have been allowed to take place almost unchecked. Noda stepped in to buy the islands, known in Japan as the Senkakus, after the right-wing governor of Tokyo threatened to make the purchase as part of his extreme nationalist agenda. That, predictably, worsened the diplomatic crisis. A meeting between Noda and President Hu Jintao at the Apec meeting in Vladivostok that was originally intended to take out the heat instead turned into a frosty, informal berating.
Washington denies Chinese suspicions of involvement through its alliance with Japan and a reinvigorated interest in Asia and the Pacific. But all nations know that nothing is to be gained from creating instability at so economically and politically sensitive a time. The US has to use its influence to rein in Japan, and China's leaders have to calm nationalist sentiment. China and Japan, as the world's second- and third-biggest economies, have too much at stake through trade and investment to let matters spin out of control.
Difficulties lie ahead in the short term, but the grave implications of a conflict will push Chinese and Japanese leaders to find a peaceful solution. For the sake of their nations, the region and the global economy, they have no choice.