Tokyo and Beijing are exchanging tough words over the arrest of 14 Hong Kong protesters and journalists who landed Wednesday on the disputed Senkaku Islands, repeating their harsh rhetoric over who owns the rocky outcroppings in the East China Sea.

But diplomatic experts in Japan agree that deep down, both Japan and China are eager to put the incident behind them as quickly as possible to avoid an all-out diplomatic row like the hostility that broke out in 2010 when the skipper of a Chinese fishing boat was arrested near the uninhabited islets.

“It is clear that China does not want to make a big deal out of (the Senkaku issue) and is focused on trying to prepare a stable environment,” said Masayuki Masuda, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies.

“It’s true that China continues to claim the Senkakus, but it is refraining from using strong words. The country cannot go without saying anything, so it is stating its position in the least” provocative way possible, Masuda said.

The Chinese and Japanese governments are both faced with fractious domestic politics, leaving them little room for picking full-fledged diplomatic fights.

For China, domestic stability is vital as President Hu Jintao is getting ready to hand power over to his successor, Xi Jinping, in October. To ensure the transition goes smoothly, the Chinese leadership is carefully controlling domestic activities to prevent public sentiment from overheating into nationalism, Masuda said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Noda has repeated that Japan will “deal sternly” with the illegal landing based on domestic law, but he also is trying to bring this flare-up to a speedy conclusion.

The government is reportedly planning to deport all 14 Chinese quickly — as early as Friday — for allegedly violating immigration law, rather than detaining them for weeks while considering indictments.

Masuda also said deportationwould be more acceptable to China than drawing out the affair like in 2010.

In that incident, the Chinese fishing captain was detained for weeks while officials mulled indicting him. During the full-blown diplomatic clash, Beijing even stopped exports to Japan of rare earths, key materials desperately needed by high-tech industries.

“In China’s view, deportation is probably the lowest degree of legal (punishment) and they are likely to have that in mind already,” Masuda said.

Even before the arrest, officials decided to take a softer approach and had no intention of provoking Beijing. The Japan Coast Guard said the government agreed beforehand that it would not take aggressive action against the protesters.

The Noda administration, already dealing with rising tensions with Moscow and Seoul over separate territorial rows, didn’t need a new crisis on its plate.

“It’s better to end this as soon as possible,” said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute of Public Policy. “As long as both sides are able to have their say and call it a day, everything will turn out fine. . . . The key is not to draw out the situation or let it escalate.”

The incident closely followed South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s visit to the disputed islets off Shimane Prefecture, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made his second trip to one of the disputed islands off Hokkaido in July.

Critics say Russia, South Korea and China are all taking hardline stances over the territorial issues partly to draw the attention of their publics from the political instability each faces at home.

Russia had an election that returned Vladimir Putin to the presidency, but his victory drew allegations of fraud. In South Korea, Lee’s public support is suffering badly as his brother and former aides face corruption charges while a new presidential election looms in December. And China is seeing a change of its top leadership for the first time in 10 years.

“Political leaders want to look strong on territorial sovereignty issues,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director at the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“That’s why we have an upward spiral in tension and downward spiral in the relations.”

Still, some experts in Japan say Tokyo has been too weak-kneed in dealing with the territorial issues, particular regarding China.

Mineo Nakajima, president of Akita International University and an expert on Japan-China relations, is critical of the government’s lack of action.

“Japan has been conceding on territorial issues . . . and I think now is a good time to reconsider its diplomatic strategy,” he said.

“Japan has spent all these years avoiding dealing with China’s one-sided claim over the Senkakus, trying not to provoke it . . . and now it is paying for it.

“I think Japan has reached a point where it must either give up sovereignty over the islands or take proper action (against China’s provocations),” Nakajima said. “And buying the islands may be one quick way to show its course.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.