Forty years ago this month, Japan and China established diplomatic relations. However, the two countries are clearly in no mood to celebrate because of a heated territorial dispute over tiny uninhabited islands called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyus by China. They are under Japanese control but claimed by Beijing.

While the two governments wish to keep relations between the world’s second and third largest economies stable, political activists on both sides are provoking confrontations.

Japan, being a democracy, finds it harder to rein in its nationalistic activists, one of whose leaders, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, has proposed to the consternation of both the Chinese and Japanese governments the purchase of the islands from the Japanese family that owns them so as to strengthen Japanese control.

To prevent this from happening, the Japanese government stepped in and said it would buy the islands and nationalize them. But Beijing opposed any Japanese move to buy the islands, asserting that “nobody is ever allowed to trade in China’s sacred territory.”

At this sensitive time, activists from Hong Kong landed on one of the islands in mid-August to assert Chinese sovereignty, followed days later by Japanese rightwing activists who achieved a similar feat, fanning the flames of Japanese nationalism. Then, anti-Japan protests broke out in cities across China.

Now, the Chinese government clearly feels that things have gone too far and is acting to tamp down emotions in the country and to present the Japanese government in a more positive light.

The People’s Daily, the main party paper, published a commentary depicting the 79-year-old Ishihara as the common adversary of both the Chinese and Japanese governments. Its headline proclaimed: “China and Japan should not be kidnapped by an old fogey.”

“Both Chinese and Japanese leaders made great efforts to stabilize the overall situation of China-Japan relations since the two states normalized their diplomatic relations in 1972,” the commentary said. “They knew that some things were more important than these islands. …”

Subsequently, the official China Daily reported that Japan had rejected a request from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to visit the islands, a decision it said revealed “Japan’s desire to ease tensions and change its strategy on the islands dispute.”

A personal letter written by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Chinese President Hu Jintao — and the manner in which it was received by China — reflect attempts by the two governments to halt the deterioration in relations. The letter, carried to Beijing by Vice Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, reiterated the importance of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests and proposed close communication between high-level officials of the two sides.

Yamaguchi expected to deliver the letter to his counterpart, vice foreign minister Fu Ying. However, Fu did not accept the letter. Instead, China arranged for a much higher-ranking official, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, to meet him and to receive the letter — a gesture that gave face not only to the emissary but to the Japanese prime minister as well.

China, in an attempt to maintain the status quo, apparently wants Japan to agree to three conditions in return for its tacit acquiescence to the nationalization of the islands. These are that Japanese nationals should not land on them, that Japan would not develop resources around the islands and that Japan would not construct buildings on the islands.

The Noda administration, however, may not be able to deliver even if it wants to. Ishihara has reportedly agreed to abandon his attempt to buy the islands — but only on condition that Japan agrees to construct a fishermen’s shelter on one of them.

On Sept. 2, a group organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, while denied permission to land, conducted a survey in waters surrounding the islands — an act that irked China, which called it not only provocative but also illegal. But Japan may not be able to guarantee that such acts will not occur in the future.

Responding to the survey mission, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua issued a commentary saying that the Japanese government “should not be led by the nose by rightists.”

Hu will be in Vladivostok on Sept. 6-9 for an APEC economic leaders’ meeting that will also be attended by Prime Minister Noda. This will be a good chance for the two leaders to meet and discuss at firsthand how to deal with their common problem: nationalistic activists who threaten to take over from the government the making of foreign policy.

Frank Ching is a journalist and political commentator based in Hong Kong.

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