The Kai Fung No. 2 is back in Hong Kong waters after the Chinese fishing boat landed activists on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands a week earlier. The ship, carrying activists, left Japanese waters Aug. 17 following the deportation by Japan of other activists via aircraft. The detention of the Hong Kong activists heightened diplomatic tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, and a landing of nationalist Japanese on the disputed islands triggered anti-Japanese protests in China. The Hong Kong-based activist group Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands has pledged to return to the disputed islands in October, weather permitting, raising the possibility of continued diplomatic tensions and protests in both Japan and China.
The current flare-up over the disputed islands began in April, when long-time Japanese nationalist Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced in a speech in the United States that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would buy at least three of the Senkaku islands from the private Japanese citizens who currently rent them out to the central government. Ishihara's statement forced the central government to announce that it would consider buying the islands. This would keep control over the islands in central government hands and allow them to better manage tensions with China. The Chinese, however, were quick to condemn the Japanese for their plan to "nationalize" what Beijing claims are Chinese islands, and the rhetorical conflict expanded with the recent successive landings by Chinese and Japanese nationalists.
Flare-ups over the disputed territory are not out of the norm. For example, in 2010, an incident around the islands triggered widespread protests in China, including attacks against Japanese businesses. But the timing of the current crisis has proven opportune for Beijing. For more than a year, regional attention has centered on China's actions in the South China Sea, particularly its standoff with Vietnam and the Philippines over disputed islands. China was portrayed as the aggressor, the Philippines asked for U.S. help, and Washington began calling on the Southeast Asian states to stand united and offered assistance in shaping a new code of conduct in the region for China to abide by. Combined with the so-called U.S. pivot to Asia and the U.S. push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (an economic grouping that does not include China), Beijing saw itself being constrained by an ever-more aggressive United States.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, then, has proven useful for Beijing. Suddenly, China is not in the center of things and not being seen as the aggressor. Rather, Beijing is calling on the Japanese to refrain from aggressive action. Due also to renewed tensions between Japan and South Korea over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands, attention has shifted to Japan as the center of regional disputes, not China. For Beijing, this has created a surge of domestic nationalism as the country's leadership transition nears, keeping attention not on potential problems within the Chinese Communist Party or the economy but instead on the perceived perennial aggressor, Japan. It also gives Beijing room to allow its citizens to let off some steam in their anti-Japanese protests — but only within certain bounds, as the 2010 instance showed how quickly things can quickly get out of hand.