Last month, a group of Hong Kong activists (which in itself is an unusual phenomenon, given that a majority of activisism in Hong Kong at present is aimed at local elections, the results of which were released this week and saw a large number of pro-Beijing candidates selected to the territory parliament, sparking protests by pro-democracy supporters) sailed to the Islands and managed to land on one of them before being arrested and promptly deported back to Hong Kong (whose officials did not look at all pleased at having to travel to Japan to collect them) (E). 3 days later a group of 150 Japanese activists made their way to the Islands, ostensibly to remember the sacrifice of Japanese inhabitants of the Islands in the closing months of World War II, but which provided an opportunity for the said activists to make their way ashore and unfurl the Japanese national flag and declare the Islands a sovereign part of Japan (E).
All of this confrontation came to a head during the week with the announcement by the Noda government on Monday that the government had reached a deal with the current private owners of those Islands not yet under state control, and that the Islands would thus be administered by the state. The reaction from Beijing was as expected - Premier Wen Jiabao vowed that China would never "budge even half an inch" from defending its territorial claims, while there was this gem from the Chinese Defence Ministry...""We are watching developments closely and reserve the right to take reciprocal measures." (E) To reinforce this message, on Wednesday it was reported that two Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels had been sent to the vicinity of the Islands (although being unarmed, they were more for appearances' sake than a bona fide attempt to intimidate Japan into rethinking its purchase) (E).
The ramifications of these events have already impacted upon tourism (J), industry (J), and local bilateral relations (J), which are all taking place in what should be the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between both countries. What most commentators agree on is that the dispute itself appears to be some form of pretext or strategy for domestic politicians and political parties to appeal to nationalistic sentiment among voters (in the case of Japan), and the otherwise politically ostracised Chinese populace who are denied any other form of political expression and who have been taught to loathe Japan as an alternative to directing their frustrations at the Communist Party (a point outlined by Susan Shirk in her analysis of the domestic Chinese political apparatus - "China: Fragile Superpower"). Rikki Kersten hypothesised that this dispute, together with those with South Korea and Russia, provides a pretext for a revision of Japan's pacifist constitution in favour of collective self-defence, a position that may be as potentially destabilising for the region as China's growing military power and sovereignty claims (E).
In a sign that perhaps things might stabilise despite the political rhetoric flying from one side to the other, on Wednesday it was being reported that the head of the Asia and Oceanic Division of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sugiyama Shinsuke, had met with his Chinese counterpart Luo Zhaohui in Beijing in order to convey Japan's position to China and receive a similar explanation from the Chinese (J). Both division heads agreed on the need for clear communication lines between them, and that dialogue would continue. So at the very least, both sides are still talking to one another. Should this situation change, and all dialogue cease coupled with a move by elements of the Chinese Navy into the East China Sea, then as the venacular would have it.."things will get very real".
Such is the apparent pressure building within government over the dispute that perhaps it has claimed its first victim - Japan's new China Ambassador designate Nishimiya Shinichi, who was found this morning collapsed on a road in Shinjuku ward and subsequently transported to hospital (J). According to MOFA colleagues of Nishimiya, he had been "feeling unwell." Quite possibly the greatest understatement yet uttered this year, but indicative of the sort of concern that is now playing itself out in the bureaucracies of both countries. Let's hope that as Michael Cucek has observed, people are merely acting belligerently because that's what's expected of them (E) - i.e, it's all for show, and little more.