With the world's No. 2 and No. 3 economies and the proximity of their nations, China and Japan need to get along. But after Japan bought a group of islands that it, China and Taiwan have all claimed, the long-standing dislike between the two nations has reached a fever pitch in China.
On Tuesday, a Japanese coast guard vessel issued a warning to a Chinese vessel near the Senkaku Islands amid reports that more than 1,000 Chinese fishing boats were headed to the disputed territory. Meanwhile, Japanese businesses and plants in China have had to shut down to avoid increasingly hostile protests from Chinese who, according to one report, are being scheduled for protest by Chinese government officials.
And it didn't help that Tuesday was the anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China 81 years ago.
The islands -- known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- are located in the East China Sea and are uninhabited. Which nation they belong to has long been in dispute.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Gen. Liang Guanglie, China's minister of defense Tuesday, to urge Chinese and Japanese leaders to take a cooler headed diplomatic approach to resolving the dispute. Guanglie said the fault rested entirely with Japan and that while he hoped Japan would return to negotiations, China was reserving the right to take what action it felt appropriate. In saying he wanted the U.S. to maintain it's neutral stance on the issue, he essentially told us to butt out of their neighborhood squabble.
Whether Panetta's visit will help is anyone's guess. It came just a few days after our nation reached an agreement with Japan on the installation of a second missile-defense radar system there. Many in China see the U.S.'s attempt to reassert itself in the region as a challenge to Beijing.
Complicating the issue is the decennial leadership change that is occurring in the next few weeks in Beijing. Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to take over as president, though there were some concerns during a two-week disappearance that ended Saturday as to whether an orderly transition of power would take place.
It all leads to a great deal of uncertainty and the potential for a relatively small incident to snowball into an escalated conflict between two powerhouse economies. The underlying fundamentals for violence to erupt are there. We can only hope the leaders of these two countries are wise enough to snuff out the fuse before a powder keg blows.