This week marks the 81st anniversary of an incident in Manchuria that Japan used to launch its occupation of China. The anniversary has helped intensify the Chinese protests against the latest Japanese moves to purchase small islands that are claimed by both.
The Japanese call them Senkaku and the Chinese,Diaoyu. These uninhabited islands lie along critical sea lines of communication in the Western Pacific. The contested waters around the islands are rich in fisheries and the seabed is believed to have significant energy resources.
While Beijing has encouraged popular protests against Japan,it has also sought to carefully regulate them. The Chinese Communist Party is acutely conscious of the danger of the anti-Japanese rallies turning against the government in Beijing.
Official Chinese media is calling for restraint. Wisdom is needed in the expression of patriotism,the Xinhua news agency said in an editorial this week. When our territorial sovereignty is challenged,Xinhua said,Chinese people should and must show our clear-cut attitude. At the same time,it insists,the expression of patriotic feelings should not come at the cost of disrupting domestic social order.
Beijing is not the only one having trouble controlling the rising nationalist sentiment at home. Tokyo,which has been defensive in dealing with China all these decades,is now under pressure from the nationalists to stand up against Beijings assertiveness.
The nationalist resurgence in China and Japan has set the stage for what could be the first serious great power conflict since the end of the Cold War.
The talk of a war in east Asia seemed laughable until recently,for good reasons. East Asia had enjoyed a prolonged peace that facilitated the rapid economic integration of the region and generated unprecedented levels of prosperity. Economic interdependence,it was widely held,would help dampen nationalism and move east Asia away from its many historic animosities.
All these assumptions of the region are being questioned amidst the mounting maritime territorial tensions between China and Japan. Leaders from the region and beyond are no longer dismissing the possibility of an armed conflict between Beijing and Tokyo.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta,who is in Tokyo and Beijing this week,has underlined the potential dangers. Provocations of one kind or another over these various islands,Panetta said,could lead to a misjudgment on one side or the other that could lead to violence. And that conflict would then have the potential of expanding, he added.
That is probably an understatement. Even a limited conflict between China and Japan could shake down the geopolitics of Asia and the world.
The stock markets in east Asia have begun to react as Japanese businesses pull the shutters down in China and the regions cross-border production chains become vulnerable to political passions.
China and Japan are the worlds second and third largest economies. They are each others biggest trading partners. Any conflict between them would draw in the worlds number one economy,the US.
Delhi tends to view its relations with Beijing,Tokyo and Washington through the limiting prism of bilateralism. India must now begin to focus purposefully on the unfolding triangular dynamic between China,Japan and the US.
Japan is a military ally of the US,while Beijing is an important partner for Washington. With neither China nor Japan backing off in their disputes,the US is under pressure to produce a fine balancing act.
Tokyo would want to know if the US has the political will to defend Japan against China. Beijing,on the other hand,is warning that US support to Japan would be a hostile act.
For the moment,the US interest is in trying to prevent a further escalation of tensions between China and Japan rather than clarifying the implications of the US-Japan mutual defence treaty.
Indias relations with all the three have been transformed over the last two decades. As their conflict escalates,both Beijing and Tokyo would want Indias understanding of their respective positions.
In the 1930s and 1940s,the Indian national movement was deeply touched by the conflict between China and Japan. In the 1950s,independent India actively promoted peace in northeast Asia. India now needs to reclaim some of that spirit and contribute vigorously to the maintenance of peace and stability in east Asia.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express