The embers of anti-Japanese sentiment are always smoldering in China. It doesn’t take much by way of political oxygen to bring them forth in full flame. Thousands of Chinese took to the streets on Sunday across several cities to protest against Japanese nationalists landing, albeit briefly, on one of the specs of rock in disputed waters of the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. Japanese flags were burned in several cities and some Japanese restaurants ransacked. In Guangzhou, the Japanese embassy was picketed. In Shenzhen, demonstrators overturned Japanese cars, including a Honda in the service of Chinese police, no doubt an unintended piece of symbolism.
Both governments have tried to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalist expression on both sides since 2010 when Japan arrested in 2010 the captain of a fishing boat after it collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, chilling diplomatic and economic relations. Yet at the same time, both governments are keen to assert their sovereignty. It is not a combination that will douse the flickering embers of nationalism for good. Not that politicians in either country really want to, providing it doesn’t get out of hand. The risk is that one day it will.