The imagery is disconcerting. Seventeen Japanese coast-guard cutters, helicopters whirling overhead, repelling a flotilla of Chinese protesters from Hong Kong and Taiwan trying to land on islands claimed by both Japan and China. Meanwhile thousands of Chinese march in Taipei and Hong Kong, shouting slogans such as "down with Japanese militarism." In Tokyo, the Land Self-Defense Forces discuss establishing a special ranger unit to defend outlying islands, such as the disputed Senkaku islands. It's time to stop this explosion of Asian nationalism before it gets out of hand.
Japan should move quickly. The government of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto allowed the crisis to develop by permitting rightists to build a lighthouse on the uninhabited islands, highlighting Japan's claim to them. With an upcoming election scheduled just months away, Hashimoto may be playing to the extreme conservatives in the electorate. But this is a dangerous game. Chinese everywhere in Asia remain sensitive to Japan's wartime behavior in China.
Beijing is playing an equally dangerous game. To replace a dying communist ideology, it is using nationalism to unite the Chinese people throughout Asia. Anti-Japanese and anti-American propaganda pours forth from government controlled media. But antiforeign protests can quickly evolve into antigovernment protests against unemployment, corruption, and crime. Protests also play into the hands of the party hard-liners and the military. China held military exercises near Taiwan last winter, provoking the dispatch of U.S. aircraft carriers to the region. If China does the same thing off the Senkakus, a confrontation with Japan could be deadly.
President Jiang Zemin has begun to tone down its anti-Japanese propaganda and restrain protesters. Prime Minister Hashimoto should rein in Japan's own extremists. Conflict is the only true threat to continued prosperity in Asia.