Relations between China and Japan reached their lowest point in years Monday when the Japanese ambassador's car was attacked by a group of unknown men in Beijing amid an escalating dispute over a string of uninhabited islets.
The Japanese embassy said the ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, was returning to the embassy when his car was forced to stop by two other vehicles. A man in one of the other cars got out and ripped the Japanese flag from the official car, the embassy said. Mr. Niwa was unhurt.
The attack reportedly occurred in late afternoon, just before rush hour on Beijing's busy Fourth Ring Road, a major highway. Chinese authorities later said they were "seriously investigating" the incident, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The attack came hours after the official Kyodo news agency reported the Japanese government was planning to make a two-billion-yen (about $25-million) offer to purchase four of the five disputed Senkaku Islands from the Japanese family that has privately owned them for the past four decades.
Japan's efforts to strengthen its sovereignty over the islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in China, has provoked anti-Japanese demonstrations in cities across China over the past two weeks. Some of the protests have seen attacks on Japanese businesses and even on Japanese-brand cars that were built in China and owned by Chinese.
While acrimony over the island has flared up in the past without shots being fired, China's People's Liberation Army raised concerns earlier this month when it held exercises which practised an amphibious landing on an island, and then published a report on those exercises in the official PLA Daily newspaper. Japan and its ally the United States are currently in the midst of joint military drills of which one reported scenario is the retaking of an island after an enemy landing.
Animosity between East Asia's two biggest military powers has been on the rise since Aug. 15, when the Japanese coast guard intercepted a Hong Kong boat and arrested a group of men who tried to plant Chinese and Taiwanese flags on the disputed islets. Japanese activists later sailed to the islands and raised the Japanese flag there before they, too, were arrested.
The islands, which appeared on Chinese maps for centuries, were annexed by Japan in 1895 at the same time as the Japanese Empire absorbed what is now Taiwan. They were under U.S. occupation from 1945 to 1971 before they were returned to Japan. China (and, separately, Taiwan) says Japan should have ceded it the islands at the end of the Second World War.
The competing claims to the islands – which lie southwest of Okinawa, northeast of the main island of Taiwan – have always been driven by fishing rights, as well as interest in the rich deposits of oil and natural gas believed to lie in the nearby seabed. However, angry nationalism has now taken over as the dispute's primary motivator.
The Japanese embassy said a senior Chinese official called Monday's attack on the ambassador's car "extremely regrettable," and pledged to protect Japanese citizens in China. But bellicose anti-Japanese rhetoric is now common in China's state-controlled news media.
"Japan's increasingly radical approach over the island disputes is pushing the Diaoyu issue toward a military confrontation. The Japanese government is dangerously fanning the flames in East Asia," reads an editorial printed Monday in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper published by the People's Daily. Invoking unaddressed grievances dating back to the Second World War, the article warned that "the Chinese public has boundless antipathy toward Japan."
Meanwhile, the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara – who instigated the recent round of churlishness earlier this year by announcing a plan to buy the islands on behalf of the metropolitan government – told the Wall Street Journal that Japan needed to build a telecommunications base, a port and a meteorological station on the islands. "Without such things, we won't have effective control of them," he was quoted as saying.
Mr. Ishihara's purchase plan has effectively forced the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to step in and try to buy the islands itself in order to keep the diplomatic crisis under its own control. Tokyo has already collected about 1.5 billion yen in donations to buy the islands from the Kurihara family, which has indicated it wants to sell them in order to ensure Japanese sovereignty. It's not clear if Japan's cash-strapped central government will use the donation money in making its own purchase.
Mr. Noda is expected to call a November election. With his government already sagging in opinion polls, he can't afford to look weak in a showdown with China.