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Demonstrators wave Chinese national flags during a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Sept. 14, 2012.

David Gray/Reuters

It has long been assumed that China and Japan, despite their historic and unresolved enmity, are far too intertwined economically to ever again come to blows. The current leaders in Beijing and Tokyo seem intent on putting that theory to the test.

Tensions between East Asia's two biggest military and economic powers soared Friday as six Chinese patrol ships entered waters controlled by Japan, declaring they were enforcing new territorial "baselines" established this week by Beijing around islands claimed by both governments. The ships were shadowed at close range for about nine hours by vessels from the Japanese coast guard – with each side calling on the other leave "their" territorial waters – until the Chinese ships finally pulled back.

China said the ships, unarmed law enforcement vessels, had been sent to "assert China's sovereignty claims over the islands and uphold China's maritime interests in the area," signalling that after after decades of accepting Tokyo's de facto control over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, Beijing now intends to police what it considers its territory. Tokyo said Friday was the first time so many Chinese ships had been simultaneously sent into the disputed waters.

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China's state-run CCTV television channel showed footage of a Marine Surveillance officer radioing the Japanese pursuing ships to demand they withdraw. "The actions of your ships violate China's sovereignty and rights," the officer was shown saying. "Any unilateral act from your side regarding the Diaoyu islands and its affiliated islands is illegal and invalid. Please stop any infringing acts. Otherwise, your side will bear the consequences caused by your actions."

The Japanese side was more reserved, but still firm. The arrival of the Chinese ships was "extremely regrettable," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo. He said Japan was "taking all possible measures to be ready for any development." China's ambassador to Tokyo was summoned to hear a protest.

Chinese state media have warned that Japanese companies will suffer financially if Tokyo did not back down in the island dispute. One newspaper reported that maps showing the islands as "an inalienable part of China" would be added to Grade 8 geography textbooks in the country.

At the centre of the crisis are five rocky islets currently inhabited only by a growing herd of goats. However, the waters around the archipelago are renowned fishing grounds (the Chinese word "diaoyu" means "fishing") and the nearby seabed is believed to contain large deposits of oil and gas.

But the reasons this old standoff is suddenly flaring up are weakened leaderships and rising nationalism in both Tokyo and Beijing. Increasingly heated rhetoric on both sides is narrowing the list of options for de-escalating the conflict without one side suffering a major loss of face.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan government is slumping badly in the polls, and facing an election in the coming months. His main opponent could be Nobutero Ishihara, the nationalist secretary-general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. Ishihara is the son of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a right-wing firebrand who is reviled in China for denying that Japanese troops committed the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. The elder Mr. Ishihara set the current crisis in motion earlier this year by trying to buy three of the five disputed islands – which had been privately owned by a Japanese family since 1971 –  on behalf of the metropolitan government. The move forced Mr. Noda's government to intervene with a 2 billion yen ($25-million) offer to nationalize the islets.

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Mr. Noda's intention was to keep the diplomatic fallout under control, but the effort instead infuriated Beijing. "Japan's decision to 'nationalize' the islands is ridiculous. It is an open provocation against China, the rightful owner of the Diaoyu Islands," China's official Xinhua newswire roared on Friday. "China's patrolling is a strong counteraction against Japan's provocation, dealing a big blow to the inflated swagger of Japan."

The Xinhua editorial went on to note that now that China had declared its new territorial baselines, "the law prohibits foreign warships and vessels from entering the waters around the Diaoyu Islands without permission from the Chinese government."

Any escalation of the confrontation could draw in players from around the region and beyond. The United States, which last year announced it was shifting its military focus away from the Middle East and towards Asia – in large part to deal with the perceived threat posed by a rising China – is bound by treaty to defend Japan from attack. U.S. diplomats have suggested that the treaty includes the Senkaku Islands, although experts are divided on whether the surrounding waters are also covered.

Earlier this week a top U.S. diplomat called for "cooler heads to prevail" in a region he called the "cockpit of the global economy." "'The stakes could not be bigger and the desire is to have all leaders to keep that squarely in mind," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said.

Analysts say Beijing and Tokyo appear to be heeding that warning for now. "It's not that dangerous yet … both sides are using civilian ships and not military ones, a deliberate effort to cap escalation," said Taylor Fravel, an expert on East Asian security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

China's increasing assertiveness has also led to friction in the South China Sea, where Beijing's claim to the world's busiest shipping lanes overlaps with the territorial claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Meanwhile, Japan has been trading rhetorical salvoes with South Korea and Russia over separate island disputes left over from the end of the Second World War.

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China's show of strength in the showdown with Japan is intended for a domestic audience as well the international one. The country's Communist Party leadership is in the midst of a sensitive leadership transition this fall, with seven of the nine members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo due to retire as early as next month. In order to keep the country's powerful military onside, the incoming generation of leaders can't appear weak on a matter of national sovereignty.

"Any centimetre of [China's] territory of a country is a centimetre not allowed to be lost. ... It doesn't matter to whether it's important or not. It won't be seen as unimportant if they give up guarding it," said Li Daguang, a military expert at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University.

The Communist Party power transfer, while planned years in advance, has been thrown into turmoil in recent months, first with the purge of top leader Bo Xilai and now with the mysterious disappearance of Vice-President Xi Jinping, who had been identified as the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao.

Mr. Xi hasn't been seen in public since Sept. 1, amid swirling rumours of a serious health problem.

The tempest at sea seems something of a welcome distraction for Beijing. Cities around China have seen four straight days of anti-Japanese demonstrations since Mr. Noda's government announced the plan to purchase and nationalize the disputed islands.

The Communist Party, usually quick to stamp out all politicized gatherings, seemed Friday to be encouraging more anti-Japanese demonstrations. State-controlled newspapers published front-page photos of protesters holding "Japan get out of China" signs. At least one Beijing shopping mall used an outdoor video screen – which normally shows music videos – to broadcast anti-Japanese propaganda.

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There has also been a spate of attacks on Japanese nationals and Japanese property around in the country. On Thursday, the Japanese consulate in Shanghai released a list of six recent anti-Japanese incidents in the city – including one man who had a bowl of hot noodles in his face while walking down the street. Separately, a Chinese resident of Shanghai set his Honda Civic on fire to show his anger over the island dispute.

The Japanese claim to the islands is based on the fact they were annexed by Tokyo in 1895, occupied by the U.S. following the Second World War, and then returned to Japanese control by the U.S. in 1971. Beijing's claim is based on the fact the islands appear on Chinese maps for centuries before that.

The archipelago is 400 kilometres west of Okinawa and 250 kilometres northeast of Taiwan – which also claims the atoll and promised this week that its own coast guard would start playing a more active role around the islands.

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