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Why five tiny islands are big matter of principle in China

The middle-aged man walked over, wanting to share a drink with me, the only foreigner in a Tibetan-themed bar in this western Chinese city.

He toasted Canada. I toasted China. Then my new friend started talking about war.

"We must take back the Diaoyu Islands by force!" he shouted over the live music. He was referring to the quintet of uninhabited islands that Japan controls and calls Senkaku, but which China says rightfully belong to it.

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The man said his family name was Ma, and that he worked in the Ministry of Railways in neighbouring Shaanxi province. I started telling him about my train trip around China, but he wanted to keep talking about the need to confront Japan.

"Look at my watch," he said, pulling up his sleeve to reveal a silver Omega. "I have 200-million yuan [$32-million]. I am a so-called corrupt official. But I would sacrifice my life anytime for my homeland."

Ignoring the tugs from his friends trying to pull him away from our wild conversation, Mr. Ma stood up and gave me a slow, practised salute. "We must take the Diaoyu Islands by force," he told me again.

Talk of war has followed us everywhere we've gone on this long ride around China, which now stands at 18 days and more than to 4,200 kilometres travelled.

To the rest of the world, the dispute over the tiny, remote islands seems just that – tiny and remote. But China's state media has made it an issue of national honour and pride, igniting lingering resentment in the country over Japan's Second World War invasion and occupation of much of China.

While driving in the remote mountains of Sichuan province last week, we passed a giant roadside billboard that shouted: "The Diaoyu Islands are China's!" over a red-tinged picture of the lonely rocks looking very important indeed.

The battle-ready mood is very different from what I felt in Okinawa in November when I spoke with the Japanese military officials responsible for defending the islands. While there was concern over what they called China's aggressive behaviour, no one that I spoke with – military or civilian – believed war was possible.

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The test of wills between Asia's two great powers began in September when Tokyo nationalized the islands, purchasing them from the Japanese family that had owned them for decades. China has been showing its anger by sending fisheries patrol boats into Japanese-controlled waters on a near-daily basis since then.

The Japan Coast Guard has matched the Chinese boats ship-for-ship, leading to sometimes dangerous sea chases. The showdown became even more unpredictable in recent weeks as both sides sent fighter jets on sorties near the islands.

Beijing and Tokyo appeared to take a small step away from the brink last week when China's leader, Xi Jinping, met a Japanese envoy who proposed a summit meeting between Mr. Xi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an idea Mr. Xi said he would "seriously consider." But neither side has left itself much room for a compromise.

Mr. Abe was elected last month by a Japanese public that wants to see him take a tougher stand against China than his predecessors did. And widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in China is bubbling over in some quarters into a desire for war.

We spent our longest train ride of the trip – 22 hours from Chengdu, the capital of southern Sichuan province, to Lanzhou in western Gansu province – beside four men who drank baijiu, a foul-smelling rice liquor, read the nationalist Global Times newspaper, and talked of what they saw as the growing possibility of a military conflict with Japan. One of the men wore a red Communist Party pin on his grey sweater.

I interrupted their loud conversation to ask what they thought a war would mean. "China has eight military districts," one responded, referring to the eight regional commands of the People's Liberation Army. "Any one of those eight could defeat Japan on its own."

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A week before that train ride we hired a random taxi in Guiyang, one of China's poorest big cities, and asked the driver to take us to his hometown.

Along the way, 31-year-old Kong Dezheng complained about the corruption that has become an integral part of Communist Party rule, and about how hard it was to raise his family of three with his small income and rising costs.

But when it came to the issue of who owns the disputed islands, he was firmly behind the country's leadership. "If there is a war, no matter how poor I am, I will donate to the troops," he said earnestly. Like the others, Mr. Kong started talking about the islands without being asked about them.

China doesn't have elections or useful opinion polls. But in the age of Weibo, China's wildly popular Twitter-like service, the Communist Party knows better than ever before what the 1.3 billion people they rule really think (while many political topics are tightly censored, calls for war with Japan and racist comments against Japanese are apparently fair game). These months are particularly sensitive, with a new generation of leaders, headed by Mr. Xi, gradually taking over the levers of power from the outgoing group headed by President Hu Jintao.

Back on the train, the man with the Communist Party badge asked me if I was scared by all the war talk I was hearing. I told him I was, because I had seen wars up close and knew how terrible they really were. He seemed unconvinced.

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