In China, Xi was appointed as head of a powerful interagency group formed in September at the top of the Chinese government to oversee China’s maritime disputes. That was two months before he assumed the leadership of the CCP and before he became the civilian head of the military at the 18th National Congress.
That means that for three months now, Xi has had a critical say in how China conducts its strategy with Japan, Western and Chinese analysts say.
At the same time, China has put greater focus on its growing maritime capacities. Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said in a farewell address that Beijing aimed to become a maritime power.
A highlight of Xi’s recent tour of southern China was a visit to one of China’s most advanced destroyers, the Haikou, which often patrols the South China Sea, another disputed area off China’s shores.
The dispute with Japan carries great resonance with the Chinese public.
The older generation recalls the history of the 1894 to 1895 Sino-Japanese War, when Japan humiliated China at sea and annexed the islands.
Many people also remember the brutal World War II Japanese occupation of China.
The younger generation bristles with the themes of a revised 1990s nationalistic school curriculum, even as they buy Japanese cars, electronics and fashion.
The economic fallout from the dispute has hurt Japan, but may not leave China unscathed, either.
Japanese economists say that Japanese auto sales in China, where top-tier Japanese brands were something of a status symbol, slumped precipitously in September and October. There has been a slight recovery since those lows, they said.
Some Japanese manufacturers in China, including Toyota and Sony, suspended production after anti-Japanese protests related to the islands, and laid off Chinese employees who demanded higher wages when they returned.
Some Chinese economists have warned Beijing that large-scale boycotts of Japanese goods could lead to huge job losses in a softening Chinese economy.
With little prospect of a return to more normal relations anytime soon, some Japanese factories in China are beginning to seek alternative locations in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, where wages are lower and employees are less demanding, some Japanese surveys show.
As the dispute drags on, China’s words and actions in international forums have escalated, too.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) wrote in an article in CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily two weeks ago that China would “resolutely fight against the Japanese side” over what he called the “illegal purchase” of the islands.
On Friday last week, China submitted documents to the UN detailing its claims to the continental shelf in the East China Sea, another step toward establishing what it says are its legal rights.
In mid-September, when the islands dispute first arose, Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng (樂玉成) foreshadowed China’s unfolding game plan.
Referring to the claims that would be handed to the UN, he said: “All these are proclamations of China’s sovereignty.”
China “will take tit-for-tat measures to protect our territory as the situation develops,” he added.