BEIJING—China's harsh backlash over Japan's move to put the Senkaku Islands in state ownership stems from a belief in Beijing that Tokyo has broken a long-standing taboo.
In 1978, then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping paid a visit to Japan in which he called for the two sides to shelve their Senkaku dispute.
"Any issue that our generation does not have the wisdom to resolve should be handled instead by future generations," he said.
Ever since then, inaction has remained China's basic policy on the Senkakus, which it calls Diaoyu.
Japan may argue that China threatened its sovereignty by pushing operations by fishing boats and surveillance ships into waters around the islands.
But officials in China's foreign ministry feared that things would spiral out of control if Japan and China began openly clamoring for ownership of the islands.
"What we are calling for is to maintain the status quo," said one ministry official shortly before Japan purchased three of the Senkaku Islands from their private owner.
China believes Japan has opened a Pandora's box by moving to purchase the islands.
"Japan reneged on a tacit understanding," said a researcher at a government-affiliated think tank in China.
On Aug 16, a day after Japan arrested Hong Kong-based activists engaged in an island landing stunt, the organ of China's Communist Party asked a rhetorical question in which it faulted Japan.
"Which country failed to stand by a common understanding the two countries had formed and strayed from the correct path of controlling conflicts through dialogue and cooperation?" asked the People's Daily in a commentary.
Japan said purchasing the islands is aimed at ensuring their stable management. But China saw it as a shift in the status quo and a departure from the principle of leaving the dispute in cold storage.
"Nationalization is simply an excuse for Japan to strengthen its legal standing over the Diaoyu Islands," Le Yucheng, assistant foreign minister, told a meeting in Beijing on Sept. 14.
The same day, six Chinese marine surveillance vessels entered Japanese territorial waters surrounding the Senkakus.
Broadcasts on state-run China Central Television repeatedly showed the ships defying Japan Coast Guard patrol boats with this message: "The Diaoyu Islands are an integral part of China. You are violating China's sovereignty."
Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, has blamed Japan for provoking the latest confrontation over the islands and has called on Tokyo to return to the path of dialogue.
Japan knew its decision to purchase the Senkakus would rile China and it anticipated a backlash.
But a senior government official said the intrusion of the six surveillance vessels in Japanese territorial waters was "close to the strongest reaction the government had expected."
"China is serious," the official added.
An aide to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in the event of military retaliation the Self-Defense Forces might need to be deployed.
"We have simulated all possible scenarios," the aide said. "We cannot rule out the possibility that China will mobilize its military."
If the Chinese government allows fishing boats to head to the islands it is possible that individuals will land there.
Japan deported the Hong Kong activists arrested in August without sending the case to prosecutors.
But Japanese officials have informed their Chinese counterparts the next landing might play out differently. Since the Japanese state is now the islands' landowner, the government cannot afford to treat similar provocations leniently, sources said.
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