The following was written by Bryan Townsend, an American student at the University of Cambridge who is now studying at Peking (Beijing) University in China:

The recent upsurge in the number and intensity of anti-Japanese protests within China has breathed new life into the decades-old issue of tense Sino-Japanese relations. Tens of thousands of Chinese demonstrated in front of the Japanese embassy and consulates, some hurling rocks and all expressing rage, primarily at two issues: the prospect of Japan receiving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and the recent approval by Japan’s Education Ministry of school textbooks that continue to distort the atrocious conduct of Japanese troops during Japan’s occupation of China prior to and during World War II.

With tensions running high and more demonstrations likely to come, many eyes are focused on what impact these events will have on Sino-Japanese relations, UN reform, and peace and stability in East Asia. Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during the Asian-African summit in Jakarta, and a plan to strengthen Sino-Japanese relations has been presented. President Hu’s plan speaks mostly of peaceful talks and the Japanese translating their verbal remorse for their country’s wartime history into action. The plan also mentions the delicate issue of Taiwan and hopes that Japan will not support Taiwan’s independence. Whatever the outcome of Hu’s plan, it minimally represents an effort to peacefully promote a resolution to recent tensions. And though these issues, particularly the Taiwan issue, overlap with US policies and interests, given the historical sensitivity of Sino-Japanese relations, the US may best serve itself and East Asia by remaining relatively quiet and allowing China and Japan to resolve these differences on their own.

The plan’s outcome and US reaction aside, two additional thoughts should be considered. First, as tense as the situation is, protests and riots have not consumed the entirety of Chinese cities and social groups. At Peking University, located in northwest Beijing, on the opposite side of the city from the protests, the atmosphere was subdued; had I not read news reports, I would not have known protests were occurring across town. Though currently these protests have not inspired all young people to march, one has to wonder how easily the fire could spread, and what the outcome would be were it to do so.

Secondly, one must keep in mind that these protests are more a result of Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiments than they are the direction of the Chinese Communist Party. Some demonstrations occurred against Party guidance, and others did not occur despite Party guidance. Chinese nationalism, more than any other source, fuels this fire. Though the sensitivity of Sino-Japanese relations is higher than any other foreign policy issue, that Chinese nationalism drives the current protests suggests tensions will remain present beyond the short term. As China continues to develop, nationalist sentiments will do the same. And these will likely find expression beyond street protests, beyond the southeast of Beijing, and on the bulletin boards and conversations within the gates of Peking University; the same bulletin boards and conversations that provided the spark to major social movements throughout the 20th century.