Even as tensions with North Korea remain unresolved, East's Asia other flashpoint is once again in the headlines: the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Over the last several weeks, several incidents have increased tensions between China and Japan.
Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a cypress tree branch to the Yasukuni shrine. Members of his cabinet have also visited the shrine, as recently as Administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada on Sunday.
The visits have increased tensions with Beijing as well Seoul. Both nations view the shrine as a symbol of the pain and anguish both suffered during a time of Japanese aggression and imperial conquest.
Last Tuesday, various outlets reported that Chinese military aircraft made more than 40 flights near the Senkakus. This is on top of eight Chinese maritime surveillance vessels also travelling close to the islands the same day. Japanese F-15s scrambled to meet the Chinese planes in what a Japanese official was quoted as saying was "an unprecedented threat."
On Friday, according to The Japan Times, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswomen Hua Chunying explained at a press conference that “The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest.”
China declaring the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands a core interest is of major importance and could very well make efforts at easing tensions a greater challenge. The phrase "core interest" is usually reserved for sensitive Chinese concerns such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Core interests usually note areas of great importance for Beijing considered vital to national survival, and not up for negotiation.
Such a declaration could make it harder for both sides to negotiate a compromise on the islands, or at least return to the status quo. Japan, for its part, has staked out a position that declares that no controversy exists, and thus no need for compromise.
The islands are a highly sought piece of real estate by both sides, as well as Taiwan. The islands are near important sea based shipping lanes where large amounts of international trade transit through. There are also fishing areas both sides view as important, as well as possible natural resources like oil, gas and mineral deposits.
Recently, Japan and Taiwan signed a deal allowing Taiwanese fishing vessels access to the disputed territory.
There does seem to be some hope though that a future clash can be avoided. Japanese and Chinese military officials met last Friday in Beijing. The goal was to find ways to prevent accidental clashes in the East China Sea. While word of what was actually said in the talks is unknown, the Japanese delegation is believed to have urged Beijing "to build a bilateral maritime communications mechanism for crisis management, at an early date." One possibility would be a hotline where both sides could communicate quickly in case tensions on the high seas or in the air reached a tipping point.