In China and Japan’s tug-of-war over territories, it helps to have one more at their end of the rope.

The voyage of Hong Kong activists to disputed islands was a rare show of patriotism amid growing anti-Beijing sentiment. China applauded the activists for defending Chinese claims on the islands and even carried updates of the journey on state run China Central Television. It was also the Chinese who “came to the rescue” when the activists were arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard. China’s Foreign Ministry said it would lodge “solemn representations” over the Chinese nationals while vice foreign minister Fu Ying demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the activists.

Tokyo lodged a protest with the Chinese ambassador. According to Reuters, Japan is considering deporting the activists, which could create a lull in tensions. The activists were handed to immigration authorities for illegal entry.

However, long standing rivalry and internal pressure could further damage their diplomatic relations. China, heading to a crucial once-in-a-decade leadership transition, could not afford to appear “soft”. On the other hand, Japanese conservative politicians criticized the government for not pressing criminal charges on the activists and urged the government to assert its claims on the islands. The central government’s “soft stance” on the territorial dispute prompted Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara to propose purchasing the islands. Rival claimants to other “Japanese” territories made bold moves recently, such as South Korean president Lee Myung-bak who visited the Dokdo Islands.