AS PRESIDENT Obama indulged in some pre-electoral China-bashing — announcing a trade case on auto parts during a campaign appearance in Ohio — his secretary of defense was learning how such nationalist games are played across the Pacific. Leon Panetta’s visit to Tokyo and Beijing this week coincided with mass demonstrations in scores of Chinese cities, where crowds burned Japanese flags, trashed Japanese cars and sang patriotic songs — all under the approving eyes of state security forces.
China, of course, does not have an election coming up — but it is planning a transfer of power among top leaders sometime in the coming weeks. The shift from outgoing Hu Jintao to incoming Xi Jinping has been anything but smooth; among other things, Mr. Xi abruptly disappeared from view for two weeks this month without explanation. Though he appeared physically and politically healthy when he met Mr. Panetta on Wednesday, China’s leaders seem to think this week was a convenient moment to orchestrate an outpouring of nationalist feeling. A rally against perceived foreign enemies could bolster fledgling new leaders — and deflect questions about the opaque power struggles and faltering economy at home.