China and Japan are heading towards military conflict, according to a majority of Chinese surveyed on ties between the Asian powers in a Sino-Japanese poll.
The Genron/China Daily survey found that 53 per cent of Chinese respondents – and 29 per cent of the Japanese polled – expect their nations to go to war. The poll was released ahead of the second anniversary of Japan's move to nationalise some of the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Relations between Japan and China have soured since Japan bought three of the tiny islands – which China claims and calls the Diaoyu – in 2012. Japan defended the move as an effort to thwart a plan by the anti-China governor of Tokyo to buy them, but China accused it of breaching an unwritten deal to keep the status quo.
According to the poll, 38 per cent of Japanese think war will be avoided, but that marked a nine point drop from 2013. It also found that a record 93 per cent of Japanese have an unfavourable view of their Chinese neighbours, while the number of Chinese who view Japanese unfavourably fell 6 points to 87 per cent.
Jeff Kingston, a Japan expert at Temple University in Philadelphia, said Japanese tabloid media were driving the already negative sentiment towards China by focusing on its "warmongering". He added that the government was "amplifying the anxiety" by talking about the threat from China.
Sino-Japanese relations started to improve about a year ago, spurring Tokyo to start laying the groundwork for a possible first meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But ties deteriorated rapidly again after Mr Abe's visit in December to Yasukuni, a controversial shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead including a handful of convicted war criminals.
Mr Abe wants to hold a summit with Mr Xi in November on the sidelines of an Apec summit in Beijing but China has shown no sign of interest. Critics say Mr Abe has hurt efforts to repair ties by visiting Yasukuni and also because of the perception that he is an unrepentant ultranationalist.
This week two members of Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic party, including a new cabinet minister, were forced to distance themselves from photographs that showed them posing with the leader of a Japanese neo-Nazi party.
"He just replaced the rightwing loonies [in his cabinet] with another group of rightwing loonies," said Mr Kingston.
Since Japan bought the uninhabited Senkaku islets from their private Japanese owners, Chinese ships and aircraft have made routine incursions into what Japan claims are its sovereign waters and airspace.
In November last year China also created an aerial defence identification zone – an area that serves as an early warning system of incursions into its airspace, which can result in the scrambling of fighter jets – over the East China Sea in a move that experts said greatly raised the chance of conflict. This year, Mr Abe accused China of flying fighter jets "dangerously" close to Japanese aircraft. The US recently warned China about similar actions.
Kyodo said four Chinese coast guard ships entered Japanese waters around the Senkaku on Wednesday, in the 22nd such intrusion this year. However, the pace of incursions has declined from last year, when Chinese vessels sailed in the waters on 54 occasions, according to data from the Japanese coast guard.
Some experts have suggested that China has reduced maritime patrols around the Senkaku as its coast guard and navy focus on the South China Sea, where Beijing is involved in a series of maritime disputes with its neighbours, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. In the poll, the biggest reason for Japan's unfavourable view of China was the belief that Beijing's actions were "incompatible with international rules".
According to the poll, which has been conducted annually since the last trough in Sino-Japanese relations in 2005, Chinese and Japanese respondents both said the biggest hurdle to relations was territorial disputes, although the number voicing that view declined more than 10 points from 2012.
Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld