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The images freeze-frame the front lines of chaos: protesters pressed against the barricades, open mouths shouting ugly slogans, security forces straining to keep the crowd contained.

Yet it's not a scene from Benghazi or Cairo or Sana'a. It's Beijing, in the streets surrounding the Japanese Embassy, where crowds of angry Chinese gathered over the weekend to shout slogans and hurl stones, eggs, golf balls and beer bottles at the symbol of the Japanese state.

At the center of the protest: A territorial tug-of-war over a cluster of five uninhabited islands totaling seven square kilometers (an area about one-tenth the size of the Disney World resort), known as the Senkaku Islands to Japan, and the Diaoyu to China.

But don't let the micro-size of these sea rocks fool you: Under the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rules of the Law of the Sea Treaty, possession of these islands gives the owner rights to 40,000 square kilometers of the East China Sea, including the seabed beneath.

The current crisis was triggered when Japan's central government - reacting to a nationalist plan to buy and develop the islands - moved to acquire the islands to keep them out of nationalist hands. A flotilla of Chinese activists seeking to raise the PRC flag on the islands was arrested by Japan's Coast Guard - itself an unwelcome reminder to China that the islands are under Japanese control - ratcheting tensions further. By week's end, six Chinese surveillance ships were ducking in and out of the islands' 12 nautical mile limit, with Japanese Coast Guard vessels shadowing them.

Back in China, a nation not known for spontaneous protests, anti-Japanese demonstrations have now swept 28 Chinese cities. Globe and Mail correspondent Mark Mackinnon tweeted a shot from Beijing's 3.3 Mall, the popular shopping center, where the digital jumbotron interspersed anti-Japanese propaganda and shots from the demonstrations with its usual playlist of music videos. Outside the Japanese Embassy, some of the protest slogans - "Japanese Devils, Get Out!" - sounded spontaneous enough, while others - "Diaoyu Islands Should Not Be Covered by Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan" - sounded strangely similar to the press statements of the PRC's Foreign Ministry.

Whether the East China Sea spat spins up or sputters out will be seen in the days and weeks ahead; a fishing ship incident in September 2010 was followed by a 40-day cut-off in Chinese rare earths shipments to Japanese tech companies. Japan released the Chinese ship captain, and the rare earths exports resumed. But talk now in China's official press that China should use economic sanctions in response to Japan's perceived provocation will trigger nervousness in Tokyo.

It's a scenario the world will need to get used to, as the East China Sea is simply one front in the larger Resource Wars that look likely to emerge as the defining global conflict of the 21st Century.