Fourteen crew members and the Chinese fishing vessel involved in a collision last week with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats near the disputed Senkaku Islands were released by Japanese authorities Monday, and the crew reportedly arrived in Fujian Province on an airplane chartered by the Chinese government.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said the captain, who was arrested following the incident last Tuesday, will remain in Japan.
The 14 mainland Chinese fishermen left Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture on an early afternoon flight “after China’s repeated solemn representations,” the official Xinhua news agency said, adding that the plane carrying the fishermen that were “illegally seized by Japanese authorities” landed in the southeastern port city of Fuzhou later in the day.
Meanwhile in Taiwan, a small number of activists claiming Chinese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands set out for the disputed area in a fishing boat from the northern Taiwan port of Yeliu shortly before 4 p.m.
Huang Hsi-lin, chief executive of the Taiwan-based Chinese Tiaoyutai Defense Association, said they were aiming to arrive at the islands between 7 and 8 a.m. Tuesday.
But the planned symbolism of a joint protest involving activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and China fizzled when Taiwan immigration officials intervened at the port and demanded all non-Taiwanese to leave the boat.
Only two Taiwanese protesters and three crew members remained on the vessel as it left for the disputed islands.
The release of the ship’s crew came a day after China took an unusual step to increase pressure on Japan, urging Tokyo to make a “wise political resolution,” and demanding the immediate release of the fishermen and the fishing boat.
State Councilor Dai Bingguo lodged the demand when he summoned Niwa in the early hours of Sunday. It was the fourth time Chinese diplomatic authorities had summoned him since the incident occurred last Tuesday. The meeting between Dai and Niwa began Sunday at midnight and lasted 45 minutes, according to the Japanese Embassy.
Dai is the highest-ranking Chinese official to comment on the case. It is extremely rare for a senior Chinese official to summon a foreign ambassador in the early hours on a holiday.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned Niwa on Friday to protest Japan’s handling of the case, the same day a Japanese court granted a request by prosecutors to detain the Chinese captain for 10 days.
Dai warned Japan not to make a wrong judgment on the situation and urged it to make a “wise political resolution,” the Xinhua news agency quoted a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement as saying.
“Dai expressed solemnly the Chinese government’s grave concerns and its serious and just position,” the statement said.
According to the Japanese Embassy, Niwa repeated Japan’s position that the fishing boat obstructed the official duties of the coast guard while illegally fishing in Japanese territorial waters.
“We have maintained the position that we will solemnly handle the case in strict accordance with domestic law,” he was quoted as saying.
Niwa called on China to respond to the matter “calmly and carefully” so as not to affect overall bilateral relations, citing the principle of maintaining “strategic relations of mutual benefit,” the embassy said.
Japanese prosecutors alleged that the skipper, Zhan Qixiong, 41, deliberately hit a Japanese patrol boat near the islands Tuesday and obstructed public officers from performing their duties. The crew is also suspected of unlawfully fishing in Japanese territorial waters.
The Senkaku Islands are part of the city of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. But the islands are claimed by China and Taiwan. On Saturday, China unilaterally postponed talks with Japan aimed at signing a treaty on a joint gas field development in the East China Sea in protest against Tokyo’s handling of the ship collision incident.
The two governments had planned to hold the second round of negotiations on a gas exploration treaty in mid-September in Beijing. The first round of talks was held in late July in Tokyo.
Japanese officials said they do not wish to see the latest row escalate, hoping that it will not affect otherwise improving ties.