TAIPEI – A leisure fishing boat carrying Taiwanese activists, and escorted by four Taiwan Coast Guard vessels, was sailing to a cluster of Japanese-administered islands claimed by Taiwan and China on Thursday morning amid heightened tension in the region.
Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration said the fishing boat, carrying a Taiwanese captain, four Taiwanese activists, a television cameraman from a Hong Kong TV station and an Indonesian worker, set sail from Shenao, a fishing port in northern Taiwan, at 1:45 a.m.
The activists said they are trying to bring the statute of Matsu, the Chinese goddess of the sea, to one of the islands so that Taiwanese can visit there to pray for the safely of Taiwanese fishermen operating in the area.
It is feared that the escort by the Taiwan Coast Guard vessels may spark another confrontation with the Japan Coast Guard, like that which occurred last September when Japanese and Taiwanese coast guard vessels exchanged water cannon fire in the disputed area.
Japan’s relations with Taiwan and China have been tense over the past year due to the dispute over the cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea which are known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, Tiaoyutai in Taiwan and Diaoyu in China.
The activists’ approximately 100-nautical-mile trip, which is estimated to take about 8 to 9 hours, may violate a law that limits leisure boats from sailing up to 24 nautical miles off the coast without permission.
A Taiwan Foreign Ministry official expressed concern that the activists’ voyage might have a negative effect on plans to hold another session soon of talks with Japan on fishing by Taiwanese boats in the disputed waters.
To ease tensions and ensure peace in the East China Sea, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou last August unveiled an initiative “to shelve disputes over sovereignty and promote the joint exploration of resources.”
The initiative envisages Japan, Taiwan and China initially conducting bilateral talks among each other and gradually moving on to trilateral negotiations on joint development of resources.
In recent months, mainland China has been sending maritime surveillance vessels to waters around the disputed islands almost daily to challenge Japan’s claim to sovereignty over them.
Japan-China relations have sunk to their lowest level in years since the Japanese government purchased three of the five main islands in the Senkaku group from their Japanese owner in September last year, effectively placing them under state control.