Police on Thursday questioned seven Chinese activists who landed on disputed territory in the East China Sea the previous day and plan to hand them over to prosecutors for allegedly violating immigration laws.
Investigators could have turned the activists over to immigration authorities before sending them to prosecutors, but police sources said this option was rejected due to the serious nature of the incident. The seven will be handed over to prosecutors Friday afternoon, they said.
The incident was rapidly turning volatile, with diplomats in Tokyo and Beijing criticizing each others’ actions.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan publicly denounced Japan’s actions during a news briefing, demanding that Tokyo “immediately” and “unconditionally” release the seven.
“We think this is an illegal action that breaks international law, and moreover it is a serious provocation against China’s sovereignty and territory and Chinese citizens’ human rights,” Kong said.
The seven were arrested Wednesday afternoon after landing on Uotsuri Island, the main island of the disputed Senkakus, earlier in the day.
They are suspected of entering Japanese territory illegally and of violating the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law.
According to police sources, the seven have denied the allegations leveled against them, claiming the island is Chinese territory and thus they did not enter Japan.
None of the seven was carrying passports, and only two had identification papers. They have given their names and their ages, though they only reply, “People’s Republic of China” when asked to give their address, the sources said.
Chinese ambassador to Japan Wu Dawei visited the Foreign Ministry on Thursday and urged Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi to swiftly resolve the issue by releasing the activists as soon as possible.
Takeuchi referred to an incident earlier in the day when Chinese protesters burned Japanese flags outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, and called on the Chinese government to prevent a recurrence.
“I hope the Chinese government will deal with this case calmly so that it will not affect Japan-China relations as a whole,” a Japanese official quoted Takeuchi as saying.
In Beijing, Chikahito Harada, charge d’affaires of the Japanese Embassy, was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry for the second consecutive day and was rebuked by Dai Bingguo, the most senior of the six vice ministers.
The 3.8-sq.-km island is located just over 400 km west of Naha, the capital of Okinawa. The uninhabited Senkaku Islands, whose surrounding waters feature rich fishing resources, fall under Okinawa’s jurisdiction.
In the prefectural capital of Naha, Okinawa Prefectural Police chief Kiyotaka Takahashi said Thursday the arrests became “unavoidable” after the activists’ ship left them on the island and it became obvious they had planned to stay for an extended period.
This is the first time Japanese police have arrested Chinese nationals for landing on the disputed islands, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. The isles are known as Diaoyu in China and as Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.
Government officials said they will review security arrangements for the disputed islands.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said a review is necessary to prevent further illegal entries. “We need to inspect these developments and squarely address any points we need to reflect on,” he told reporters at his office.
The flag-waving activists landed on Uotsuri Island around 7:20 a.m. Wednesday in two small dinghies, having rowed ashore from a 100-ton ship, Japanese officials said.
The ship reportedly left from a port in China’s Zhejiang Province early Tuesday.
Before the landing, Tong Zeng, head of the China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, said they were planning to leave the island after completing their “mission” of setting foot on it.
The group planted a Chinese flag on the island, Tong said, claiming that they also conducted “environmental and sightseeing studies” there.
Japan claimed the islands as official Japanese territory in 1895. They came under U.S. control after World War II but were returned to Japan in 1972, when the United States returned Okinawa.
In Washington, Adam Ereli, State Department deputy spokesman, told reporters Wednesday: “The U.S. does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. This has been our long-standing view.”
A dispute over the islands involving Japan, Taiwan and China has been brewing ever since a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East suggested in 1968 that there are oil deposits under the East China Sea.
In 1992, China passed a territorial sea law that included the islands as Chinese territory.
The seven arrested Chinese are the first group of activists to land on the main island since October 1996, though this is the fourth time Chinese activists have set out for the islands over the past nine months.
The three previous attempts resulted in a failure to land.