TAIPEI (Kyodo) A planned protest voyage from Taiwan to the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands was called off just hours before the scheduled departure amid government pressure, according to one of its organizers.

Some 40 activists who dispute Japan’s claims of sovereignty over the East China Sea islets scuppered their voyage after the owner of the boat slated for the journey backed out of an agreement to rent them the vessel, Huang Hsi-lin, a municipal council member in Taipei County, said Monday.

The activists said Tuesday that Taiwan’s National Security Council pressured them and the boat owner to cancel the trip.

Council Secretary General Su Chi personally met with organizers to persuade them to call it off, said Hu Pu-kai, a spokesman for a Taipei-based group that disputes Japan’s claims to the islets.

“I was approached last week by Su Chi and (Philip) Yang, who tried to persuade us to cancel the trip,” said Hu, of the Chinese Association to Protect the Tiaoyutai.

Yang is the top official for Japan affairs on the council, an advisory body that provides analyses and counsel on security issues to Taiwan’s president.

“They said they didn’t want the trip to affect bilateral relations between Taiwan and Japan, but I didn’t agree,” Hu said.

The council, he added, later resorted to “harder measures,” including prompting the island’s Fisheries Agency to threaten the boat owner with fines should he proceed with the protest voyage.

The activists had planned to depart from Taiwan’s northern Suao Harbor by 11 p.m. Monday.

Rich in fish and possibly natural gas resources, the islets — called Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan — represent a perennial flash point in relations between Taipei and Tokyo, with the coast guard regularly driving Taiwanese fishing boats from the area.

The issue of access to the Senkakus boiled over last year when a patrol boat chased and rammed a Taiwanese fishing vessel.

In response, President Ma Ying-jeou recalled Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan, while Premier Liu Chao-shiuan threatened Japan with war should their conflicting sovereignty claims over the Senkakus continue to drag on.

Similarly, China also claims the islets, with proponents of a China-centered concept of nationhood in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China typically joining forces to plan annual protest voyages in bids to make landfall on the islets.

But plans for the latest trip came amid Ma’s efforts to improve relations with Japan after the boat collision.

Ma seeks to promote a “special partnership” between Taipei and Tokyo with new air and tourism links further cementing bilateral ties.

Tokyo has also sought to ease tensions, denying last month a request by the mayor of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, under whose local-level administration the Senkakus fall, to visit the islets, located just 170 km northeast of Taipei and 410 km west of Okinawa.

The visit by Ishigaki Mayor Nagateru Ohama to conduct a property tax investigation on the islets would surely have antagonized Taiwan and China.

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