Fourteen activists from Hong Kong were arrested Wednesday after seven of them landed on one of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, adding more fuel to the already heated territorial row.
The seven activists who landed on the islet of Uotsuri at 5:31 p.m. were met by about 30 Japan Coast Guardsmen, police and immigration authorities who had arrived beforehand. Two of the seven returned to their vessel while the other five were interrogated by immigration officers and arrested on suspicion of illegal entry, Okinawa police said, adding that nobody was injured on either side.
A few hours later, nine more activists aboard the vessel, including members of the Hong Kong media, were also arrested for the same offense, the coast guard said.
The activists will be taken to Okinawa Island for further questioning. Then the police will decide whether to send the case to prosecutors or hand them over to immigration authorities for deportation.
Japan immediately lodged a protest with China over the landing. The government summoned Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua to the Foreign Ministry to lodge the protest.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters, “We will handle this squarely in line with the law.”
The Chinese government was making arrangements to counter Japan’s arrests of the activists with its own protest, according to a report by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
The activists sailed to the Senkakus aboard a Hong Kong fishing vessel carrying activists from Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen who were seeking to assert China’s claim to the Japan-controlled, uninhabited islets.
Six Japan Coast Guard vessels began following the protest vessel when it came within around 48 km of the islets, Chan Miu-tak, chairman of the activist group, told reporters in Hong Kong.
“The Japanese vessels were escorting our boat on both sides; they have issued warnings in Japanese and Chinese,” Chan said.
The group was among a few others that handed petition letters to the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong earlier in the day calling on Japan to withdraw from the disputed isles. The fishing boat left Hong Kong harbor Sunday.
On Tuesday, Taiwan refused to allow it to make a port call to replenish supplies. Turned away, it pressed on toward the islets, known as the Senkakus in Japan, the Diaoyu in China and the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, despite typhoon warnings.
Taiwan also banned local vessels from joining the protest landing attempt Tuesday.
The activists have vowed to tear down Japanese structures and plant a Chinese flag to declare China’s sovereignty.
China, Japan and Taiwan claim sovereignty over the islets.
Wednesday’s arrests marked the first involving foreign activists since March 2004, when seven Chinese were collared after landing on the Senkakus.
The incident also comes on the heels of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s planned purchase of three of the islets, including Uotsuri, from a Saitama businessman. The plan was made by outspoken Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.
Hearing news of the Chinese landing, a senior metropolitan government official expressed confidence that the islet purchase will proceed as scheduled.
“The more these actions are taken (by foreign activists), the more public support we will receive for our purchase plan,” the official said.
“Coupled with the issue of Takeshima, this is a test case for the central government over whether it is really serious about protecting Japan’s territory,” the official said, citing the territorial row with South Korea over the Sea of Japan islets called Takeshima here and Dokdo in South Korea.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan on Wednesday, activists presented a protest letter to Tokyo’s de facto mission in Taiwan, asserting Taiwan’s claim over the Senkaku Islands.
About 80 activists gathered outside the Interchange Association in Taipei one day after their failed attempt to rendezvous with the Hong Kong protest vessel near the islet of Pengjia off Taiwan’s northernmost tip.
The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry reiterated its claim to sovereignty over the Senkakus on Wednesday, saying they will follow up with “concrete and necessary” measures.
The main island is located 186 km northeast of the port city of Keelung on the northeastern coast of Taiwan and 170 km north of Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island, whose jurisdiction the islets are technically under.