BEIJING – Beijing, in a move that underscores its concern over domestic public anger, repeated its demand Thursday that Japan “immediately and unconditionally” free 14 Chinese arrested after they sailed to the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands to assert China’s sovereignty over the disputed territory.
Chinese Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun made the demand in a telephone call to his Japanese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a news release.
Japan plans to deport the arrested Chinese, including seven activists who landed on the islet of Uotsuri, possibly Friday, government sources said. The Senkaku islets are technically under the jurisdiction of Ishigaki, Okinawa, but are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Protesters gathered Thursday outside Japanese diplomatic missions in China to press their demand that Japan immediately release the activists, whom they said were defending the uninhabited islets, known in China as Diaoyu.
Protests were held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing as well as near the Japanese Consulate Generals in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Beijing filed a strong protest with Tokyo on Wednesday shortly after Japanese authorities said all 14 people aboard a Hong Kong vessel that sailed to Uotsuri had been arrested.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying summoned Japanese Ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa and called Senior Vice Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi in Tokyo on Wednesday to lodge the protest, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
The Chinese newspaper Global Times indicated Thursday that Beijing authorities were behind the landing by the activists, saying, “Chinese society needs to understand that grassroots activists for Diaoyu are being backed by the state.
“While there is no open official support of the activists landing on Diaoyu, that doesn’t mean these activists are acting on their own,” the paper, which is under the auspices of the Communist Party of China’s People’s Daily, said in an editorial.
“Their safe trip to Diaoyu, and eventual safe return, are both the result of China’s national strength,” it said.
Chinese scholars are closely watching whether the two governments can deal with the incident without escalating tensions and severely damaging bilateral relations, as seen in the wake of the 2010 run-in between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard cutters trying to shoo it away from the Senkakus. The trawler skipper was briefly arrested.
“How Japan deals with the activists will reveal Tokyo’s attitude,” Yang Bojiang, a professor of Japanese studies at the University of International Relations in Beijing, was quoted as saying in the Thursday edition of the China Daily.
“It seems that Japan does not want to trigger a full-scale conflict with China on the issue,” Yang said.
China claims the islets have been part of its territory since ancient times. Japan maintains the Senkakus are an integral part of its lands and thus no dispute exists.
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