Japan deported 14 Chinese nationals arrested for visiting an island in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, defusing an incident that revived tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies.
Seven members of the group who left by plane from Okinawa have arrived in Hong Kong, while the other seven will set off by boat to return later, according to a statement from the Chinese city’s government today. China demanded their release after they planted a Chinese flag on one of the islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
“We have confirmed our response to deport those involved,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said at a press conference today in Tokyo.
The arrests reignited bilateral animosity at a time when Japan is mired in a separate territorial dispute with South Korea. Both involve sovereignty over areas with energy reserves and all three countries are seeking to bolster domestic support ahead of leadership contests this year.
“Standard rules of the road are to charge these people and release them to China,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based research institute. “We’re in the middle of political transition and uncertainty. Everyone needs to be dialing back their rhetoric.”
The decision to deport the activists preceded a trip beginning tomorrow to the islands by a Japanese group including opposition lawmakers. The group is scheduled to arrive in the area by boat on Aug. 19 and will travel around the area without landing.
“Territory is not just a physical thing, it’s also about sovereignty and pride,” said Satoru Mizushima, the head of Ganbare Nippon, the group organizing its 10th tour around the uninhabited islands that are administered by Japan. “The government should be in charge of this, but they are doing nothing, so China is making these claims.”
Opposition Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers Yoshitaka Shindo and Eriko Yamatani are among the group of about 150.
Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun called his Japanese counterpart yesterday and asked for the immediate release of the “illegally arrested” activists, according to a statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry website.
The collision of a Chinese fishing boat with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the islands in September 2010, sent bilateral relations to the lowest level in at least five years. The captain of the boat was detained for 17 days before being released.
The two countries have failed to implement a June 2008 deal to develop a natural gas field in the area and Japan has objected to Chinese drilling nearby.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in April said the metropolitan government was seeking to buy the islands from a private Japanese family that owns them, sparking outrage in China.
“Growing competition for the rich energy and fishing resources that lie beneath Asia’s waters is adding an economic incentive for rivalry,” Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said in e-mailed comments. “The landing and arrest of the Chinese activists on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is only the latest sign of troubles ahead.”
The arrests, on the 67th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, came after South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on Aug. 10 visited a string of islets also claimed by Japan. Noda’s government recalled its ambassador to South Korea in protest.
The rocks, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, lie 87 kilometers (54 miles) east of the closest South Korean territory and 158 kilometers from the nearest Japanese land, and are near fishing grounds and natural gas reserves.
Fujimura today said Japan will refer the dispute to the United Nations International Court of Justice. The appeal may have a limited impact because both parties have to recognize the court’s jurisdiction, which South Korea has declined to do.
Japan is also reconsidering a decision to expand a foreign exchange swap agreement with South Korea, Finance Minister Jun Azumi said. An existing accord was expanded to $70 billion in from $13 billion at a meeting between Noda and Lee in October.