HONG KONG – Japan will deport 14 detained Chinese nationals who were arrested over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said on Friday in a resolution aimed at ending a diplomatic incident between the two nations.
The detainees are expected to return to Hong Kong later in the day, and their deportations will not carry criminal charges, authorities said.
The arrests at the islands two days earlier led to the latest flare-up between Japan and China, both of which claim sovereignty over the uninhabited islands, which China calls Diaoyu. The Japanese name is Senkaku. Ownership of the islands would give either nation exclusive oil, mineral and fishing rights in the surrounding waters.
The group behind the effort is the Hong Kong-based Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands. Their fishing vessel departed for the controversial islands on Sunday from Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.
A group of five successfully landed on the island Wednesday and were photographed carrying Chinese and Taiwan flags before their arrest by Okinawa police. The nine others who remained on the vessel were later detained by the Japan Coast Guard.
According to lists provided by Okinawa police and the Japan Coast Guard, the men self-identified as Chinese, and it was not clear whether they included anyone from Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
Among the detained were former Legislative Council member “Bull” Tsang Kin-shing, according to the Hong Kong Immigration Department, which on Thursday sent two officers to Okinawa, Japan, where the group was being held.
The group also included a labor union chairman, a teacher, two Phoenix TV journalists and seven crew members, and their arrests were on grounds of violating the immigration control and refugee recognition act, according to Japanese authorities.
On Wednesday Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of all 14 people, including the reporters Jiang Xiao Feng and Gary Leung along with their equipment, film and notebooks. It demanded that the reporters be allowed to report freely.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has also called for the journalists’ release, with deputy director Robert Mahoney saying in a statement, “Reporting on a protest is not a crime. It’s what journalists the world over do every day.”
According to the activist group’s Twitter account, it had planned to plant the Chinese flag, demolish the Japanese lighthouse on the island, sing the national anthem and set up a television and radio to receive Chinese broadcasts.
Their arrests have led to anti-Japanese protests in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing.
A commentary published by the Japan Times on Friday cited diplomatic experts in Japan as saying both nations benefit from resolving the dispute quickly, with China facing a leadership change later in the year, and Japan facing separate territorial fights with Seoul and Moscow.
The Wednesday incident coincided with the 67th anniversary of Japan’s official World War II surrender. On the same day, two Japanese Cabinet ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead as well as war criminals.
China and South Korea, given their respective wartime occupation and colonization by Japan, have condemned such visits.
Adding to the regional tensions before the anniversary was South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to what the country calls Dokdo, a small group of islets that Japan claims as Takeshima.
The move prompted Japan to recall its ambassador to Seoul and warn South Korea that it will take the issue to the International Court of Justice. Japanese Finance Minister has also said he will cancel a trip to South Korea because of the dispute.