Aug. 18 – Sino-Japanese relations have again hit a roadblock this week with the arrest of 14 Chinese activists who were protesting the ownership of an island claimed by both countries. On Wednesday, pro-Chinese activists landed on the disputed Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku Islands in Japan, attempting to plant a flag claiming Chinese ownership. Soon after, they were arrested by the Japanese Coast guard, who retains administrative control over the islands.
The current ownership of the islands remains disputed, even though the island chain is administered by Japan. The islands remain important for both nations due to their potential oil wealth and close proximity to crucial international shipping lanes. In the aftermath of the failure to follow through with a 2008 deal to jointly develop a natural gas field in the area, and recent Chinese drilling in the nearby seas, territorial tensions in the East China Sea has been increasingly dangerous.
The 14 activists, who travelled from Hong Kong by boat, were surrounded by the Japanese Coast guard as they attempted to land on one of the islands. Five protestors were able to swim ashore, where they sang patriotic songs.
A spokesperson for the activists has said that “we want the world to know that this is – way back in history – the territory of China, and as Chinese people we can go there fishing, touring at our own right. The Japanese have no right to stop us.”
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stated that the detained activists would be treated ‘strictly according to Japanese law.’ Japan is currently also in a territorial row with South Korea, further increasing the tense relations in the region.
In reaction to this development, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that Chinese Vice Minister Zhang Zhijun made a call to the Japanese Foreign Ministry and ‘urged that Japan immediately and unconditionally release the people and the vessel.’ Xinhua also said that the Chinese government lodged ‘solemn representations’ with Japan over the ‘illegal detention’ of Chinese nationals.
On Friday, Japan announced that it had deported the 14 Chinese citizens, effectively acting to defuse the situation and avoid unnecessary escalation. By deporting the activists soon after they were arrested, Japan has signalled that it was eager to avoid an unnecessary diplomatic standoff with China.
This is certainly an unwanted flare-up in China and Japan’s Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial dispute. It is clear that it was wise for Japan to release the detainees, as it ensured that a full-blown standoff did not develop. Japan has already experienced the diplomatic and economic pressure that China is able to exert to get their way, two years ago when Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain for a similar offense. Nonetheless, this situation has again highlighted the increasingly antagonistic East Asian geopolitical environment.