Tensions flared in the East China Sea on the anniversary of Japan's surrender to Allied forces in World War II, with the arrest of a group of Chinese activists who arrived Wednesday on islands which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.
Beijing called on Tokyo to release a group of 14 activists from the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau who sailed to the disputed islands, which are known in China as Diaoyu and as Senkaku in Japan.
Japan arrested five members of the group who landed on the islands Wednesday, while a further nine were detained on the fishing vessel they came in.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying "demanded that Japan ensure the safety of 14 Chinese nationals and immediately and unconditionally release them," the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.
Fu also "made solemn representations on Japan's unlawful detention of Chinese nationals on the Diaoyu Islands," the ministry website said.
The activists were detained after they made an "illegal entry," the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing Japanese border officials.
The "representations" from China come amid growing tensions and an escalating war of words between the two sides.
The visit by the activist group, who belong to the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, follows a standoff last month between Japan's coast guard and Chinese patrol vessels.
The Chinese boats entered waters near the islands after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said his government was considering purchasing them.
Coast guard standoff
The activists arrived at the islands after their fishing vessel was intercepted and surrounded by four Japanese coast guard vessels when it came within 50 nautical miles of the main island, a group member reported by satellite phone to its Hong Kong headquarters.
The standoff resulted in a total of nine Japanese vessels at the scene, one of which used water cannon to try to repel the protesters, colliding with the activists' boat, the group member surnamed Tsang said.
"They have collided with our bow, and the hull is totally damaged. The steering wheel is buckled and we have to rely on a computer to do the steering," he said.
"We are outnumbered by the enemy, but our morale is still high," he said. "We are continuing ahead."
The boat arrived at the island around 4:00 p.m. local time, Tsang reported, adding that around 50 Japanese border control officials were waiting for them there.
According to Tsang, seven of the activists managed to set foot on the island.
"We're close, we're close," Tsang said by phone. "We have put down the ladders and we have just run aground."
"Sing the national anthem! Sing it!" he shouted.
Back in Hong Kong, the Action Committee for the Diaoyu Islands said that China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) hadn't responded to a request for assistance.
"Throughout this whole action, we didn't see a single Chinese patrol vessel or military vessel supporting our action," said spokesman Au Pak-kuen.
"We want to protect our sovereignty; this is the duty of the governments on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait," he said.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying called on the Japanese authorities to safeguard the activists and their property.
"I am following this affair very closely," Leung told reporters in Hong Kong. "I ... support the stance of the foreign ministry, and call on Japan to safeguard the activists, particularly the Hong Kong citizens' personal safety and property."
He said Hong Kong immigration officials were setting out for Tokyo to offer assistance to the Japanese authorities.
Meanwhile, a group of around 200 protesters gathered in Beijing to call for an end to the Japanese presence in the islands.
"The Diaoyu protection activists this time have come mostly from Henan, Hebei, and Beijing," said spokesman Chen Fule, amid shouts of "Ghosts get out of the Diaoyu!"
"Ghosts" is a derogatory term for Japanese people left over from the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945).
"Our demands are very simple," Chen said. "First, Japan must recognize history, and second ... hand over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands."
"There is an old Chinese saying which says that those who play with fire will burn to death," he said.
The official Global Times newspaper said in an editorial on Wednesday that the "Protect the Diaoyu" movement sprang from patriotic fervor.
Any harsh response on the part of Japan to the activists would severely test bilateral relations, the paper warned.
Bilateral tensions will likely be further fueled by the visit on Wednesday by two Japanese cabinet ministers to a controversial war shrine seen by many as a symbol of Tokyo's imperialist past.
National Public Safety Commission Chairman Jin Matsubara and Land Minister Yuichiro Hata on Wednesday paid homage to Japan's war dead at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which houses memorials to some convicted war criminals.
The visit is the first by such a senior politician since the ruling Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, pledging greater entente with Japan's Asian neighbors, many of whom feel Tokyo has yet to make amends for Japanese actions during the war.
As well as being found guilty of atrocities during World War II, Japan imposed harsh colonial rule on South Korea and parts of China in the early 20th century.
Tokyo has been embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with South Korea since last week, after South Korean Prime Minister Lee Myung-bak paid a visit to contested islands in the Sea of Japan, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.
Noda called the visit to the islands "unacceptable," recalled Tokyo’s ambassador in Seoul, and is likely to postpone an upcoming summit with Lee and refer the territorial dispute again to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice.
A group of South Korean protesters, swimming across the sea in a relay, reached the islands on Wednesday.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.