Updated at 1:00 p.m. EST on 2012-08-16
Chinese activists who landed on a disputed island amid a territorial row between China and Japan will be deported on Friday, amid escalating rhetoric which is putting pressure on politicians in both countries as they try to minimize the damage to bilateral ties.
Japan's decision to send them home will bypass any criminal proceedings, potentially easing the tension between the two Asian powers.
Tensions flared in the East China Sea on Wednesday after 14 Chinese activists who sailed from Hong Kong were detained by border control officers after they landed and planted a Chinese flag on the uninhabited islands—known in China as the Diaoyu islands and in Japan, which controls them, as the Senkaku.
The sister of Hong Kong resident and Diaoyu protester Tsang Kin-sing called on Beijing to take steps to "deal with" the detention of the activists, who are members of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands.
"Pirates have detained our own people on our own territory," sister Tsang Lai-ming said. "Is the mainland going to deal with this?"
"They can send a naval vessel or they could protect our citizens using diplomatic means," she said.
Indeed, the move drew an immediate diplomatic protest from Beijing, with official demands for their "immediate and unconditional" release.
The newspaper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party cranked up its nationalist rhetoric on Thursday in an apparent bid to avoid being seen as soft on Japan, a country many Chinese still associate with wartime brutality.
"Just what kind of mentality has caused Japan to lose its self-restraint and repeatedly challenge China's staunch determination to protect its territory and sovereignty?" the People's Daily said in an editorial.
A Japanese nationalist group has said it will organize a weekend trip by lawmakers and others to waters near the island, although the government has denied permission to land.
Meanwhile, nationalist protesters held small demonstrations in Hong Kong and in other Chinese cities in support of the activists, calling for Japan to relinquish the islands to China.
Hundreds of students in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu staged a protest organized via China's popular Twitter-like microblog services on the city's Champagne Square shopping mall on Dachunxi Street, marching to Tianfu Square.
Photos uploaded to microblogging services showed people holding banners that read: "Defend Diaoyu Islands to the death" and "Love China, boycott Japanese goods."
A Chengdu resident surnamed Fang said she agreed with the slogans. "I think we should boycott Japanese goods, because at least that expresses the mood among the people," she said. "Otherwise, the Japanese will think that the Chinese are a pushover."
"I don't understand why our country did nothing," Fang said.
Analysts said that grassroots and local political efforts to fuel nationalistic fervor in both countries were putting additional pressure on both Beijing and Tokyo at a time when politicians in both countries have limited room for maneuver.
Lau Mong-hung, a Hong Kong delegate to Beijing's advisory body who invested in the boat that carried the activists to the island, said he thought the Japanese had acted appropriately.
"The Japanese actions were reasonably appropriate," Lau said. "It's extremely easy to thwart a Diaoyu Islands protest, and they have to forcibly repatriate them to save their own face."
China and Japan have traditionally close economic ties in spite of their war-torn past, and neither side would wish to see a repeat of nationalistic sentiment that was sparked by Japan's arrest two years ago of a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with a Japanese patrol boat near the islands.
World War II legacies
Wednesday's visit by the activist group fell on the 67th anniversary of Japan's surrender to Allied forces in World War II and followed 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.
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.
Japan 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 Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.