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Japan deported activists to avoid riling China over anticipated protests

By Tetsuya Ito, The Yomiuri Shimbun –

TOKYO — The Japanese government deported 14 Chinese activists just two days after seven of them landed on the Senkaku Islands, apparently to prevent Japan-China relations from deteriorating even further.

The decision sparked criticism of Japan’s stance toward China as weak. However, after its relations with South Korea became strained recently over the Takeshima islands, the government decided it must avoid a two-pronged fight with its Asian neighbors.

The 14 activists, including members of a private anti-Japan group based in Hong Kong, were deported Friday, two days after seven of them illegally landed on Uotsurijima island in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, on Wednesday.

From the outset, the government has responded cautiously to this incident.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura justified the government’s stance at a press conference held Friday. “Instead of making emotional judgments, we have responded to this matter strictly and fairly based on our domestic laws,” Fujimura said.

However, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara denounced the government’s decision. “I have witnessed, once again, the weak-kneed diplomacy of the central government against China — or rather, the government’s pitiful attitude of pandering to China’s interests,” he said at a press conference the same day.

Ishihara, who is known for his hard-line stance toward China, pointed out that the activists hurled bricks at the Japan Coast Guard’s patrol vessel. “Isn’t this an obstruction of justice? A nation incapable of enforcing its laws is not a nation,” Ishihara said.

Shigeru Ishiba, the Liberal Democratic Party’s chairman of its special committee on territories, also criticized the government on a TV Asahi program on Friday. “The government failed to apply the law properly,” he said.

Article 65 of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law stipulates that authorities can directly transfer suspects arrested on suspicion of violating the law to the Immigration Bureau, but only if there are no other charges.

The government applied this article to the activists and refrained from sending them to the Naha District Public Prosecutors Office, giving up further investigation into the case.

Ishihara and Ishiba questioned whether it was appropriate for the government to apply Article 65 to this case.

The JCG would have been within its authority to stop the activists’ boat when it entered Japan’s territorial waters, as well as board the boat to crack down on the activists.

Despite this, the JCG did not stop seven of the activists from landing on Uotsurijima island. The Okinawa prefectural police arrested five of them on the island instead of the JCG.

Even Democratic Party of Japan members questioned the government’s response. When the DPJ held a joint meeting of DPJ divisions related to the matter, including the foreign affairs and defense divisions, some attendants questioned why the JCG did not arrest the activists when the boat entered Japan’s territorial waters.

Furthermore, the government’s handling of the 14 activists, including those who did not land on Uotsurijima, after their arrest was also unusual. The 14 denied violating the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, insisting that the Senkaku Islands belong to China. However, instead of sending them to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation, the government handed them over to the Immigration Bureau and deported them immediately.

The government decided to settle the issue peacefully to avoid worsening its already strained relations with China. It believed that cracking down harshly on the activists could have lead to casualties, which may have prompted China to take retaliatory measures.

When a Chinese fishing boat collided with JCG vessels off the Senkaku Islands in 2010, the JCG arrested the captain of the boat on suspicion of obstructing officials from conducting their duties and sent him to prosecutors.

Then Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara said the government would “respond resolutely when there are violations to Japan’s laws,” which provoked an angry response from China.

After the incident, China detained in Hebei Province four Japanese employees of a general contractor, and suspended rare earth exports to Japan, which adversely affected the Japanese economy.

According to sources, the Japanese government has decided to maintain its cautious stance toward the recent incident, believing that China could take similar measures even after the 14 activists were deported to China.

The central government announced its plan to purchase Uotsurijima and the other two islets of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner last month. However, it wants to avoid provoking China by preventing the Tokyo metropolitan government from purchasing the islands before the central government.

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