Beijing urged Tokyo on Wednesday to immediately and unconditionally release 14 Chinese nationals held over a landing on islands belonging to China.
In a meeting with Japan's ambassador to Beijing and a phone call with a Japanese official, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying "demanded that Japan ensure the safety of 14 Chinese nationals and immediately and unconditionally release them", the Foreign Ministry said on its website.
Fu also "made solemn representations on Japan’s unlawful detention of Chinese nationals on the Diaoyu Islands", the ministry website said.
Tension between Japan and its Asian neighbors rose sharply on Wednesday, the 67th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, after Japanese ministers visited a shrine in Tokyo, against the advice of their prime minister, that honors war criminals.
As news broke on Wednesday of the arrests and the shrine visit, a group of swimmers from the Republic of Korea made it to the Dokdo Islands. The islands are called Takeshima in Japan and Tokyo disputes their sovereignty.
How Tokyo handles the detained activists will determine if the situation escalates, experts said.
It seems the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is trying to avoid triggering a more serious response from Beijing, they said.
Japan arrested the activists on suspicion of "illegal entry" after they landed on the Diaoyu Islands, according to Okinawa police.
Two activists, who also landed on the islands, returned to their fishing boat before they were arrested, the police said. Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV said the vessel is now under the control of the Japanese coastguard.
"Those arrested may be transferred to the Immigration Bureau of Japan later and sent back to Hong Kong by the Immigration Bureau," a spokesman from the coastguard told Xinhua.
Despite the detention, the Hong Kong-based Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands which arranged the trip, said "this is the most successful attempt in a decade" to reach the Diaoyu Islands.
Several of the 14 men on board the vessel, which departed from Hong Kong on Sunday, jumped into the sea and made it ashore at 5:30 pm local time. As soon as they reached land they sang the national anthem.
Waiting for them on the island were about 40 members of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. They took down national flags that the activists had planted firmly.
The group said its boat had been rammed by the coastguard and subjected to water cannon. The front of the vessel had been damaged, they said.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said on Wednesday that the Hong Kong SAR government has been watching developments closely. He pledged to provide all possible assistance to Hong Kong residents involved in the action.
"Our nation and the people of Hong Kong always held a clear and sharp position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands. The islands have belonged to China for centuries," he said.
Chen Miau-tak, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, said he believed the smooth departure of the Hong Kong boat reflected an "attitude of support’’ from the Hong Kong government.
The last time Hong Kong vessels entered waters off the Diaoyu Islands was in 2006.
Hong Kong political parties and social groups protested on Wednesday against Japan’s claim on the islands and tore apart paper Japanese flags.
There are also similar protests on the mainland and in the ROK against Japan.
The landing on the islands was a major topic, forwarded more than 4,000,000 times, on weibo. "How Japan deals with the activists will reveal Tokyo’s attitude," said Yang Bojiang, a professor of Japanese studies at the University of International Relations in Beijing.
"It seems that Japan does not want to trigger a full-scale conflict with China on the issue."
But if Japan brings charges against the activists then that would signal an escalation, Yang said.
Jia Xiudong, a senior researcher on international affairs at the China Institute of International Studies, said Japan should deal with the situation maturely.
There has been a marked increase in tension since outspoken right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara released his plan in April to "purchase" the islands.
The situation escalated on Wednesday in Tokyo when two cabinet ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
Yuichiro Hata, Japan’s transport and tourism minister and Jin Matsubara, the president of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission, snubbed their prime minister by attending ceremonies at the shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class-A World War II war criminals. Noda said when he took office last year that no cabinet members would visit the shrine.
China and the Republic of Korea, both victims of Japan’s aggression during World War II, harshly slammed the move. More than 35 million Chinese people were killed or wounded by the Japanese military during its invasion from 1937 to 1945.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang urged Japan to keep its promise of reflecting on its history.
He said the crux of shrine situation is whether Japan respects the feelings of people in Asia.
Seoul earlier criticized the visit. ROK President Lee Myung-Bak said on Tuesday the Japanese emperor had to apologize for wartime atrocities if he wants to visit.
On Aug 10, Lee became the first ROK president to step on the disputed islands in the Sea of Japan. Japan recalled its ambassador in Seoul immediately. A group of ROK protesters swam across the sea to the islands on Wednesday.
The resentment toward Japan’s war crimes was also echoed in Japan, with a group of family members of war dead on Wednesday protesting against the shrine visit and also against Ishihara.
The visit was the first by cabinet members of a Democratic Party government. The party came to power in 2009.
Analysts say the move will embarrass Noda.
"We have caused tremendous damage and pain to many countries, particularly the Asian people, during the war. We deeply regret that and sincerely mourn for those who were sacrificed and their relatives,’’ Noda said on Wednesday at a somber official ceremony. "We will not repeat the same mistake."