TOKYO (AP) — Japan is considering deporting 14 Chinese activists arrested for landing without authorization on disputed islands in the East China Sea, as harsh criticisms and repeated demands for their release erupted Thursday in China.
The protesters had traveled by boat from Hong Kong to the uninhabited islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan. They were arrested Wednesday after five of them landed on one of the five-island group, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Japanese police and coast guard officials were questioning the protesters in Okinawa, a nearby island state. Coast guard officials said Japan has to decide whether to pursue criminal investigation or repatriate them by Friday night.
"We are considering various options, including a possibility of repatriation," said Coast Guard official Yoshiyuki Terakado. He said Japan will make a decision for all 14 people by Friday night, although he declined to elaborate. Japanese media reports said the activists are most likely to be deported.
Chinese activists last landed on the island in 1996, and seven who were arrested were repatriated quickly.
China's state media on Thursday said Japan's handling of the activists is hurting the bilateral relations and that China will engage in strong diplomacy with Japan.
"The real test of power comes in the diplomatic tussle between China and Japan after the landing," the state-run Global Times said in an editorial. "China should insist that any so-called lawful trial by Japan is unacceptable and that no concession shall be made."
In Beijing, dozens of people rallied outside the Japanese embassy, demanding the protesters' release and chanting anti-Japanese slogans. The activists have also won overwhelming support online, and Chinese consumers started boycotting Japanese products.
In Hong Kong, supporters marched to a Japanese consulate building, demanding the activists' immediate release. Some of the participants burned Japanese flags.
China dispatched embassy officials from Tokyo and Hong Kong immigration officials to assist the activists. On Thursday, they met two of the detainees, who were "in good health and good spirits," activists' spokesman David Koh told Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK.
The handling of the arrested activists is extremely sensitive. Japan has the option of repatriating them or sending them to criminal court.
Japan's arrest and weekslong detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 after his vessel collided with Japanese patrol boats near the disputed islands triggered the worst diplomatic dispute in years between the countries, prompting Beijing to suspend some exports and cancel high-level talks.
Japan says it has controlled the five main islands for more than 100 years. It has been trying to place four that are privately held under state ownership to bolster its territorial claim.
Chinese patrol vessels have been spotted frequently in the waters, prompting Tokyo to repeatedly protest and beef up its own patrols in the area.
The United States, Japan's key ally, said it would not take sides and urged calm among involved parties.
"We expect he claimants to resolve the issue through peaceful measures and any kind of provocations are not helpful in that regard," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Wednesday.
Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, and Didi Tang and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.