A Chinese activist, detained by Japanese coast guard, arrives in Naha, the prefecture capital of Okinawa on August 16. Photo: Xinhua

Japan may soon release 14 Chinese activists who visited an island disputed by the two countries in the East China Sea.

Japan's Kyodo news agency reported Thursday that the government was already making arrangements that may see the group deported to China within the next few days.

The activists, who were arrested Wednesday, are part of a Hong Kong based pro-China nationalist organization, though two of the group are thought to be Phoenix TV reporters. Seven were able to set foot on the island before being arrested by Okinawan prefectural police. The other seven, who remained at sea, were taken into custody after their ship was pincered by Japanese coast guard vessels.

The island, known as Uotsuri-jima in Japanese and Diaoyu Dao in Chinese, is the largest in a group of eight islets (some of which are simply rocks barely peeking above the sea's surface) -- known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu Islands in mainland China (and Taiwan) -- long under disputed ownership between China and Japan.

Conflicting sovereignty claims in the East China Sea have soured Sino-Japanese relations over the past year, especially after Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara offered to purchase the islands from a private owner. Japan's central government later offered to make the purchase instead. That only served to further inflame nationalistic anger in China.

Tokyo lodged a protest with Beijing over the activists, who it says entered into Japanese territory illegally; Japan administers and patrols the islands. China's foreign ministry demanded that they be released "immediately and unconditionally."

Ishihara fanned the flames further on Thursday, saying, "The prime minister should visit the islands. If he doesn't go at this point, it's just plain lazy." Doing so would almost certainly inflame current tensions and commit both governments to a longer diplomatic scuffle.

Although the release of the activists is an indication that Tokyo is interested in calming the situation, tempers between the two countries are unlikely to abate anytime soon. A lot remains at risk: Trade between China and Japan is valued at over $300 billion, either a major restraint on the two governments, or a major economic vulnerability, depending on differing perspectives.


A Japanese coast guard vessel shadows the ship used by Chinese activists on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

The current dispute is rooted in China's long-held anger at Japan's wartime atrocities and aggression from World War II, which many feel the Japanese government has failed to fully apologize and show repentance for. Many in Japan, however, feel that past financial assistance to China, coupled with official apologies, has already demonstrated the country's sincerity. It suspects current Chinese nationalism is being supported by the central government as a political tool against Japan. Coinciding with a major Chinese military buildup, mistrust of the Chinese government's political motives is raising Japan's sense of insecurity.

Both governments are in sensitive political circumstances.

China will soon carry out an important once in a decade leadership transition, which will see top Communist Party leaders replaced by junior politicians. This follows months of suspected of inner-party strife and factional infighting after revelations of the shocking Bo Xilai scandal, which saw one of the party's most popular young officials purged and publically humiliated.

Japan's government, meanwhile, is suffering from widespread public opposition to its push for nuclear reactor restarts across the country. Unpopular tax reforms, meant to provide resources to pay off a massive public debt, could also further weaken the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, enough for new elections to be called. That could see Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda follow his five short-term serving predecessors into political defeat.

Which means politicians in both countries may see the utility of ramping up nationalistic language in order to boost domestic support.

Japanese politicians visited the Yasukuni Shrine Thursday, a religious memorial to those who died in the country's wars, but also the location of a museum glorifying the country's past conquests. China and the Koreas see visits by politicians to Yasukuni as a major affront, and are incensed that Class-A war criminals are among those honored by the shrine.

South Korea, which likewise has a territorial dispute with Japan, has recently decided to cancel a major military intelligence sharing agreement with its eastern neighbor, which was originally aimed at North Korea and China. South Korea, which administers and posts garrisons to Dokdo, is livid that recent official documents published by the Japanese government have labeled the island as Japanese territory under the name of Takeshima.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Emperor Akihito would need to apologize for Japan's past if he still intended to make a visit to South Kroea this year.

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called those remarks "extremely regrettable" and told reporters that "It is difficult to comprehend why President Lee made remarks like that."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday that "China hopes Japan can make concrete efforts to create a good environment for the sound development of bilateral economic and trade relationships and advance the development of the strategic and mutually beneficial relations."