They came from Hong Kong, but activists who landed on the Senkaku islands knew the applause would be loudest in Beijing.
China was infuriated in April when the governor of Tokyo launched a campaign on behalf of the Tokyo metropolitan government to purchase three islets from their private owners. Beijing claims the Senkakus, which it calls Diaoyu.
In the past, China has prevented protest boats from embarking for the Senkakus. This time there seemed no restraint.
State-run China Central Television even carried regular news updates as the boat neared its destination. On Aug. 15 it reported the much-anticipated climax: an announcement by the group that its activists had landed with China's flag and declared territorial sovereignty.
Okinawa prefectural police officers on Uotsurishima island intercepted the activists. They arrested five who refused an order to leave; Coast Guard officers seized nine others aboard the vessel, including two journalists from Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV news channel.
All were taken to Naha for questioning. They are expected to be handed to immigration authorities for illegal entry, perhaps as early as Aug. 17, when deportation procedures will begin.
Police say they found the activists defiant. "There is no need for a passport when on Chinese territory," one said.
Japan's government delivered a protest. In Tokyo Kenichiro Sasae, the vice minister for foreign affairs, summoned China's ambassador.
China lodged one, too. Fu Ying, Chinese vice foreign minister, summoned Ambassador Uichiro Niwa from the Japanese Embassy and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all 14 individuals.
That call was echoed in Hong Kong, where the province's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, asked that Japan ensure the activists' safety.
China's foreign ministry had even pre-empted the landing with a statement requesting that the crew members be placed in no danger.
China will now be watching to see how Japan handles the incident.
In September 2010, after a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships in waters near the Senkaku Islands, the captain was arrested and his case referred to prosecutors. A Foreign Ministry source said private exchanges ensued, with Beijing accusing the Japanese government of breaking an unwritten agreement to deport and not prosecute Chinese citizens involved in territorial skirmishes.
Japan now seems set to follow the pattern of March 2004, when another group of activists landed on the Senkaku Islands. At that time, the seven arrested individuals were deported.
Another complication this time involves the decision by two government ministers to visit war-related Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II. It was the first by senior officials from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
The shrine honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals. Critics regard official visits as endorsing the nation's wartime record.
"We hope Japan will abide by its promise to reflect on its history of invasion, and will work to protect the larger picture in Sino-Japanese relations," said Qin Gang, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.
China's shift is all too apparent. Even the activists admit it: in the past, an organizer says, China went to great lengths to prevent stunts of this kind.
In September 2007 the same group planned a similar Senkakus voyage. A high-ranking member of the Asian Affairs Department at China’s foreign ministry invited group leaders to a luxury hotel in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, and sweet-talked them over a feast of Shanghai crab.
"Your patriotism is not mistaken, but we do not want you upsetting things," the official said.
This was at a time when Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, was planning a referendum on whether to bid for United Nations recognition. Beijing claims Taiwan and it urged the Hong Kong activists to stand down because it needed American and Japanese support.
This time Beijing made no such intervention.
Nor did the Hong Kong government, which in the past has denied permission for boats to set sail for the Senkakus.
Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, sees a tactical shift under way. He said China believes dialogue will achieve little and it needs to elevate the Senkakus dispute.
"The Japanese government ignored China's calls," he said. "So China's government has come to think that restrained engagement, its policy until now, will not solve the matter."
But Beijing must maintain a fine balance.
With a change in leadership expected this autumn, it wants to be seen as getting tough with Japan.
At the same time, Beijing does not want a repeat of 2010, when public attitudes toward Japan suddenly worsened and sparked protests across the country.
Meanwhile, sources in the Japan Coast Guard said officials had met in advance and made plans to minimize the diplomatic fallout.
They agreed to try to avoid both injury to the activists and major damage to the ship.
"The situation could have deteriorated if we were forced into making a stronger response, amid resistance for example, or a collision with Coast Guard ships," said the source.
The protesters also seemed ready to exploit Japan's response. The Phoenix TV crew accompanying them reported on coast guard moves to block the boat's approach to Uotsurishima.
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