HONG KONG – Japan quieted a regional spat Friday by quickly deporting several Chinese arrested for landing on disputed islands in the East China Sea, but activists' vows to make new trips there could again inflame territorial tensions.
Five of the activists and two reporters accompanying them were greeted with cheers, applause and bouquets from dozens of supporters at Hong Kong's airport after arriving on a commercial flight from Japan's southern island of Okinawa.
All 14 of the group — eight activists, two reporters and four boat crew members — 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 without authorization in the island group, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The last seven deportees departed on their own boat later Friday, accompanied part of the way by Japanese patrol vessels to make sure they left Japanese waters without approaching the islands again, the Coast Guard said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Japan would not charge the activists and denied any political consideration. "The decision is strictly based on domestic laws, not swayed by emotions," he said.
Some of the activists had thrown concrete blocks onto coast guard patrol boats but did not cause any injury or major damage that would subject them to criminal charges, Fujimura said.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called the incident "extremely regrettable." Other ministers said they will study how they can block future landing attempts, including possibly increasing the penalty for illegally landing on the islands.
China had demanded the activists' immediate release, and protesters in Beijing, Hong Kong and other cities praised the activists as heroes and burned Japanese flags. Japan's swiftness in deporting them was seen as an attempt to avoid further inflaming protests.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang condemned Japan for taking dangerous action in trying to stop the activists' boat, which suffered damage after being rammed by government vessels before running aground near the shore.
Any action taken by Japan would not shake China's resolve to "safeguard the country's territory and sovereignty," Qin said in a press statement.
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.
The deportations will relieve some tension between Tokyo and Beijing, but that may not last. A group of ultra-conservative parliamentarians and local politicians are going by boat to the waters off Senkaku over the weekend to mourn for the victims of a boat accident near the islands at the end of World War II.
The activists also vowed to return.
"The Diaoyu islands are still in enemy hands so we're thinking about when we'll set out on our next trip," Tsang Kin-shing told Cable News television shortly after his arrival in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Japan moved to act tougher on another island dispute, this one with South Korea.
It threatened to cancel upcoming ministerial talks to protest actions by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and said it wants to take their nations' island dispute to the International Court of Justice.
Lee recently visited an island chain controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Japan. And this week he said that Japanese Emperor Akihito should apologize to Koreans if he wants to visit South Korea and condemned Japan over its wartime sexual slavery of Korean women.
South Korea dismissed Japan's proposal for the international court to rule on their overlapping claims on the islands, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.
Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi called Lee's remarks and actions "unacceptable" and suggested talks with his South Korean counterpart scheduled for later this month could be canceled.
Japan also could consider terminating a bilateral foreign exchange scheme to help support the South Korean won, Azumi said.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writer Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, also contributed to this report.