Taiwan, HK activists head for disputed islands in East China Sea

TOKYO (AFP) - A boat with seven Hong Kong and Taiwanese activists on board was today heading for islands at the centre of a bitter international wrangle, a report and Japan’s coastguard said.

By around 7am the vessel was 107km away and “sailing towards the Senkakus", Japan’s coastguard said, when asked about a report from Jiji of a vessel that left Taiwan earlier.

China and Taiwan both claim the island chain, which is known as Diaoyu in Chinese and  controlled by Tokyo.

The uninhabited islands, whose seabed is believed to harbour valuable mineral reserves, has been the scene of a diplomatic tussle between Japan and China over the past few months.

Since Tokyo nationalised three of them in September, Beijing has repeatedly sent government ships into their waters. In December a government plane overflew them, leading Japan to scramble fighter jets.

Earlier this month both militaries had jets in the area and Japanese newspapers have reported that Tokyo is mulling allowing its pilots to fire warning shots.

While most commentators believe Asia’s two largest economies will find some way to work around the problem, which has rattled relations for decades, some are warning that a mis-step could lead to armed confrontation.