China has instructed its fishermen to stay away from waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands, possibly to remove an irritant in ties with Japan ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit there next spring, sources close to the matter said Thursday.
Fishery authorities in Fujian Province issued the order before a Chinese-ordered fishing suspension in the East China Sea surrounding the Japan-administered group of islets, claimed by China, ends Friday.
The orders call on fishermen via the internet to "not go near the sensitive waters."
On Thursday morning, however, fishermen in the province's city of Shishi were busy preparing for departure by loading ice to cool freshly caught fish on their boats.
"Some boats are headed to fish near the Diaoyu Islands," a 42-year-old fisherman, using the Chinese name for the Senkakus, said while preparing his boat to leave Friday morning.
When asked about the government order, the man denied any knowledge of it.
In addition to Shishi, the provincial capital Fuzhou and Zhao'an County, both facing the East China Sea in the province, have issued similar orders to their fishermen.
Despite recent improvements in Sino-Japanese relations, the territorial row over the Senkakus is still considered a fragile part of bilateral relations.
During their summit on the fringe of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi confirmed that they will work together to realize a trip by the Chinese president to Japan as a state guest "when cherry blossoms bloom."
In an effort to ensure the success of Xi's planned visit, China has been striving to better relations with Japan. Through the directive, China hopes to prevent fishing boats from going near the inhabited islets, a move sure to cause a strong backlash in Japan, pundits say.
Nonetheless, the Japanese government remains on high alert. In August 2016, 200 to 300 Chinese fishing boats repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus even after similar instructions were issued. Some Chinese state vessels did likewise at that time.
Chinese government ships have been doing so more frequently this year compared with last year.
Japan has repeatedly warned China against a similar situation to 2016 via diplomatic means. "We don't know how thoroughly those instructions are being given to the fishermen," a source in the Japanese Embassy in Beijing said.© KYODO