Taipei, Sept. 24 (CNA) Up to 100 Taiwan fishing boats, escorted by 10 coast guard ships, embarked on a protest voyage Monday toward the hotly disputed Diaoyutai Islands that organizers said was aimed at asserting local fishermen's rights to operate in what they described as their "traditional fishing grounds."
If officers on Japanese maritime defense vessels -- which usually harass Taiwanese fishing boats operating in the area -- try to board the Taiwanese fishing boats, special service agents traveling on the coast guard vessels will "board our fishing boats to stop" the Japanese from boarding the Taiwanese ships, said Wang Jinn-wang, head of the Coast Guard Administration (CGA).
If the Japanese ships spray water at the Taiwanese fishing boats, Wang went on, "we will spray water back at them." He added that he will not rule out the use of arms if "the other side resorts to it first."
The coast guard official's statements in the Legislature showed Taiwan's decision to protect local fishermen's rights to fish in the waters around the disputed island chain, which is currently controlled by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan and China.
Wang told lawmakers that Taiwan's fishing boats will sail to waters to the southwest of the islands and that there is little likelihood they will meet Chinese fishing boats, which are also making a protest journey to the area.
He promised that Taiwan will "by no means join forces with the Chinese in boycotting Japan."
More than 70 fishing boats departed from Nanfangao port in Yilan County, northeastern Taiwan, for the island chain that lies 100 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan.
By the time they arrive in the target area at 5 a.m. Tuesday, they will have been joined by other Taiwanese fishing boats to form a 100-strong flotilla in the "biggest ever action" to claim Taiwan's sovereignty over the islands, according to Wang.
Ten coast guard vessels ranging in size from 100 tons to 2,000 tons are ready to "intervene" in case Japanese ships attempt to block the Taiwanese fishing boats, he went on.
Wang also said the CGA has been in contact with the Ministry of National Defense over the protest mission and is ready to switch to a "conflict" mode of operation.
He noted that the government is simply acting to protect the rights of the country's fishermen and that the authorities have passed messages to Japan not to intervene or cause provocation.
The fishing boats are scheduled to converge in waters some 20 nautical miles southwest of the Diaoyutai Islands and then split into groups of five to circle the islets clockwise to underscore their claim of the right to fish in the area.
In spite of choppy water and high winds of class six to seven, gusting up to class nine, some of the fishermen said that "we've been waiting for this day for a long time."
One of them told CNA that "we will beat the weather to tell the Japanese we're angry at their harassment. We are determined to protect our rights to fish in the Diaoyutai Islands area."
At the Legislative Yuan, the ruling KMT's legislative caucus said it supports a legislative committee proposal for legislators to board CGA vessels for an inspection tour of the island group, a move that will also serve to assert Taiwan's sovereignty claim.
But the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's legislative caucus whip, Pan Men-an, advised against such a move, saying that it is not in Taiwan's interests to highlight its claim at a time when China is doing all it can to assert its sovereignty over the islands.
Pan said that over the past 40 years, China has never made any pitched claim over the Diaoyutais. "It is doing so only to divert attention from its internal crisis," he added, urging Taiwan not to get involved.
While his party respects other parties' standpoints on the issue, Pan said, the ruling Kuomintang should resume negotiations with Japan over fishing rights and work to alleviate misery index caused by high unemployment and inflation.
(By Claudia Liu, Shen Ju-feng, Ho Meng-kui, Wang Shu-fen, Liu Chien-pang and S.C. Chang)