World

Island dispute hurts China-Japan relations

China has broken off high-level government contacts with Japan over the extended detention of a fishing boat captain arrested near disputed islands.

China has broken off high-level government contacts with Japan over the extended detention of a fishing boat captain arrested near disputed islands.

The rare move pushed already tense relations to a new low and showed China's willingness to play hardball with its Asian rival on issues of territorial integrity.

It came a day after anti-Japanese protests broke out across China on the anniversary of the start of a brutal Japanese invasion of China in 1931 that has historically cast a shadow over ties between what are now the world's second and third-largest economies.

The spat between Tokyo and Beijing was sparked when the Chinese vessel collided with two Japanese coast guard ships on Sept. 7 near islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.

Crew released

The 14 Chinese crew were released last week, but the captain's detention for further questioning — pending a decision about whether to press charges — has inflamed ever-present anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

Japan's refusal to release the boat captain has "already caused serious damage to Sino-Japanese bilateral contacts," Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said Sunday.

It said Beijing has suspended ministerial and provincial-level contacts, halted talks on aviation issues and postponed a meeting to discuss coal.

"If Japan acts willfully, making mistake after mistake, China will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Japanese side," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.

Takeshi Matsunaga, a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, said the reported measures were unilateral. 

"We ask China to respond calmly so as not to escalate the problem further," he said.

The move raises questions about co-operation between China and Japan at international forums such as this week's summit in New York on United Nations goals to fight poverty, which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are attending.

It also throws into doubt whether China's President Hu Jintao will attend the annual summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders to be held in Yokohama, Japan, in November. Leaders of the two countries were also due to attend a G20 summit in Seoul the same month.

Previous tensions

This is the lowest bilateral relations have fallen to since they were strained under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose repeated visits to a war shrine in Japan during his 2001-2006 term angered China.

The two countries halted ministerial-level defence talks for three years from 2003. But even in those tense times, Japan's foreign minister visited China in 2004 and met Wen.

China's decision to cut high-level contacts appears to reflect a worry about losing face in front of the Chinese public, which might trigger a nationalistic backlash against the government if it appears weak or unable to protect the country's sovereignty.

Already, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan has plunged because of the dispute, CCTV said. On Friday, a Beijing-based food company announced it would cancel a planned group tour to Japan for 10,000 people to reward employees, their families and business partners.

Beijing made the announcements shortly after a Japanese court approved a 10-day extension of Capt. Zhan Qixiong's detention. 

"His detention was extended for further questioning. He will be held until Sept. 29," an official at the Naha Public Prosecutor's Office in Okinawa, southern Japan, said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. 

Detention period

Under Japanese law, prosecutors can hold a suspect for up to 20 days while deciding whether to file formal criminal charges. The first 10-day detention period ended Sunday.

Earlier Sunday, Japan's new foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, a hawk who is expected to take a tough stance in relations with China, called on Beijing to handle the dispute calmly. He said the case was being handled in accordance with Japanese law.

Maehara also reiterated the government's stance that there should be no territorial dispute over the islands because they are an "integral part of Japanese territory."

China, however, sees the captain's detention and possible prosecution under Japanese law as a provocation and challenge to its claim of sovereignty over the islands.

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