China Takes a Sharper Tone in Dispute With Japan

China Takes a Sharper Tone in Dispute With Japan
Published: September 22, 2010

BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao “strongly urged” Japan to immediately and unconditionally release from custody the captain of a Chinese trawler, threatening further action if Japan refuses.
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Yao Dawei/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Premier Wen Jiabao of China spoke about tensions with Japan during a meeting with representatives of Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans on Tuesday in New York.

Mr. Wen’s comments were the first by a senior Chinese official in what is rapidly becoming the most serious territorial dispute China has faced in a decade. The captain and crew were seized earlier this month by Japanese naval vessels, which claimed that the fishing boat rammed them near several uninhabited islands controlled by Japan. The boat and crew were quickly released, but the captain faces charges of obstructing officials from performing their duty and remains in Japanese custody.

China is incensed that Japan would apply its laws to Chinese nationals and argues that the issue is one for diplomacy, not the legal system. Known as Senkaku in Japanese or Diaoyu in Chinese, the islands have been in dispute for decades, but Japan has mostly turned back Chinese vessels that approach too closely.

Mr. Wen made his comments Tuesday night to members of the Chinese-American community in New York, where he is attending a United Nations meeting. The comments were carried Wednesday on the Web site of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“This is totally illegal, unreasonable and has already caused much suffering to the family of the captain,” Mr. Wen was quoted as saying. “If Japan clings to its course, China will take further action.”

Mr. Wen’s comments come as China as continued to ratchet up the pressure on Japan. On Tuesday, it announced that Mr. Wen would probably not meet his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, who is also in New York for the United Nations development conference. On Sunday, China suspended many government contacts and other exchanges with Japan.

“Japan holds the key to solving this problem,” the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said. “The Japanese side should correctly understand the situation and return the captain immediately and unconditionally.”

Some analysts say the issue might blow over next Wednesday when Japan must decide whether to formally charge the captain or release him. If he is charged, the emotional issue could boil over in China, where protests have already taken place and Internet forums are full of anti-Japanese rhetoric.

“Japan will have to release the captain with a warning or something similar,” said a Western diplomat based in Beijing who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the conflict. “It’s hard to imagine them actually charging and trying him.”

Sentiment in Japan, however, has hardened against China in recent years, with some calling for the country to resist a diplomatic solution and enforce its claims by applying Japanese law.

Japan controls the islands although China draws on historical records to buttress its claim to them. The islands have been the scene of protests for several decades, with Chinese from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan claiming that Japan seized them in the 19th century and should have returned them after the end of World War II. Japan says the islands were not effectively controlled by anyone and were not part of agreements at the end of the war to strip Japan of territory acquired during its period of expansionism.

The most recent flare-up comes as China faces disputes with its neighbors to the south over control of islands in the South China Sea. It has also objected to American military exercises in the region and arms sales to Taiwan, which it also views as part of its territory

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