Asia Pacific September 24, 2010
Amid Tension, Japan Is Releasing Chinese Captain
By MARTIN FACKLER and IAN JOHNSON
TOKYO — Japanese authorities said on Friday that they will release the captain of a Chinese trawler whose arrest two weeks ago near islands claimed by China and Japan had caused growing tensions between the two Asian powers.
Japanese prosecutors said they decided not to press charges against the captain, identified as Zhan Qixiong, 41, who was detained on Sept. 8 after his boat collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels that were pursuing him near the disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The arrest had sent Japan’s ties with China to their lowest point in years. China reacted angrily to the arrest by cutting off ministerial-level talks, with Premier Wen Jiabao threatening further unspecified actions if he was not released.
While appealing for calm, Japanese leaders had initially stood firm in saying that their country’s laws applied to the captain, who was detained in waters administered by Japan but claimed by China and also Taiwan.
It was unclear if Tokyo had decided to give in to China’s demands, or even if central government officials had any hand in the captain’s release. However, prosecutors on Ishigaki island, where the captain was being held, did cite diplomatic considerations in their decision not to indict him on charges of obstructing officials on duty.
“Considering the effect on the people of our nation and on China-Japan relations, we decided that it was not appropriate to continue the investigation,” the prosecutors said in a statement.
Facing growing nationalist outrage at the arrest, authorities in Beijing had been raising the pressure on Tokyo for the captain’s unconditional release. Earlier this week, Chinese officials said Mr. Wen would probably not meet Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, during a United Nations development conference in New York.
China has argued that the issue is one for diplomacy, not Japan’s legal system. Known as Senkaku in Japanese or Diaoyu in Chinese, the islands have been in dispute for decades, but until now Japan has usually turned back Chinese vessels that approached too closely.
Sentiment in Japan, however, has hardened against China in recent years, as Chinese warships have made more frequent forays into Japanese waters, including an incident in April when a Chinese helicopter buzzed a Japanese warship.
Chinese analysts said the move could help ease tension between the two economic partners. Wang Xiangsui, a foreign policy analyst at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said China especially objected to Japan using its domestic laws to deal with the captain. This implied that the territories were Japanese and not subject to negotiation.
“This was a move that Japan had to make or China would have taken further steps,” Mr. Wang said. “Now the two sides can discuss this more calmly.”
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 waters near Korea.
The Japanese prosecutors’ decision followed news in Beijing on Thursday that four Japanese citizens had been arrested for videotaping military installations.
The report by the official Xinhua news agency said four Japanese citizens were detained at a military base near the city of Shijiazhuang, about 190 miles southwest of Beijing.
“Currently, the case is being investigated,” said a statement issued by authorities and carried on the Web site of China Daily, a government-controlled newspaper. Japan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that four of its citizens were being held.
The four being detained are employees of the Fujita construction firm, a spokesman for the company said.
It was unclear whether those arrests were linked to the detention of the captain.
The last communication Fujita had with the workers was a cell phone text message from one of them on Tuesday that read, “help,” said a company spokesman, Yoshiaki Onodera.
The employees and their interpreter, a Chinese national, were in Hebei to research possible sites to excavate for weapons left behind by the Japanese army during World War II, Mr. Onodera said. The Japanese government has been funding a program to remove such weapons in China and Fujita is one of the contractors.
Economic ties between the countries — the world’s second- and third-largest economies — appeared to be fraying over the matter. Some metals traders say China has halted sales of rare earth metals to Japan, although China denies this.
Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, and Ian Johnson from Beijing. Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting from Tokyo.
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