China stepped up the pressure Friday in its latest territorial spat with Japan, as Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi demanded that Tokyo immediately free the crew of a Chinese fishing boat detained in disputed waters.
Mr. Yang made a “solemn representation and protest” about Tuesday’s seizure, a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said, and “demanded that Japan unconditionally release and return the entire crew of the fishing boat.” The Chinese boat was seized after it collided with two Japanese patrol boats.
China is Japan’s largest trade partner and the two countries have made considerable progress in recent years to overcome decades of hostility and mistrust stemming from Japan’s occupation of China last century.
But misgivings on both sides persist. And this latest spat over territory illustrates that relations remain tender.
The latest in the fishing boat spat
The Japanese Coast Guard turned the captain over to the prosecutor Thursday, increasing the chances he would be charged with deliberately ramming two Japanese patrol boats. His ship was seized near a chain of tiny uninhabited islands known in China as Diaoyu and in Japan as Senkaku.
“This is a criminal case, so we have to implement domestic legislation” a Japanese government official who asked not to be identified said in a telephone interview. “The room for maneuver is very limited.”
At the same time, he added, “we have no intention of playing up this event, and Japan is always prepared to make the necessary efforts to maintain stable relations with China.”
“I don’t think Japan’s tough stance will last,” predicts Huang Dahui, who studies Sino-Japanese relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Japan will look at the situation in the light of its overall relationship with China.”
This is not China's only territorial dispute
On Friday the Japanese Defense Ministry issued a report worrying that “China has been intensifying its maritime activities including in waters near Japan.”
China is involved in territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Beijing was angered recently when Hillary Clinton suggested that Washington might mediate some of those disputes, and insisted that China would deal with them only bilaterally.
China and Taiwan both claim the Diaoyu/Senkaku, an island chain controlled by Japan that straddles rich fishing grounds and possible undersea oilfields.
Given the disputed ownership, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday, “the Japanese side applying domestic law to the Chinese fishing boat operating in this area is absurd, illegal, and invalid.”
In Tokyo, the government has been growing impatient with what the Coast Guard says is an increasing number of Chinese fishing vessels entering Japanese-claimed waters in recent weeks.
“We have been warning the Chinese government for the past two months, but it has never taken the necessary measures to improve the situation” says the Japanese government official. “We are very unhappy with that.”
In Beijing, however, the government is showing little sign of backing down. The Foreign Minister told the Japanese ambassador here that “the Chinese government is staunch and unwavering in defending its sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands and the rights and interests of China’s citizens,” the ministry spokesman said.
“Japan should not ignore or underestimate China’s spirit on this case,” warns Professor Huang. “China will not give in on this issue.”