Relations between East Asia’s two leading powers have quickly deteriorated following China’s decision to cease high-level exchanges with Japan in protest at the extended detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain.
Beijing suspended relations between government officials and their Japanese counterparts over the weekend after a court in Japan extended the detention of the captain, Zhan Qixiong, for another 10 days while it considers whether or not to prosecute him. The 14 other members of the crew and their vessel have been released.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday that Japan had “seriously damaged Sino-Japan bilateral relations.”
Mr. Zhan was arrested earlier this month after his boat collided with two Japanese coast guard boats in waters near the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islands are administered by Japan but claimed by China – where they are known as Diaoyu.
Backdrop of mounting concern
Japan’s investigation into the collision is taking place against a backdrop of mounting concern in Tokyo over China’s military spending and its aggressive drive to secure new energy sources in disputed waters.
The prospects for a swift resolution to the row appeared more distant today after reports that China was preparing to begin drilling at an undersea gas field in another disputed part of the East China Sea, despite a 2008 agreement to jointly explore the area. Aerial photographs taken by Japan's Self-Defense Forces show that China recently transported what appeared to be drilling equipment to the gas field, Japan’s Kyodo News reported.
The Nikkei business newspaper said Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, would consider “countervailing steps” if China began drilling, including the start of unilateral explorations by Japan and taking the case to the International Maritime Court.
China again summoned Japan’s ambassador in Beijing to communicate its anger over Zhan’s detention, and accused Japanese authorities of inflicting “severe damage” to bilateral ties.
“China demands that Japan immediately release the captain without any preconditions,” Ma Zhaoxu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on the ministry’s website. "If Japan acts willfully despite advice to the contrary and insists on making one mistake after another, the Chinese side will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences should be borne by the Japanese side.”
In Japan, officials insisted that Zhan’s arrest was a purely legal matter, and called for cool heads to prevail.
China suspends relations
A report in Tokyo quoted a spokesman for Kan as saying that Beijing had yet to inform Japan of its decision to suspend contacts. The spokesman was quoted as calling for "calm and prudent action by China” to prevent tensions from escalating.
Still, China's government announced the suspension of bilateral talks on increasing flights between the two countries. As Internet forums called for a boycott of Japanese goods, travel agencies canceled package tours to Japan, affecting as many as 10,000 people. China’s national youth association withdrew an invitation to 1,000 Japanese youngsters to attend the Shanghai Exposition this week, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.
Chinese authorities ensured that minor protests against Japan held on Saturday – the anniversary of an incident that led to Japan’s occupation of large parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s – passed without incident.
Yet the strongest rhetoric has come from media in both countries. The Global Times, published by the Communist Party organ the People’s Daily, said: "China should have a set of plans in place to further sanction Japan, fighting a diplomatic battle with Japan of successive retaliation. China should use enough resources and force, and be prepared to sustain losses, because if we don't, Japan will go further down the path of a hard line towards China, and conflict that erupts between China and Japan will be even more intense."
The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s best-selling newspaper, urged the government not to capitulate to Beijing’s demands.
"If China thinks that by taking a strong stance that Japan will just roll over, then it is mistaken," said an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
Neither side appears to have much to gain from a prolonged period of estrangement: bilateral trade is booming, and diplomatic relations have improved markedly since Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s leader from 2001 until 2006, angered Beijing with annual visits to a controversial war shrine in Tokyo.