China, Japan fishing boat standoff deepens amid delayed talks

With no end to the fishing boat dispute in sight, relations between Asia's two biggest economies are in danger of backsliding.

11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters/AP
A Taiwanese fishing boat, bottom, is followed by Japanese patrol boats as it sails near the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by China), on Tuesday, Sept. 14. The disputed islands are controlled by Japan, but are also claimed by Taiwan and China.

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China ratcheted up the rhetoric Tuesday in its week-long spat with Japan over a detained Chinese fishing boat captain, blaming Japan for "provocation" and again demanding the captain's immediate release.

With no end to the standoff in sight, relations between Asia's two biggest economies are in danger of backsliding, after progress in recent years under more China-friendly Japanese prime ministers.

China at the last minute delayed an official visit to Japan over the dispute, and last week postponed talks planned for this month on a disagreement over natural gas in another area of the East China Sea, according to Reuters.

"Japan provoked this situation and Japan should take all responsibilities," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu in a press conference Tuesday, according to CNN. "We urge the Japanese to stop so-called legal procedures and let him return safely and immediately."

The remarks were the latest in a series of sharp comments from Mr. Yu over the past week (see transcripts at the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website).

Japan arrested the Chinese fishing boat captain on Sept. 8, accusing him of ramming two Japanese Coast Guard boats that were chasing him out of waters near disputed islets claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan. Japan calls the uninhabitable rocks the Senkaku; China calls them the Diaoyu.

On Monday, the boat's 14-man Chinese crew was released and flew home to China by chartered plane, according to Xinhua, China's state-run newswire. But the captain remains in Japanese custody and still faces charges.

"Our safe return is due to the work of Chinese society, including the Party, the government and compatriots from all walks of life," said Wang Guohua, one of the crew members.

He said the Diaoyu Islands are Chinese territory and their detention by the Japanese authorities was illegal.

"For generations, we have fished in those waters and so how could they seize us?" he said.

Japan is insisting on dealing with the captain under domestic Japanese law, since the incident occurred in what Tokyo sees as Japanese waters.

On Saturday, Japan's ambassador – who has been summoned by Beijing officials for a formal dressing-down several times now – urged calm, according to Japan's right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun. Ambassador Uichiro Niwa was summoned at midnight Saturday by China's State Councilor Dai Bingguo – Beijing's top official in charge of foreign affairs.

Dai, who is in charge of foreign affairs-related issues, ranks higher than China's foreign minister. It is quite unusual for a Chinese government official in such a high position to summon the Japanese ambassador late at night. ...

Niwa said he requested of Dai that China deal with the matter calmly to keep the issue from affecting the two countries' overall relationship. "[Japan's] stance of dealing with the matter calmly and impartially under domestic law hasn't changed," Niwa said.

Economic ties between the countries are robust. China in 2004 surpassed the US to become Japan's biggest trading partner in both exports and imports, The Washington Post reported then. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that "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."

A few years ago, Japanese prime ministers stopped making public visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including World War II war criminals. Such visits had been a longstanding bone of contention in bilateral relations.

In 2008, the two countries even inked an agreement to resolve a dispute over natural gas resources in an area where the two countries' claimed "exclusive economic zones" overlap – an agreement seen as another big step forward in better relations.

But as the current dispute shows, the two nation's territorial disagreements are far from being resolved. In comments posted last week, The New York Times's columnist Nicholas Kristof warned that the islets in question could be an increasingly dangerous flash point.

"Since some believe that the area is rich with oil and gas reserves, the claims from each side have become more insistent," Mr. Kristof wrote. "As Chinese nationalism grows, as China’s navy and ability to project power in the ocean gains, we could see some military jostling over the islands."

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