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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned that Japan will face "all consequences" if it does not immediately release the captain of a fishing vessel arrested two weeks ago by the Japanese Coast Guard in a disputed chain of islands.
"I strongly urge the Japanese side to release the skipper immediately and unconditionally," Mr. Wen said Tuesday to reporters in New York, according to China's official Xinhua news agency. He is in the United States for three days to attend meetings at the United Nations. "If Japan clings to its mistake, China will take further actions and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences that arise."
Wen is the highest level official to remark on the incident, which began when the fishing boat collided Sept. 7 with two Japanese Coast Guard ships in an island chain called Senkaku by Japan but Diaoyu by China. On Sept. 13, Japan released the 14 Chinese crew members and the boat.
Japan rejects China's claim to sovereignty over the islands, but on Wednesday morning offered a conciliatory gesture, reports the Associated Press. "If possible, it would be good to quickly hold high-level talks, including broad, strategic discussions," Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, told reporters during a press conference in Tokyo, though it was unclear if he was aware of Wen's statement the previous evening.
The row ratcheted up a notch on Sunday, when Japanese authorities decided to extend the detention of the ship's captain, Zhan Qixiong, until Sept. 29. In response, Beijing announced the suspension of all "ministerial-level contacts" with Japan, including a scheduled meeting between Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the sidelines of UN General Assembly meetings in New York, The Christian Science Monitor reported Monday.
Agence France Presse reports that China-Japan relations are still haunted by memories of Japan's war-time occupation of parts of China more than six decades ago:
China has repeatedly demanded that detained skipper Zhan Qixiong be released, summoning Japan's ambassador six times, calling off several official visits and planned negotiations, and cancelling cultural events.
The dispute has caused anger among the Chinese public, which is still ambivalent towards Japan after its forces occupied swathes of northern China before and during World War II.
Sengoku, the Japanese government's top spokesman, on Tuesday emphasised the importance of keeping "narrow-minded, extreme nationalism" at bay.
At the weekend, small groups of anti-Japan demonstrators rallied in three Chinese cities over the captain's arrest near the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, but the protests were brief and peaceful.
The East China Sea between China and Japan is not the only body of water where China is asserting its presence. China is locked in a similar set of disputes over control of island chains in the South China Sea with Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. There, the US in turn is backing the claims of smaller states.
In August, the US held joint maneuvers with the South Korean and Vietnamese navies after a series of clashes between Chinese ships and foreign fishing boats in disputed waters of the South China Sea, the Monitor reported. Last March, Beijing told visiting US officials that the South China Sea was a “core national interest,” giving the area the same status as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang as a place China is prepared to fight over.
Beijing has warned the US not to get involved in the South China Sea disputes, Reuters reported Tuesday: "China has been increasingly strident in asserting its territorial claims, especially maritime ones."