/ 19 September 2010

China suspends contacts as Japan boat row deepens

China suspended high-level exchanges with Japan on Sunday and promised tough countermeasures after a Japanese court extended the detention of a Chinese captain whose trawler collided with two Japanese coastguard ships.

The spat between Asia’s two largest economies has flared since Japan arrested the captain, accusing him of deliberately striking a patrol ship and obstructing public officers near uninhabited islets in the East China Sea claimed by both sides.

“China demands that Japan immediately release the captain without any preconditions,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement on the ministry’s website, repeating that Beijing viewed the detention as illegal and invalid.

“If Japan acts wilfully 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,” Ma said.

Japan’s decision has “seriously damaged Sino-Japan bilateral exchanges”, Chinese state television added, reading out a separate response from the Foreign Ministry. China has suspended ministerial and provincial-level bilateral exchanges with Japan, halted talks on increasing flights between the two countries and postponed a meeting about coal with Japan, the report said.

Xinhua news agency added that Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya had made “solemn representations” to the Japanese ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, and expressed “strong indignation” over the captain’s detention.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that the trawler captain’s detention, which had been due to expire on Sunday, had been extended until September 29.

The Japanese court could not be reached for comment.

Sino-Japanese ties have long been plagued by feuds over wartime history and rivalry over territory, resources and military intentions, although they had improved after a chill in 2001-2006, as deep economic ties raise the risk from rows.

Gas field feud
Japan urged calm and said the captain’s case would be dealt with appropriately according to its domestic laws.

“Regarding individual issues, what is needed is to respond calmly without becoming emotional,” said Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesperson for the Japanese prime minister’s office.

“Japan’s basic stance is that we should seek to create cooperative Sino-Japanese ties based on strategic, mutually beneficial relations,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Takeshi Matsunaga, assistant press secretary for Japan’s foreign ministry, said the unilateral steps that China has taken are “regrettable”.

The Chinese captain, Zhan Qixiong, has remained in custody after a Japanese court approved for the first time on September 10 an extension of his detention. Prosecutors can hold him for up to a total of 20 days while deciding whether to take legal action.

The latest feud over the uninhabited isles — called the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkaku islands in Japan — has stirred mutual distrust over sovereignty and control of potentially valuable oil and gas reserves.

China has repeatedly demanded Japan free the captain and has shown its anger by cancelling planned talks with Japan over natural gas reserves.

On Saturday, about a hundred protesters in several Chinese cities demanded Japan free the boat captain. Police presence was still heavy at the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Sunday but there were no signs of protests.

The Nikkei business daily reported earlier on Sunday that Japan may start drilling near a gas field in disputed waters of the East China Sea if China does the same.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his foreign minister said Tokyo will take “countervailing steps” if China starts drilling at the Chunxiao gas field to which Beijing recently sent equipment, Nikkei said, adding that Tokyo had looked into possibly taking the case to the international maritime court.

The two countries are at odds over China’s exploration for natural gas in the East China Sea, while Beijing is also involved in territorial feuds with southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea over an area rich in energy and key to shipping.

The Sino-Japanese row centres on where the boundary between the two sides’ exclusive maritime economic zones falls. In 2008, the two countries agreed in principle to solve the feud by jointly developing gas fields.

Estimated net known reserves in the disputed fields are a modest 92-million barrels of oil equivalent, but both sides have pursued the issue because there may be larger hidden reserves. – Reuters