Japan will damage its relations with China if it decides to prosecute the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese patrol vessels near disputed islands, Beijing warned yesterday.
The Chinese government also said it was sending a law enforcement ship to the islands in the East China Sea — though it was unclear if the vessel would simply collect fishermen stranded after the collision or patrol the waters.
Territorial disputes have been a disruptive undercurrent in China's relations with its Asian neighbors in recent years. As the robust Chinese economy’s demand for resources grows, Beijing’s commercial ships are venturing farther from shore and its more powerful navy is enforcing claims in disputed waters.
The likelihood of a trial increased yesterday as the Japanese coast guard handed over 41-year-old captain Zhan Qixiong (詹其雄) to prosecutors for further investigation to decide whether to officially charge him in the case, Japanese Coast Guard spokesman Masahiro Ichijo said.
No one was injured in the collision, and the two Japanese vessels sustained minor damage.
Beijing has reacted to the arrest with swift criticism, twice summoning the Japanese ambassador in Beijing and demanding the Chinese vessel be released immediately.
“The Japanese side applying domestic law to the Chinese fishing boat operating in this area is absurd, illegal and invalid,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) said at a regular news conference.
She said the territorial disputes were highly sensitive and improper handling would seriously affect the “larger interests of China-Japan relations.”
The collisions happened off the northwestern coast of Japan's Kuba Island, just north of the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai (釣魚台) in Chinese. The islands, about 190km east of Taiwan, are controlled by Japan but are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Japan's coast guard said the captain could be released in a couple of days if he acknowledged the allegation of obstructing public duties resulting in the collision and paid a fine. If not, he would likely have to stand trial.
Officials were also questioning the ship's remaining 14 crew members, who have remained on the fishing boat, the coast guard said.
The crew cannot land in Japan because they do not have passports, but are free to return to China if the Chinese send a vessel to pick them up, it said.
Jiang said Beijing had sent “a fishery law enforcement ship” to the disputed area “to safeguard order in the relevant fishing area and protect the safety of fishermen and their assets.”
She declined to say whether the ship would pick up the fishermen.
China's state media warned yesterday of setbacks to relations if Japan does not release Zhan.
“A wave of indignation is also brewing in Chinese society, which might snowball in a major public outcry if the Japanese authorities continue to take a hardline stance on the incident,” the China Daily said in an editorial.
Japan's largest newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, defended the captain's arrest as “legitimate,” adding that “China's territorial claim is clearly unreasonable.”
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