Japan said yesterday it would free a Chinese fishing boat captain whose arrest in disputed waters over two weeks ago sparked the worst row in years between the Asian giants.
Prosecutors cited the deepening rift between Beijing and Tokyo in their decision to release the captain, who was arrested after his boat collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the East China Sea.
“Considering the impact on Japan’s people and the Japan-China relationship, we decided it would not be worth continuing detaining and investigating the captain,” Naha district deputy chief prosecutor Toru Suzuki said.
The Chinese captain, Zhan Qixiong (詹其雄), 41, had acted on the spur of the moment and not committed a premeditated criminal act, and he had no prior criminal record in Japan, Suzuki said in a televised press conference.
A charter plane was expected to arrive in Okinawa at about midnight last night to pick him up and return him to China, Jiji Press reported yesterday.
The top spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was at the UN General Assembly in New York, said the decision was taken by prosecutors alone and not because of political pressure, but the conservative opposition was quick to lash out at what it saw as a loss of face for Japan.
“It was an extremely foolish decision,” former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party said, Jiji Press reported. “It was clear as day that it was an intrusion into [Japan’s] territorial waters. Japanese politics caved in to pressure from China.”
The row started when the captain was arrested on Sept. 8 after his trawler collided with two patrol boats near the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
The collisions caused no injuries, but the diplomatic damage was severe.
In the ensuing row, China issued a series of harsh diplomatic protests, summoned Japan’s ambassador Uichiro Niwa six times, once after midnight, and canceled official visits, energy talks and joint cultural events.
On Sept. 13, Japan released the ship’s 14 Chinese crew and allowed them to fly home.
Amid the row, traders said China has also blocked exports of rare earth metals — used in products from iPods to electric cars — to Japan, a claim Beijing has denied.
Further ramping up tensions, China this week detained four Japanese nationals who were working on a bid for a project to clear up chemical weapons left from the Japanese occupation before and during World War II.
Japan has pressed for diplomatic access to its four, who were detained in Hebei Province for entering a restricted military zone and “illegally filming defense targets,” Xinhua news agency reported.
Their employer, construction company Fujita, said they had been visiting the city of Shijiazhuang, but had been out of contact since one of their staff had text-messaged the single word “help” on Tuesday.
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