Japan strongly rejected a Chinese demand yesterday that it apologize for detaining a Chinese fishing boat captain, whose arrest after a collision near disputed islands plunged relations between the two Asian powers to their lowest level in years.
Japanese authorities released the captain, Zhan Qixiong (詹其雄), early yesterday and he was flown home by chartered plane to Fuzhou in China’s Fujian Province.
State broadcaster China Central Television showed Zhan, 41, smiling and holding his fingers in a victory sign as he walked off the plane. He was greeted by family members bearing flowers and a small group of government officials.
However, hopes that his release would defuse mounting tensions were dashed when China promptly demanded an apology and compensation from Japan.
“It is unlawful and invalid for Japan to detain, investigate or take any form of judicial measures against the Chinese fishermen and trawler,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement. “The Japanese side must make an apology and compensation for this incident.”
The Japanese foreign ministry said the demands were groundless and “absolutely cannot be accepted.”
The captain’s detention and investigation were “an appropriate and calm response according to our nation’s laws,” it said in a statement.
The diplomatic back-and-forth yesterday demonstrated that nationalistic sentiments stirred up by the incident show few signs of dissipating. Tensions have already affected business ties between the nations’ intertwined economies — the world’s second and third-largest.
Zhan was arrested on Sept. 8 after his boat collided with two Japanese patrol vessels near a chain of islands called Diaoyutai (釣魚台) in China and Senkaku in Japan. The islands, about 190km east of Taiwan, are controlled by Japan but are also claimed by Taiwan and China.
Japanese prosecutors detained and questioned the captain while they decided whether to press charges, though his 14-member crew and boat were returned to China.
Zhan’s release came after intense pressure from Beijing, which suspended ministerial-level contacts with Tokyo and postponed talks on developing disputed undersea gas fields. This past week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) threatened further action against Japan if it did not immediately release the captain.
“I firmly support the Chinese government’s stance,” Zhan said after returning to China. “Diaoyu Islands belong to China.”
“It’s legal that I go there to fish, but it’s illegal that they detained me. I did not violate the law,” he said.
The decision by Japanese prosecutors to let him go has prompted criticism within Japan. An editorial in the nationally circulated Yomiuri Shimbun blasted the captain’s release as “a political decision that put the mending of relations as a priority.”
“Needless to say, the Senkaku Islands are part of Japan’s territory. The government must continue to assert this view both domestically and abroad,” it said.
The US praised Japan’s decision to release the captain. US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Friday that the Washington hoped the decision would ease tensions between the two longtime Asian rivals.
However, Japanese authorities said they wouldn’t officially close the case — leaving room for some ambiguity that would allow both countries to save face.
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