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Arrest of Chinese boat captain by Japan stirs old rivalry

A long-simmering dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea heats up after the collision of a Chinese trawler with Japanese patrol ships. Experts say long-term relations between the nations could suffer.

September 11, 2010|By John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul and Tokyo — The arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain by Japan this week has worsened a historical rift between Tokyo and Beijing over a string of disputed islands and could threaten long-term relations between the two Asian neighbors, experts warned Friday.

The Chinese government has twice summoned the Japanese ambassador to decry the arrest Wednesday of the 41-year-old captain, Zhan Qixiong, whose trawler collided with Japanese patrol boats near the uninhabited islands.

On Friday, the day after Zhan was turned over to prosecutors, who will consider whether to file charges, Beijing dispatched its own ship to the islands.

"China has been intensifying its maritime activities, including those in waters near Japan," the Japanese Defense Ministry said in a report released Friday. The annual report adds that China's "military activities are a matter of concern for the region and the international community, including Japan."

Known in Japan as the Senkaku islands and in China as the Diaoyutai, the chain has long stirred nationalistic sentiments. The islands, 120 miles east of Taiwan, are controlled by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan.

Activists from China have landed on the windswept rocks to raise their national flag, and bloggers say Japan's claim reflects an arrogant colonial-era mind-set. Beijing's response to the collision, they say, suggests that China "will not tolerate the insults of the past."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu has warned that Japan's action will bring penalties.

"The Japanese side applying domestic law to the Chinese fishing boat operating in this area is absurd, illegal and invalid," she said, adding that the incident could affect "larger interests of China-Japan relations."

Activists protested this week outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and editorials in China's state-run press have fueled outrage, reporting that the Japanese patrol boats rammed the Chinese trawler.

One Chinese scholar said Friday that Japan should tread lightly.

"It's definitely going to ruin the relationship between the two countries," said Zhou Yongsheng, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.

He speculated that Japan's ruling Democratic Party was using the incident to garner votes in upcoming elections, which he said would be a mistake. "If they're trying to win votes to prove how tough they are, they've chosen the wrong case," Zhou said.

The collision occurred during a seasonal surge of Chinese fishing around the islands, where Japanese coast guard officials say they spot 270 Chinese fishing boats per day. The Chinese trawler ignored warnings to leave the area and refused to stop for an inspection, Japanese officials say.

Experts in Japan predicted Friday that the captain's arrest would not have long-lasting diplomatic effects.

"The Senkaku islands issue is not of high priority to the Chinese government," said Shigeo Hiramatsu, former chief researcher at the National Institute for Defense Studies.

One Tokyo newspaper called the arrest "legitimate" and China's territorial claim "clearly unreasonable," saying Beijing took interest in the islands only after oil was found there in the 1970s.

Japanese officials say Zhan could be released soon if he confesses to obstructing public officials' duties and pays a fine. If not, he will probably have to stand trial.

"Prosecutors are investigating whether the Chinese vessel collided with our patrol ships for some political purpose," said Daisuke Hirasawa of the 11th regional coast guard headquarters in Okinawa.

He said 14 other crew members on the fishing vessel were still on the boat, which is docked at a Japanese port.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Glionna reported from Seoul and special correspondent Nagano from Tokyo.

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