By William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 20, 2010; 11:57 AM
BEIJING - It began with a minor fender bender on the Asian seas - a Chinese boat colliding with Japanese coast guard ships. But in just two weeks the dust-up has escalated to a full-scale diplomatic standoff, with the Chinese government now officially no longer speaking to the Japanese.
On the surface, the argument is over custody of the Chinese boat captain, who is under arrest in Japan. But fueling the angry posturing is a struggle between China and Japan for regional dominance, along with long-standing disputes over territory.
The angry rhetoric, which has come more from Beijing than Tokyo, is the latest indication that a newly assertive China is looking to flex its muscles internationally.
Since the boat collisions, several other disputes have flared up, ranging from serious (threats on both sides to start drilling for gas in the East China Sea) to bizarre (Chinese investigators were sent to look into the death of a Chinese panda at a Japanese zoo).
The tensions prompted Chinese students this weekend to protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing - a relatively small showing but significant nonetheless as an indication of the Chinese government's approval of anti-Japanese sentiment. Chinese state media have also reported large numbers of Chinese tourists canceling trips to Japan.
In recent weeks, the Japanese ambassador in Beijing has been called in repeatedly by Chinese officials, including one early-morning summons that Japan considered highly insulting. At the most recent encounter on Sunday, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya made "solemn representations" to the Japanese ambassador, Wang told reporters.
"The incident created by the Japanese side has severely damaged China-Japan relations," Wang said afterward to state-owned media Xinhua News Agency.
China's subsequent suspension of all high-level exchanges with Japan on Sunday, from the provincial level up to the central government, has scuttled planned talks over expanding aviation rights and working together on coal issues.
The incident that launched the standoff occurred Sept. 7, when the fishing boat of Captain Zhan Qixiong, 41, collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels. The area where the collision took place is near a group of uninhabited but disputed islands - called Diaoyu by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese.
Initially, Japanese authorities took into custody the entire crew of the Chinese ship. All members except the captain have since been released. On Sunday, a Japanese court extended the captain's pretrial detention until Sept. 29, over the protests of Chinese officials.
"China demands that Japan immediately release the captain without any preconditions," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement, adding that Beijing views the captain's detention as illegal and invalid.
There are signs that the rift is carrying over into other areas. The Nikkei business daily in Japan reported on Sunday that Japan might start drilling for gas in the East China Sea - another disputed area that is rich with natural gas - if China tries to do the same.
And after Xing Xing, a giant panda on loan from China, died recently at a Japanese zoo after being sedated so semen could be collected for artificial insemination, China immediately sent investigators. Chinese online commentators posted conspiracy theories connecting the panda's death to the boat captain's arrest, alleging a Japanese campaign to insult China.
The intensity of the recent flareups points to China and Japan's complicated and antagonistic history. Many Chinese still hold a long-simmering anger over Japan's occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and full-scale invasion of China in 1937 to launch the Second Sino-Japanese War.
As many people attending the protests in China noted, this weekend was the 79th anniversary of the Manchuria invasion. At one protest outside the Japanese consulate in Shanghai on Saturday, Chinese youths shouted slogans urging their government to take even stronger actions: "Set the captain free! Chinese should stand up and fight! How can we get the Diaoyu Islands back if we continue to act like cowards?"
In a phone interview, Zhou Jianming, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, sought to justify China's sharp reaction. "The real motivation of Japan using their domestic system to handle the captain's case is because that way they can make a case to claim the Diaoyu Islands," he said. "The cards are in Japan's hands now. And whether the incident will escalate depends on what they do next, because it seems certain that China will take countermeasures."
Staff writer Chico Harlan and researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.