Collision at sea sparks anger, breakdown in China-Japan talks

By William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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, 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, 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 the state-owned 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 Sunday that Japan might start drilling for gas in the East China Sea - a disputed area that is rich with natural gas - if China tries to do the same.

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