By Chico Harlan and William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 24, 2010; 9:41 AM
SEOUL - Japan on Friday announced the release of a Chinese fishing boat captain whose arrest 16 days ago sparked a furor between the Asian neighbors, bringing relations to their lowest point in years.
Citing concern for the Japan-China relationship, a Japanese prosecutor in Naha, Okinawa, said it was "inappropriate to continue the investigation" of the captain, Zhan Qixiong, who was detained after his trawler collided in disputed territory with two Japanese coast guard boats.
During the captain's detention on Ishigaki island, a part of Okinawa, the Japan-China dispute has widened almost daily, far overshadowing the incident that provoked it. Beijing cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Tokyo. Chinese tourism in Japan plummeted. Japan's Trade Ministry is looking into reports that China has cut off exports of rare-earth elements, necessary for many of the leading products in Japan's economy, such as batteries, hybrid cars and mobile phones.
The decision to release Zhan, whom Japanese authorities could have held until Wednesday without charges, comes one day after China detained four Japanese citizens in Hebei province, claiming they videotaped military targets without authorization.
It remains unclear the extent to which the captain's release will calm relations.
Diplomatic analysts in Tokyo were quick to interpret the release as a testament of China's muscle - and its ability to exert extreme pressure on one of its top trading partners. A spokeswoman in China's Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, reiterated even after the decision to release the captain that Japanese judicial procedures were "illegal and ineffective."
"With so much retaliatory actions from the Chinese side, we can't ignore that it looks like Japan has succumbed to the pressure from the Chinese," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University. "It became clear how weak Japan is to Chinese pressure."
The trawler collision in the East China Sea exposed a fierce, underlying controversy over a string of islands that both countries claim - although Japan maintains administrative rights. China calls them the Diaoyu Islands. Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands. The surrounding waters are known for their natural gas resources. Recently, both China and Japan have expressed a desire to drill in the area.
When Zhan and his 14 crew members were arrested one day after the collision, China responded with outrage, calling the detention "illegal." Japan's release last week of the trawler's crew members did little to ease tensions, and protests continued among Chinese nationalists. Tuesday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao threatened further retaliation if the skipper wasn't returned home.
As China expands its military and broadens its claim for control of surrounding seas and islands, Japan and the United States have tightened their alliance, with President Obama calling the relationship a "cornerstone" of peace and security. At the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, Obama on Thursday held separate meetings with Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, although they discussed matters unrelated to the trawler controversy.
The prolonged detention of the Chinese captain indicated increased assertiveness from Japanese officials, who have typically responded to boating issues in the disputed waters with milder penalties, if any. This time, Japan said it had the right to apply its own laws to the captain, who was held on charges of obstructing official duties. Japan also warned against "extreme nationalism" on either side.
As a sign that some leaders may be looking to rein in strident anti-Japanese sentiments, the People's Daily, an official organ of China's Communist Party, ran a profile Friday quoting a top Chinese foreign policy official as urging calm and criticizing talk of anti-Japanese boycotts.
In the interview, which also touched on other topics unrelated to Japan, Wu Jianmin, the former president of China Foreign Affairs University and a former ambassador, pleaded for a "rational" type of patriotism. Wu noted that sour China-Japan relations strain economies on both sides; 96 percent of Sony products are made in China.
"I don't think the freeing of the Chinese captain will be a turning point for the Sino-Japanese relationship. It will take some time to heal," said Feng Zhaokui, a researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the official think tank of the Chinese government. "The Chinese government always wants to conduct a steady and soft policy toward Japan. But it's not old days now. With the growing power of China, the Chinese government won't take the [aggression] of Japan. The Chinese government will have a tough policy as a response."
With Zhan soon to return to China aboard a chartered plane, attention could shift to the four Japanese being held for investigation at a military base in the city of Shijiazhuang.
The four Japanese, employees of Fujita, a Tokyo construction company, were accused of videotaping military installations. Although Japan's Foreign Ministry has received confirmation from Beijing about the incident, officials in Tokyo remain uncertain whether the Fujita employees have been formally arrested.
A Fujita spokesman said that the company lost contact with the four men after receiving a text message Tuesday, reading, simply, "Help."
Wan reported from Ya'an, China. Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.