By Chico Harlan and William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 25, 2010; A7
SEOUL - Japan released on Saturday a Chinese fishing boat captain whose arrest 17 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.
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 a top trading partner.
But China's Foreign Ministry seemed unwilling Saturday to let the matter drop, demanding an apology and compensation from Japan, Reuters reported.
During the captain's detention on Ishigaki island, a part of Okinawa, the dispute 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.
"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 United States welcomed the move by Japan. "It's how mature states resolve these things, through diplomacy," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Zhan's release came two days after China detained four Japanese citizens in Hebei province, alleging that they had videotaped military targets without authorization.
According to the state-owned New China News Agency, Zhan arrived Saturday in Fuzhou, capital of China's Fujian Province, aboard a chartered flight. Crowds gathered at his home ,in Gangfu village in Fujian, to celebrate his return, New China reported.
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 countries have expressed a desire to drill in the area.
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.
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 crew members did little to ease tensions, and protests continued among Chinese nationalists. On Tuesday, Premier Wen Jiabao threatened further retaliation if the skipper wasn't returned.
The tussle in some ways resembles a 2001 row involving China and the United States. In that episode, a U.S. spy plane collided in mid-air - above the South China Sea - with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese pilot.
Beijing responded by detaining 24 members of the U.S. aircraft's crew, holding them for 11 days and releasing them only after the U.S. ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, sent a letter to China's foreign minister expressing regret for the pilot's death. In the aftermath, analysts in Beijing and Washington suggested that both countries sought to deescalate tensions without losing face.
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.
After Obama joined with Southeast Asian leaders on Friday to discuss regional matters, they released a statement that emphasized "the importance of peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, regional stability, and respect for international law, including in the South China Sea." The statement doesn't refer to China specifically, although it is believed to be aimed at the expanding country.
"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. "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's release, attention could shift to the four Japanese being held for investigation at a military base in the city of Shijiazhuang. The four are employees of Fujita, a Tokyo construction company.
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.
Wan reported from Ya'an, China. Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.