By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:54 AM
TOKYO - Japan's Coast Guard said Thursday that it had arrested the captain of a South Korean fishing vessel after a brief standoff in disputed waters that Japan considers its own.
The arrest came after the fishing boat refused an order to stop for inspection Thursday afternoon. According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Japan and South Korea will conduct a joint investigation to determine whether the incident occurred in Japan's exclusive economic zone.
Though officials in both countries played down the seriousness of the standoff, the incident highlights a sensitive, long-running territorial dispute between the East Asian neighbors and two of the United State's closest allies. The incident also comes at a time when Seoul and Tokyo are attempting to tighten their military alliance, part of a trilateral response with the United States to combat concerns over China's military buildup and North Korea's belligerence.
The incident took place roughly 40 miles southeast from disputed islets in the Sea of Japan, where for decades Japan and South Korea have quarreled over tiny specs of land. South Korea has operational control of the islets - known in Korea as Dokdo; known in Japan as Takeshima - but Japan also claims the territory. In 2006, when Japan attempted to survey the nearby waters, South Korea dispatched 20 patrol ships and put its maritime forces on high alert, threatening the use of force.
In recent months Tokyo has frayed relations with two of its neighbors over territorial disputes. When a Chinese fishing trawler in September collided with two Japanese patrol boats, Japan's arrest of the Chinese captain incited a diplomatic row that brought Sino-Japanese relations to their lowest point in years. Tokyo also was highly critical of a Nov. 1 visit to disputed islands by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.