Japanese prosecutors said they will release the captain of a Chinese fishing boat whose 17-day detention sent relations between Asia’s two biggest economies to their worst level in five years.
The announcement may defuse tensions that rose with the arrest after the boat collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels on Sept. 7 near uninhabited islets claimed by both countries. China cut off ministerial talks, and Premier Wen Jiabao this week called on Japan to “immediately and unconditionally” release him or face further retaliation.
At the same time, questions over the timing may open Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government to criticism that it backed down under Chinese pressure. Japan’s call earlier this week for “high level” talks to resolve the dispute was rejected.
“The decision invites questions as to whether the authorities were deliberately ambiguous,” said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Keio University. “This will prompt criticism.”
Japan’s top government spokesman sought to dispel any suggestion the national government was involved in the decision to release the captain, who was being held in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.
‘We Accept That’
“It was the decision of the Okinawa prosecutors and we accept that,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said in Tokyo. “It’s an undeniable fact that there were signs that Japan-China ties may have deteriorated.”
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that a plane will be sent to pick up the captain, and reiterated that Japan’s proceedings were illegal and invalid.
The Chinese boat “was simply trying to escape the Coast Guard vessels; the collision wasn’t intentional,” Deputy Public Prosecutor Toru Suzuki said in a press conference from Naha, the prefectural capital. “Taking into account the impact on our citizens and Japan-China relations, our judgment was that it would have been excessive to prolong the investigation and his detention.”
The islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, are in the East China Sea near natural gas fields. The two countries signed an agreement in 2008 that has yet to be implemented to jointly develop the fields.
Today’s announcement came hours after Japan’s government said four of its citizens are being held in China for allegedly videotaping military targets. The four are employees of Fujita Corp., and were in Hebei, China on company business unrelated to military issues, company spokesman Yoshiaki Onodera said.
“We don’t think this has a link to the Senkaku issue raised by China,” Sengoku said at an earlier press conference.
He couldn’t confirm reports that China has cut off exports of rare earths -- materials used in hybrid vehicles and laptop computers -- to Japan. A Chinese government official denied the report yesterday.
Japan is China’s second-biggest trading partner after the U.S., with two-way commerce in the first seven months of the year rising 25 percent from the same period in 2009 to $65.2 billion, Chinese customs data show. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, buying 10.2 trillion yen ($121 billion) of the nation’s goods and services last year.
China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy last quarter. The Japanese nominal gross domestic product for the second quarter totaled $1.288 trillion, less than China’s $1.337 trillion, according to Japanese government statistics.
“It will be negative for Japan, China and the global economy if ties between the countries with the No. 2 and No. 3 GDPs deteriorate,” Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. “It’s desirable for both nations to address this calmly.”
Sengoku two days ago proposed “high level” talks between the two countries to ease the conflict. China rejected the suggestion, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu saying that “playing tricks to deceive the world and international public opinion is not a way out.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Japan and China to resolve the issue through dialogue, as American officials declined to step into a broader territorial dispute.
The U.S. encourages “both sides to work aggressively to resolve” their differences “as quickly as possible,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said yesterday in New York, where Clinton met with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual meeting. “We don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus,” Crowley said.
U.S. President Barack Obama met separately with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Wen yesterday. He didn’t raise the dispute in his meeting with the Chinese premier, said Jeff Bader, Obama’s director of Asian affairs.
The diplomatic row is the most serious since 2005, when thousands of Chinese protested Japanese textbooks that downplayed the nation’s wartime atrocities. The captain’s detention sparked a Sept. 18 protest outside Japan’s embassy in Beijing that was more tightly controlled by police than those five years ago, when demonstrators threw rocks at the consulate in Shanghai.
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