By MARTIN FACKLER and IAN JOHNSON
TOKYO — What started nearly two weeks ago with the Japanese Coast Guard’s arrest of a Chinese trawler captain in disputed waters has snowballed into a heated diplomatic standoff between China and Japan, highlighting anxieties in Asia about China’s rising power and assertiveness.
Japanese Coast Guard officers arrested Zhan Qixiong, a Chinese fishing trawler captain, on Sept. 8 in disputed waters. (Photo: Reuters)
The standoff over the arrest, which took place in waters near uninhabited islands claimed by both countries, escalated Sunday as China announced that it had suspended high-level exchanges with Japan, and threatened additional “strong countermeasures,” after Tokyo said it would extend its detention of the captain.
The captain, Zhan Qixiong, 41, was arrested on Sept. 8 after his fishing boat collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the islands.
The arrest, for obstructing officers on duty, quickly grew from a seemingly minor incident into a highly emotional issue in both countries, where it has become a top news item and has begun to spill over into other aspects of the two nations’ extensive economic and political ties.
Since the arrest, there have been mass cancellations of trips to Japan by Chinese tourists and protests in front of Japanese diplomatic missions and schools in China, as well as tensions over the possibility of drilling for natural gas in contested waters in the East China Sea.
In a statement on Sunday, China’s Foreign Ministry said Japan had “seriously damaged Sino-Japan bilateral relations.” Beijing suspended all relations between provincial and central government officials and their Japanese counterparts, including talks aimed at expanding aviation routes and cooperation on coal.
“We demand the Japanese side immediately release the Chinese captain unconditionally,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu. “If the Japanese side clings obstinately to its course, making mistake upon mistake, then China will take strong countermeasures and Japan will bear all the consequences.”
The situation has also become a test of wills between Japan, the region’s established power and now-fading economic giant, and China, a rising force that feels its time has come to take what it regards as its rightful place in Asia.
For Japan, the episode has fanned growing fears here that an increasingly powerful China will become ever more insistent in pressing territorial claims against its neighbors, and in trying to assert military control of ever-wider swaths of the waters around China. This anxiety has been one reason that Japan’s year-old Democratic Party government, now under the newly re-elected prime minister Naoto Kan, toned down its calls for an East Asian community, and instead has sought to strengthen ties with Washington, its longtime protector.
Concern that Chinese pressure on Japan’s borders will only grow has led to uncharacteristically strident calls in normally passive Japan to stand up to China’s demands. Japanese news media have warned of a broader pattern of China’s pushing its territorial claims, including recent disputes with Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea.
“If China thinks that by taking a strong stance that Japan will just roll over, then it is mistaken,” said an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Japan’s largest daily.
For its part, China tends to see Japan as a proxy for the United States, whose cold-war-era alliances with Japan and other countries in the region now seem aimed at holding it back. Beijing wants to appear firm in defending its territorial claims, which Chinese people overwhelmingly believe are legitimate.
The angry emotions in China also reflect a thinly veiled animosity toward Japan that is rooted in Japan’s brutal military occupation during World War II.
China’s anti-Japan sentiment from the war has surfaced repeatedly despite the deep economic relations that have developed between the two countries. Revisions to Japanese textbooks that played down or ignored Japan’s wartime atrocities in China and other colonized Asian countries have always been a sore point. Relations were aggravated, too, by repeated visits to a Japanese war shrine by Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister, during his 2001-6 term.
Indeed, the current dispute seems to have sent tensions to their highest point since Mr. Koizumi left office. It involves several uninhabited islands — known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China — in the East China Sea off Taiwan. Activists in many Chinese-speaking regions, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, have challenged Japan’s claims to the islands, making it a test for Beijing and Tokyo.
The competing claims have been a source of tension before, most recently five years ago, when anti-Japanese protests erupted in some Chinese cities.
However, in a possible sign of the region’s shifting power balance, China’s demands seem a bit stronger, and Japan’s response a bit more defensive. Since the arrest, the Chinese government has summoned the Japanese ambassador six times to protest, including one time in the early morning that was interpreted in Tokyo as a diplomatic slap in the face.
The most recent call came on Sunday, when the Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassador to make “solemn representations” to him about the detention of the captain, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said.
In addition, Chinese companies have canceled tours to Japan by 10,000 tourists.
Japan has complained about signs that China could begin drilling for natural gas in another contested area of the East China Sea, which would violate an agreement between the two nations to develop the area jointly. “If we can find proof, our country will take appropriate measures,” said Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara.
Besides the captain, the Japanese Coast Guard detained the crew members, though they were later released along with their boat. On Sunday, a Japanese court approved a request by prosecutors to extend the captain’s pretrial detention for 10 days.
China has repeatedly called for the captain’s release, all the while trying to play down nationalist sentiment at home. On Saturday, groups of Chinese commemorated the 79th anniversary of Japan’s invasion of northeast China with small protests in front of Japanese diplomatic missions.
Mr. Maehara said Friday that it was appropriate for the trawler captain’s case to be handled in Japanese courts because the disputed islands are an “integral part of Japanese territory”
“Territorial issues do not exist in this region,” he said.
Chinese analysts said that China’s leaders have concluded that Japan is trying to set an example. “Japan is trying to get China to eat the bitter fruit” of its sovereignty over the islands, said Wang Xiangsui, director of the Center for Security Strategy at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “They want China to accept the fact that they control the islands.”Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, and Ian Johnson from Beijing.