Ja­pan re­leases Chi­nese fish­ing boat cap­tain

Of­fi­cials seek to defuse ten­sions with Bei­jing, which was en­raged by the ar­rest and threat­ened ac­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Megan K. Stack re­port­ing from BEI­JING megan.stack@latimes.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Kenji Hall in Tokyo and Times news ser­vices con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Ja­pan on Satur­day re­leased the Chi­nese fish­ing boat cap­tain whose de­ten­tion af­ter stray­ing into dis­puted wa­ters had en­raged Bei­jing and sparked the worst diplo­matic cri­sis be­tween the long-con­tentious neigh­bors in years.

Zhan Qix­iong flew out of Ishi­gaki air­port in south­ern Ja­pan af­ter mount­ing pres­sure and threats from Bei­jing had stirred fears of se­ri­ous eco­nomic reper­cus­sions for the is­land nation.

“Con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture of Ja­pan-China re­la­tions and the pos­si­ble con­se­quences for the Ja­panese pub­lic, we de­cided that keep­ing the sus­pect in cus­tody and con­tin­u­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was not ap­pro­pri­ate,” Toru Suzuki of the Ja­panese pros­e­cu­tors’ of­fice in Naha, Ok­i­nawa, told re­porters.

The 15-man fish­ing crew was seized Sept. 8 af­ter col­lid­ing with Ja­panese coast guard ves­sels near dis­puted is­lands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Ja­pan. The rest of the crew was re­leased last week.

But Ja­pan had kept the cap­tain in cus­tody, ac­cus­ing him of il­le­gal fish­ing and de­lib­er­ately ram­ming his craft into the Ja­panese pa­trol boats. This week, to the fury of Chi­nese of­fi­cials, a Ja­panese court had de­cided to ex­tend his de­ten­tion un­til Wed­nes­day.

News of the re­lease was greeted in China with a mix of sat­is­fac­tion and lin­ger­ing in­dig­na­tion.

“This was an ac­tion that gravely vi­o­lated Chi­nese sovereignty and the hu­man rights of a Chi­nese cit­i­zen, and the Chi­nese govern­ment strongly protests,” said a For­eign Min­istry state­ment af­ter Zhan flew home in a char­tered plane. “Ja­pan must of­fer China an apol­ogy and com­pen­sa­tion over this in­ci­dent.”

In Ja­pan, of­fi­cials de­nied that politi­cians played a role in the de­ci­sion to free the cap­tain. “The de­ci­sion was the re­sult of a somber process car­ried out un­der Ja­panese law,” said Chief Cabi­net Sec­re­tary Yoshito Sen­goku, the govern­ment’s top spokesman.

At the heart of the con­tro­versy are the dis­puted is­lands, which are con­trolled by Ja­pan but claimed by both China and Tai­wan.

In re­cent years, an in­creas­ingly na­tion­al­is­tic Chi­nese pub­lic has com­plained that the govern­ment has shown weak­ness by fail­ing to press its claim to the is­lands.

Like all ir­ri­ta­tions be­tween the two long­time ri­vals, anger over the fish­er­man’s de­ten­tion was deep­ened by the lin­ger­ing bit­ter­ness in China at Ja­pan’s in­va­sion and bru­tal op­pres­sion dur­ing World War II.

At the United Na­tions this week, Chi­nese Premier Wen Ji­abao had called upon Ja­pan to “im­me­di­ately and un­con­di­tion­ally” re­lease the cap­tain, and warned of fur­ther reper­cus­sions if Tokyo ig­nored the threat. Bei­jing al­ready had can­celed min­is­te­rial-level con­tact with Tokyo and Chi­nese travel agen­cies had been told to stop of­fer­ing trips to Ja­pan.

This week, as anger swelled, China made plain its will­ing­ness to take fur­ther steps to win the cap­tain’s re­lease.

On Fri­day, Ja­pan’s trade min­is­ter ac­cused China’s Trade Min­istry of in­struct­ing ex­porters of rare min­er­als used in elec­tron­ics to halt ship­ments to Ja­pan. China de­nied the re­ports.

Mean­while, Chi­nese state se­cu­rity of­fi­cials told the of­fi­cial New China News Agency that four Ja­panese cit­i­zens were be­ing in­ves­ti­gated on sus­pi­cion of il­le­gally en­ter­ing a mil­i­tary zone. The men had trav­eled to China’s He­bei prov­ince this week to re­search a bid on a project to dis­pose of aban­doned chem­i­cal weapons, said their em­ployer, Tokyo-based Fu­jita Corp.

Ja­pan’s un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hard-line stance in de­tain­ing the cap­tain seemed, in part, an ef­fort to demon­strate that it was will­ing to stand up to China.

Some ob­servers have sug­gested that For­eign Min­is­ter Seiji Mae­hara, ap­pointed just days ago in a Cabi­net reshuf­fle, had pushed for re­sis­tance to China’s de­mands.

“The re­lease of the cap­tain will help both gov­ern­ments con­tain the dam­age, but the dam­age has al­ready been done,” said Jin Can­rong, dean of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Ren­min Uni­ver­sity in Bei­jing. “The govern­ment can see the pos­si­ble dan­ger in com­ing years. Ja­pan is in a po­lit­i­cal drift, and no­body is re­ally tak­ing charge. And we don’t know how to deal with Ja­pan.”

A se­cu­rity ex­pert, Mae­hara has said that China’s in­creased mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion is a “threat” and that Tokyo should “de­fend Ja­pan’s sovereignty,” re­fer­ring to the dis­puted is­lands in the East China Sea. Mae­hara ap­peared to soften slightly this week, sug­gest­ing that Tokyo was open to high-level talks with Bei­jing.

SEIZED: The Chi­nese fish­ing boat, cen­ter, moored in Ja­pan’s Ishi­gaki port, was taken af­ter it en­tered dis­puted wa­ters and col­lided with Ja­panese pa­trol boats.

IN JA­PAN: Chi­nese fish­ing cap­tain Zhan Qix­iong is seen af­ter his ar­rest. The rest of his crew was freed ear­lier.

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