Tokyo, Japan (AFP) Sept 13, 2010
Japan on Monday released the 14 crew of a Chinese fishing trawler seized last week but kept its captain in custody, doing little to soothe Beijing's fury in a bitter row between the Asian rivals.
The diplomatic spat centres on a disputed island chain in the East China Sea, where Japan says the Chinese boat was fishing illegally last week and, when ordered to leave, rammed two Japanese coastguard vessels during a chase.
Since Tokyo arrested the skipper last Wednesday, Beijing has reacted angrily, repeatedly summoning Japan's ambassador, cancelling talks on joint energy exploration and confronting two Japanese survey ships at sea.
On Monday, China -- where the issue has sparked strong patriotic passions -- again demanded that Japan immediately release the vessel's captain, 41-year-old Zhan Qixiong, who it said was being illegally detained.
"All the people of China... condemn the illegal Japanese behaviour in one voice and fully embody the staunch will and determination of the Chinese government and people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
The uninhabited islands where the incident took place -- called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- lie in an area believed to contain rich seafloor energy deposits, and have been a frequent focus of regional tensions.
The latest Beijing-Tokyo flare-up comes at a time when Japan is voicing concern over China's military rise, including its naval reach deeper into the Pacific, and has demanded more transparency in Beijing's defence spending.
The rivalry between Japan, Asia's post-war economic engine room, and the population giant next door is, meanwhile, reaching a turning point, after China just unseated Japan as the world's second-biggest economy.
The arrest of the Chinese skipper has ignited nationalistic passions in China, where a small protest was permitted outside the Japanese embassy last week and both state media and bloggers have condemned the arrest.
In Taiwan, which also claims the islands, anti-Japanese protesters Monday set sail for the rocky outcrops. Only two activists and three crew were on board, and Taiwan's coastguard barred another seven Hong Kong and Macau activists from joining the high-profile journey in another vessel.
In Japan, authorities Monday allowed the Chinese trawler's 14 crew to fly home to the southeastern city of Fuzhou aboard a chartered Chinese government jet. State television showed images of the crew smiling as they disembarked.
"Our safe return is due to the work of Chinese society, including the Party, the government and compatriots from all walks of life," said Wang Guohua, one of the crew members, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
He said the islands are Chinese territory and their detention by the Japanese authorities was illegal. "For generations, we have fished in those waters and so how could they seize us?" he said.
The vessel's captain, Zhan, is being held in Japan on suspicion of obstructing officers on duty, a charge that carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. He has so far not been indicted, the step before a trial.
Japan's top government spokesman, Yoshito Sengoku, said that questioning of the crew had been completed, meaning there was no reason to keep them, and that prosecutors had also finished collecting evidence from the ship.
"We will handle this as a criminal case based on Japanese domestic law," Sengoku told a regular press briefing, reiterating Tokyo's position that there is no territorial dispute over the islands.
Speaking about the latest time Japan's ambassador was called in, in the early hours of Sunday, he said, "It was regrettable that China summoned the ambassador at such hours. But we are handling this issue calmly."
He added that "we are puzzled by China's announcement to call off the talks on joint development of gas fields due to this issue," referring to cancelled talks about jointly developing East China Sea energy deposits.
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