Sunday, September 26, 2010
Japan Retreats With Release of Chinese Boat Captain - NYTimes.com
TOKYO — A diplomatic showdown between Japan and China that began two weeks ago with the arrest of the captain of a Chinese trawler near disputed islands ended Friday when Tokyo accepted Beijing’s demands for his immediate release, a concession that appeared to mark a humiliating retreat in a Pacific test of wills.
Japan freed the captain, Zhan Qixiong, 41, who left Saturday on a chartered flight sent by the Chinese government to take him home. Mr. Zhan had been held by the Japanese authorities since his boat collided with Japanese patrol vessels on Sept. 7 near uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and Japan had insisted that he would be prosecuted.
His release handed a significant victory to Chinese leaders, who have ratcheted up the pressure on Japan with verbal threats and economic sanctions.
“It certainly appears that Japan gave in,” said Hiroshi Nakanishi, a professor of international relations at Kyoto University. “This is going to raise questions about why Japan pushed the issue in the first place, if it couldn’t follow through with meeting China’s challenges.”
The climb down was the latest indicator of the shifting balance of power in Asia. China this year surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy and had already become Japan’s biggest export market. Japan, mired in extended political uncertainty and economic malaise, has had a succession of weak prime ministers who have struggled to assert its interests in a region focused mainly on a resurgent China.
China on Saturday restated its claims to the disputed islands and in a statement demanded an apology and compensation. “Such an act seriously infringed upon China’s territorial sovereignty and violated the human rights of Chinese citizens,” the statement said.
At the outset, Japan had made an uncharacteristic display of political backbone by detaining the captain, when in the past it had simply chased away Chinese vessels that approached too close to the islands, which are claimed by both countries but administered by Japan. Apparently angered by a rising number of incursions by Chinese fishing boats in recent years, Tokyo initially appeared determined to demonstrate to Beijing its control of the islands, analysts and diplomats said.
Instead, the move unleashed a furious diplomatic assault from China. Beijing cut off ministerial-level talks on issues like joint energy development, and curtailed visits to Japan by Chinese tourists. The fact that the detention took place on Sept. 8, the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of northeast China, spurred scattered street protests and calls by nationalistic Chinese bloggers to take a firm stand against Tokyo.
In recent days, China stepped up its intimidation. Chinese customs officials appeared to block crucial exports to Japan of rare earths, which are metals vital to Japan’s auto and electronics industries. Then on Thursday, four Japanese construction company employees were detained in the Chinese province of Hebei.
In the end, diplomats and analysts said Japan was forced to recognize that taking the next step of charging the captain and putting him on trial would result in a serious deterioration of ties with China, Japan’s biggest trading partner.
“At this point, Japan had only one choice,” said a Western diplomat in Beijing, who spoke on the usual diplomatic condition of anonymity. “It had to charge the captain, or it would have to climb down.”