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Japan to Release Chinese Trawler Captain Involved in Boat Collision

Japanese prosecutors say they will release a Chinese trawler captain who has been detained since his boat collided with Japanese patrol vessels in disputed waters. The incident enraged China, which retaliated by canceling meetings with Japanese officials and, traders say, halting shipments of essential exports.

Heavy security was apparent in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing Friday, although there were few signs of the scattered protests that had taken place in recent weeks.

China sends plane

Shortly after Japanese prosecutors said they would free a detained Chinese boat captain, China said it would send a chartered plane to bring him back home.

Japanese authorities detained the captain earlier this month after his fishing boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near islands Tokyo controls and China claims.

China called his detention illegal, and canceled diplomatic meetings and student visits. There were reports this week that Beijing also halted shipments to Japan of rare earth minerals, which are essential for electronics and auto parts.

Conflict avoided

Japanese officials say they decided to free the captain to avoid worsening ties with China.

Tsinghua University international relations professor Liu Jiangyong says he thinks the timing of Japan's decision to release the Chinese captain is good.

Liu says if the Japanese had pursued legal action against the captain, it would have further worsened relations between the two countries, and would have damaged economic opportunities.

China has been Japan's biggest trading partner since 2009.

Dispute over Diaoyu vs Senkaku

The dispute over the islands has long festered between the two nations. The seabed around the uninhabited islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese call the Senkaku, is believed to be rich in natural gas and other resources.

The dispute also underscores the fragility of ties still troubled by disputes over Japan's behavior before and during World War Two.

Therese Leung, an associate fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, says she thinks the Chinese response in this case was excessive.

"The last thing I'd want to do is to not appear mature and reasonable and ready," Leung said. "And I think that their (China's) response to Japan has not been mature and reasonable."

Leung, who has worked for years in the U.S. Congress and for the government in Washington, says the United States has been watching the China-Japan spat closely.

Neighbors watch closely

Southeast Asian countries also have been closely watching developments.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, at the Habibie Center's Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in Jakarta, says she was concerned.

"So, the increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Beijing threatening Japan and so on, I think sends a rather unwelcome news to the rest of the region," said Anwar. "We don't know whether this is a reflection of China's overall assertiveness, its increasing self-confidence, and so on, but it doesn't give China a very good image in the wider Asian region."

Southeast Asian nations also have territorial disputes with China – over the Spratly and Paracel island chains – in the South China Sea. Those uninhabited islands also are believed to lie on top of rich gas deposits.