Japan to free China boat captain for sake of ties
Japan was to release a Chinese trawler captain yesterday at the heart of a fierce territorial row with China that has threatened ties between Asia's two biggest and increasingly interdependent economies.
A prosecutor from Naha city on Japan's southern Okinawa island said the decision to release the captain, whose trawler collided this month with two Japanese patrol boats in waters near islands both sides claim, reflected consideration for Sino-Japanese ties.
Japanese prosecutors have not said when the captain will be released, but China said it was sending a chartered plane yesterday to take him home.
"It is a fact that there was the possibility that Japan-China relations might worsen or that there were signs of that happening," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told a news conference. "Our ties are important and both sides must work to enhance our strategic and mutually beneficial relations."
The expected release follows the detention of four Japanese nationals who were being investigated on suspicion of violating Chinese law regarding the protection of military facilities, although Sengoku denied a link between the two matters.
Emotions have run high over the issue in China, where memories of Japan's invasion and occupation of parts of the country from 1931 to 1945 still fuel public anger. About 100 protesters in several Chinese cities on Saturday demanded Japan free the captain.
The disputed islets are known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
"The Chinese government will welcome this," said Liu Jiangyong, an expert on Japan at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "I think this will be a turning point, a symbolic step, that will now ease the tensions that have risen between China and Japan.
"But the basic issue of jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands is a long-term issue that won't be resolved for a long time. That issue will remain and dealing with it will test the wisdom of politicians on both sides."
The roots of the trawler dispute lie in a long-standing disagreement over sovereignty in an area with potentially rich natural gas resources, but the spat has underscored the fragility of the relationship.
China said it was sending a plane to pick up the captain and issued a statement bristling at even the possibility of Japan claiming the right to charge him.
Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda had warned earlier that worsening ties would be bad for both economies.
"A cooling of relations between Japan and China over the Senkaku problem would be bad for Japan's economy, but it would also be a minus for China," he told a news conference. "It's desirable that both sides respond in a calm manner."
Japan's sluggish economy has become increasingly reliant on China's dynamism for growth. China has been Japan's biggest trading partner since 2009 and bilateral trade reached 12.6 trillion yen ($147 billion) in the January-June period, a jump of 34.5 percent over the same time last year, Japanese data shows.