Japan says China has not officially told it of decision to break ministerial-level contacts

By Gillian Wong, AP
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Japan: China hasn’t informed of break in contacts

BEIJING — Japan said Monday it was not officially informed of China’s decision to break off high-level government contacts over the extended detention of a fishing boat captain arrested after a ship collision near disputed islands.

The rare move pushed already tense relations to a new low, and showed China’s willingness to play hardball with its Asian rival on issues of territorial integrity.

The decision late Sunday came a day after anti-Japanese protests were held across China on the anniversary of the start of a Japanese invasion of China in 1931 that has historically cast a shadow over ties between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.

The latest spat between Tokyo and Beijing was sparked when the Chinese vessel collided with two Japanese coast guard ships on Sept. 7 near islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries. The 14 Chinese crew were released last week, but the captain’s detention for further questioning — pending a decision about whether to press charges — has inflamed ever-present anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

In Tokyo, a Japanese spokesman said Beijing has not officially informed Tokyo of its decision, adding Japan was assessing the situation.

Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, told The Associated Press if China did make such a decision, “it is truly regrettable.”

“We call for calm and prudent action by China in order not to further escalate the situation,” Shikata said.

The investigation into the Chinese captain’s case is based on Japan’s domestic law and is “not based on any political intent,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Japan’s refusal to release the boat captain had caused “severe damage” to relations.

A ministry statement said Beijing had suspended ministerial and provincial-level contacts, halted talks on aviation issues and postponed a meeting to discuss coal.

“If Japan acts willfully, making mistake after mistake, China will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Japanese side,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a separate statement.

The move raises questions about cooperation between China and Japan at international forums such as this week’s summit in New York on United Nations goals to fight poverty, which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Kan are attending.

The dispute also comes ahead of a planned visit to Japan by China’s President Hu Jintao to attend the annual summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders to be held in Yokohama in November. Leaders of the two countries were also due to attend a G-20 summit in Seoul the same month.

The diplomatic fight with Japan comes as Beijing aggressively pushes its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also have staked claims on all or some of the territory, which straddles vital shipping lanes, important fishing grounds, and rich oil and natural gas reserves.

This is the lowest bilateral relations have fallen to since the 2001-2006 term of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose repeated visits to a war shrine in Japan during his tenure angered China. The two countries halted ministerial-level defense talks for three years from 2003.

China’s decision to cut high-level contacts appears to reflect a worry about losing face in front of the Chinese public, which might trigger a nationalistic backlash against the government if it appears weak or unable to protect the country’s sovereignty.

Beijing made the announcements shortly after a Japanese court approved a 10-day extension of captain Zhan Qixiong’s detention.

Japan’s new foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, has said the islands — called Senkaku by Japan and known as Diaoyu or Diaoyutai in Chinese — are an “integral part of Japanese territory.”

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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