Japan released the Chinese fishing boat captain Saturday whose detention after straying into disputed waters had enraged Beijing and sparked the worst diplomatic crisis between the long-contentious neighbors in years.
Zhan Qixiong flew out of Ishigaki airport in southern Japan after mounting pressure and threats from Beijing had stirred fears of serious economic repercussions for the island nation.
The announcement came as mounting pressure and threats from Beijing stirred fears of serious economic repercussions for the island nation.
“Considering the future of Japan-China relations and the possible consequences for the Japanese public, we decided that keeping the suspect in custody and continuing the investigation was not appropriate,” Toru Suzuki, an with from the prosecutors’ office in Naha, Okinawa, told reporters in Japan.
The 15-man fishing crew was seized Sept. 8 after colliding with Japanese coast guard vessels near disputed islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The rest of the crew was soon returned to China.
But Japan has kept the captain in custody, accusing him of illegal fishing and deliberately ramming his craft into the Japanese patrol boats. This week, to the fury of Chinese officials, a Japanese court had decided to extend his detention until Sept. 29.
News of the impending release was greeted in China with a mix of satisfaction and lingering indignation.
“This was an action that gravely violated Chinese sovereignty and the human rights of a Chinese citizen, and the Chinese government strongly protests,” said a Foreign Ministry statement after Qixiong flew home in a chartered plane. “Japan must offer China an apology and compensation over this incident.”
In Japan, officials denied that politicians played a role in the decision.
“The decision was the result of a somber process carried out under Japanese law,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, the government’s top spokesman.
At the heart of the dispute are competing claims on the islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan.
In recent years, an increasingly nationalistic Chinese public has griped that the government has shown weakness by failing to press its claims to the islands.
Like all irritations between the two longtime rivals, anger over the fisherman’s detention was deepened by the lingering bitterness in China at Japan’s invasion and brutal oppression during World War II.
At the United Nations this week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had called upon Japan to “immediately and unconditionally” release the captain, and warned of further repercussions if Tokyo ignored the threat. Beijing already had canceled ministerial level contact with Tokyo and Chinese travel agencies had been told to stop offering trips to Japan.
This week, as anger swelled, China made plain its willingness to take further steps to win the captain’s release.
On Friday, Japan’s trade minister accused China’s trade ministry of instructing exporters of rare minerals used in electronics to halt shipments to Japan. China denied the reports.
Meanwhile, Chinese state security officials told the official New China News Agency that four Japanese citizens were being investigated on suspicion of illegally entering a military zone. The men had traveled to China’s Hebei province this week to research a bid on a project to dispose of abandoned chemical weapons, explained their employer, Tokyo-based Fujita Corp.
Japan’s uncharacteristically hard-line stance in detaining the captain seemed, in part, an effort to demonstrate that it was willing to stand up to China.
Some observers have suggested that Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, appointed just days ago in a cabinet reshuffle, had pushed for resistance to China’s demands.
“The release of the captain will help both governments contain the damage, but the damage has already been done,” said Jin Canrong, dean of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “The government can see the possible danger in coming years. Japan is in a political drift, and nobody is really taking charge. And we don’t know how to deal with Japan.
A security expert, Maehara has said that China’s increased military presence in the region is a “threat” and that Tokyo should “defend Japan’s sovereignty”, referring to the disputed islands in the East China Sea. This week Maehara appeared to soften slightly, suggesting that Tokyo was open to high-level talks with Beijing.
Special correspondent Kenji Hall in Tokyo contributed to this report.