3 Japanese released by China as simmering row over disputed islands begins winding down

By Christopher Bodeen, AP
Thursday, September 30, 2010

3 Japanese freed by China as dispute winds down

BEIJING — China on Thursday released three Japanese detained after allegedly entering a restricted Chinese military zone, as tensions over a maritime dispute began to unwind.

The three were freed after admitting to violating Chinese law but a fourth, identified as Sadamu Takahashi, remained under house arrest and was being investigated for illegally videotaping military targets, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the government would work to win Takahashi’s release “as soon as possible.”

The four were detained outside the northern city of Shijiazhuang on Sept. 21 amid a bitter territorial row between the countries triggered by a Sept. 7 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese patrol boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Japan released the fishing boat captain over the weekend and said China needs to resolve the case of the four as the first step toward repairing ties.

China’s Foreign Ministry has denied any link between the detentions and the islands incident.

The arrests have been widely interpreted as part of a series of retaliatory moves aimed at pressuring Japan into acceding to Beijing’s demands over the islands issue.

Beijing had suspended provincial and ministerial-level contacts with Japan, along with talks on mutual development of gas-and-oil deposits in the East China Sea. China also reportedly suspended exports of rare earth minerals crucial to Japan’s high-tech sector and stepped-up customs inspections, slowing trade between Japan and its biggest export market.

Speaking to lawmakers, Kan called China’s response to the incident “extremely problematic,” and reasserted Japan’s claims to the disputed islands, known as Diaoyutai or Diaoyudao in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.

Japan “needs to make clear its stance that the Senkaku Islands are an integral part of Japanese territory,” Kan said at a parliamentary session convened specifically to discuss the collision case.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hidenobu Sobashima said Tokyo was seeking more information from China about the latest developments and said both sides should exercise restraint.

“We will address this issue calmly and we hope that the Chinese side would also address this issue with calm,” Sobashima said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu offered no additional details, saying only that the case remained under investigation.

“The relevant authorities will handle it according to the law,” Jiang told a regular news conference.

The four detained are employees of Fujita Corp., a Tokyo-based construction and urban redevelopment company, which has said the men were in China working to prepare a bid for a project to dispose of chemical weapons abandoned in China by the Japanese military at the end of World War II.

The company has identified the other three as Yoshiro Sasaki, 44, Hiroshi Hashimoto, 39, and Junichi Iguchi, 59.

The latest confrontation plunged relations between the sides to their lowest level since the 2001-2006 term of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose repeated visits to a war shrine in Japan enraged China and sparked a wave of violent anti-Japanese protests across the country.

The spat — and China’s unusually strong response — also raised questions about cooperation between the Asian powers at international meetings. Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao essentially ignored each other at a recent gathering at the United Nations and have no plans to meet at a major Asia-Europe forum in Belgium this weekend.

Despite that, both sides now appeared to be moving to contain the fallout, with China’s communist leaders not wishing to further stoke public anger that risks morphing into a genuine protest movement, said David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“China never really wanted to see it get out of hand. It doesn’t like to see foreign policy go to the street,” he said.

Beijing is also seen as not wishing to poison relations with Kan’s new government, which took office less than four months ago, or strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Tokyo who cast China as a looming threat to their island nation.

“Neither of the governments would like to see the situation spin out of control so they handled the incident with restraint, but their fundamental stances will not change,” said Liang Yunxiang of Peking University’s School of International Studies.

Associated Press writer Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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