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After two weeks of escalating tension between Japan and China, Japanese prosecutors have decided to release the Chinese captain of a fishing boat involved in a collision near disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Zhan Qixiong was arrested on Sept. 8
Japan responded to China's increasingly loud threats to react with "further action" by freeing the 41-year-old Zhan Qixiong, whom the Japanese had accused of deliberately ramming two Japanese coastguard vessels.
The impact on the Japanese people and the relationship between Japan and China was cited as the main reason for the release.
One of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, claimed by China and Japan
The prosecutors said that the captain had not committed a "premeditated criminal act but had acted on the spur of the moment".
Tense diplomatic row
However, this supposedly spontaneous act took place in disputed territory and sparked a diplomatic row of a scale not seen for a long time.
Japan calls the chain of islands near the scene of the collision Senkaku, whereas China calls it Diaoyu. The two countries claim the islets and the oil-rich surrounding area.
On Friday, the conservative opposition lashed out at the prosecutors' decision, saying that they had caved in to Chinese pressure unnecessarily.
The dispute led to anti-Japan protests in Beijing and Hong Kong
Indeed, earlier this week, Seiji Maehara, the new Japanese foreign minister, had made it crystal clear what Japan’s position was: "The Senkaku Islands are an integral part of Japan and there is no territorial conflict regarding these islands. The Japanese government will continue to be calm about the situation and will act according to Japanese law."
As the dispute escalated, however, the two countries came under international pressure to resolve it through dialogue.
China warns prosecutors not to take legal action
After hearing the captain would be released, Beijing once again repeated that any legal action taken against the captain would be "illegal and invalid".
Liu Jiangyong, an expert in international relations at Qinghua University, accused Tokyo of incompetence: "Ever since coming to power, the Democratic Party of Japan has been pro-American in foreign policy, and in controversial issues such as international law, bilateral problems between the two nations, and how they should be solved, they have no experience and they don’t know the rules and proceedings of international politics."
Despite loud accusations and threats, in the end, some analysts predicted, the dispute would not come to much, considering the growing importance of Sino-Japanese trade.
The crew of the fishing boat was released on 13. Sept. but the captain was detained for longer
Economic necessities outweigh spats
China is now Japan’s biggest trading partner. Christian Geltinger, who knows both countries well having spent years in Qingdao representing the German state of Bavaria and now being based in Tokyo had a "easy-going attitude."
"There will always be this kind of spat," he said. "But the economic necessity to work together is stronger. Japan has considerably relaxed the entry requirements for Chinese travellers and there is a keen desire to exploit the Chinese tourist potential in Japan. People already speak good Chinese in the stores here and Chinese credit cards are accepted. The real exchange between China and Japan has made great progress."
This is a view confirmed by Hiroshi Tsukamoto, the Commissioner General of the Japanese Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai:
"We think China is a country of great opportunity. And Shanghai Expo is a very good occasion from a business point of view."
Some 20,000 Chinese visitors a day pop into the Japanese pavilion, where they can see what the future bodes by playing with robots or checking out the latest high-tech gadgets.
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein