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Japan Defuses Trawler Row, Moves On To Next China Test

It looks, as this Bystander suggested yesterday, that arms have been discreetly twisted. Japanese prosecutors say that the continuing detention of Zhan Qixiong, a Chinese fishing trawler captain at the center of a row between the two countries, would be “inappropriate considering the impact on relations with China”. Beijing, which has sent a plane to bring Zhan home, had been increasingly strident in its demand that the captain should be released unconditionally, its hard line returning Sino-Japanese relations to the icy state of recent years from which they were just starting to thaw.

The Japanese formulation sidesteps the question of whether charges would be brought or not, and thus the validity of Japan’s legal jurisdiction which is the heart of the issue as the incident took place in disputed waters near unoccupied islets in the East China Sea that Japan administers as the the Senkaku Islands and China claims as the Diaoyu Islands. Tokyo can present itself as not backing down but acting reasonably for a greater good. “Our ties are important and both sides must work to enhance our strategic and mutual beneficial relations,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told Reuters news agency. Whatever. That this minor incident escalated into a major row shows how much work needs to be done.

Meanwhile, both sides have confirmed that four Japanese men have been detained in China on suspicion of illegally filming in a military area in northern Hebei. Japanese foreign ministry officials say the quartet work for a Japanese construction company that is bidding for a contract to dispose of World War II era chemical weapons. Local state security authorities say their investigations are continuing. How Beijing deals with this matter should give an indication how it wants to calibrate its relationship with Tokyo in the immediate future, but we also expect it to continue to test where the boundaries of that relationship lie as it grows as East Asia’s dominant power.

Update: With Zhan back on Chinese soil, Beijing has demanded a formal apology from Japan and compensation for the captain’s detention; Tokyo has declined on both counts.

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