China boat captain could stand trial for collision
The captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese patrol vessels near disputed islands could stand trial in the latest territorial spat between the neighbors, officials said Thursday.
That likelihood increased as the Japanese coast guard handed over 41-year-old captain Zhan Qixiong to prosecutors for further investigation to decide whether to officially charge him in the case, Japan Coast Guard spokesman Masahiro Ichijo said.
The captain has been in custody since his arrest Wednesday, after his ship collided with two Japanese patrol boats near a disputed chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. No one was injured, and the two Japanese vessels sustained minor damage.
Beijing reacted with swift criticism. Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa has been summoned twice to see Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue, who demanded that the Chinese vessel be released immediately. The crew, who do not have passports, are waiting on the boat.
The collisions happened in Japanese territorial waters off the northwestern coast of Japan's Kuba island, just north of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The islands, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Taiwan, are controlled by Japan but are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
The captain could be released in a couple of days if he acknowledges the allegation of obstructing public duties resulting in the collision and pays a fine, Ichijo said. If not, he would likely have to stand trial.
Officials also were questioning the ship's remaining 14 crew members, who are free to return to China, if the Chinese send a vessel to pick them up, the coast guard said.
The Chinese government has reiterated its claim to the Diaoyu, as well as its adjacent islets and their waters, urging Japan not to patrol there.
But Japanese Foreign Press Secretary Satoru Sato told reporters Wednesday that Japan's territorial ownership of the Senkaku is "the undeniable fact" and that the collision case should be investigated properly under Japan's criminal law.
In Beijing, there was a small, organized protest Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy. About 30 people gathered to shout slogans and wave flags. Such events usually happen only with the approval of local police or officials.
China's official media warned Thursday of setbacks to relations if Japan does not release Zhan.
"A wave of indignation is also brewing in Chinese society, which might snowball in a major public outcry if the Japanese authorities continue to take a hardline stance on the incident," the English-language China Daily said in an editorial. "Each time it chooses to provoke China over the Diaoyu Islands issue, it puts bilateral relations at risk."
Territorial disputes have been a disruptive undercurrent in Japan-China relations. As the robust Chinese economy's demand for resources grows, China's commercial ships are venturing farther from shore and its more powerful navy is enforcing claims in disputed waters.
Last month, a Chinese survey ship allegedly entered Japan's disputed exclusive economic zone without prior notification, breaking a previous agreement between the two countries. In April, a Chinese helicopter came within 300 feet (90 meters) of a Japanese military monitoring vessel in the vicinity of a Chinese naval exercise.
The latest incident occurred during a seasonal surge of Chinese fishing boats in the disputed area in recent weeks.
Since mid-August, the coast guard spotted as many as 270 Chinese fishing boats near the disputed islands per day, with 70 of them entering Japanese waters, Ichijo said, adding that it's generally a seasonal tread due to increase of fish in the area.
The collisions occurred after the Chinese ship refused to stop for an inspection by the patrol vessels after repeatedly ignoring their earlier warnings to leave the area, the coast guard said.