TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese foreign ministry spokesman confirmed Friday that four Japanese nationals had been detained in China on suspicion of violating Chinese law regarding the protection of military facilities, as tensions rise between Asia’s two biggest economies.
The two sides are already locked in an increasingly heated dispute triggered by Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain whose trawler collided earlier this month with a Japanese patrol boat in waters near islands both sides claim.
Analysts say the trawler dispute is largely a row over sovereignty in an area with rich natural gas resources.
The islands are known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkaku islands in Japan.
“We were told the reason for the detention of the four Japanese people is violation of Chinese law relating to protection of military facilities,” said Hidenobu Sobashima, deputy foreign ministry spokesman.
“We will monitor closely the developments. We were told they violated Chinese law and we need to monitory closely what will be the conclusion,” he added.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, commenting on the affair, said it was important for the two countries to foster strategic, mutually beneficial relations -- a nod to the deep economic ties that would be at risk if the row worsens.
China’s Xinhua news agency said on Thursday: “The state security authorities in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, have taken measures against the four people according to law after receiving a report about their illegal activities.” It gave no details.
A spokeswoman for Japan’s Fujita Corp, an unlisted construction company, said that five of its employees were missing in China -- four Japanese nationals and one Chinese national. But they had no firm information on their whereabouts.
She said the employees were in China in connection with a project to dispose of chemical weapons abandoned in China by the Japanese military at the end of World War Two.
This week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao threatened retaliatory steps against Japan unless it released the trawler captain, whom Tokyo accuses of ramming two Japanese coastguard ships.
Thursday, China’s Commerce Ministry denied a New York Times report that China had banned shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan.
Both Chinese and Japanese rare earth traders contacted by Reuters have said they were unaware of any ban, but that quotas for export of the minerals had already been used up, slowing trade.
China has already canceled diplomatic meetings and exchange visits by Japanese students to protest the detention of the fishing boat captain.
Reporting by Linda Sieg, Chisa Fujioka and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Chris Gallagher