TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan on Saturday released a Chinese trawler captain at the center of a fierce row with China that has threatened ties between Asia’s two biggest economies, officials said.
The captain, Zhan Qixiong, flew out of Ishigaki airport in southern Japan aboard a chartered plane shortly afterward for home, Kyodo news agency said
A prosecutor from Naha city on Japan’s southern Okinawa island said Friday that the decision to release the Chinese captain, whose trawler collided this month with two Japanese patrol boats in waters near islands both sides claim, took into account the importance of Sino-Japanese ties.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the decision to release Zhan was made by authorities after “considering the nature of this incident from all angles” and based on Japanese law.
“China and Japan are important neighbors with important responsibilities in the international community,” he said in New York, where he attended the U.N. General Assembly.
“In order to further grow our mutually beneficial relationship based on strategic interests, I believe it is necessary for Japan and China to handle matters calmly,” Kan told reporters.
The release follows the detention of four Japanese nationals on suspicion of violating Chinese law regarding the protection of military facilities, though Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku has denied a link between the two matters.
The dispute over the Chinese trawler has its roots in a long-standing disagreement over sovereignty in an area with potentially rich resources, and has also underscored the fragility of ties long plagued by disputes over wartime history and regional rivalry.
Both countries claim sovereignty over the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. They are also at odds over China’s exploration for natural gas in the East China Sea.
Beijing is involved in territorial rows with southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.
Kyodo quoted a Japanese national resources and energy agency official late Friday as saying it was highly possible that China had started drilling in a gas field in the disputed waters of the East China Sea. But the report also cited a foreign ministry official as saying there was no confirmation.
The United States welcomed Japan’s decision to release the Chinese captain, saying it had defused a potentially dangerous situation.
“This was a Japanese decision to make and we’re just hopeful that with the release of the ship captain, tensions will recede and the countries in the region will get back to normal business,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
There had been concern that a prolonged dispute could hurt ties between the world’s second and third largest economies, now in the process of swapping places as China overtakes Japan in the No. 2 spot.
Japan’s sluggish economy has become increasingly reliant on China’s dynamism for growth. China became Japan’s biggest trading partner last year and bilateral trade reached 12.6 trillion yen ($148 billion) in the January-June period, a jump of 34.5 percent over the same time last year, Japanese data shows.
Before the captain’s release, China canceled diplomatic meetings and student visits.
There has also been concern that Beijing was holding back shipments of rare earth minerals vital for electronics and auto parts to put added pressure on Japan.
Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo and Andrew Quinn and Paul Eckert in New York; Editing by Paul Simao