BEIJING — Japan’s announcement Friday that it would release a Chinese fishing boat captain whose detention had triggered a diplomatic standoff between the countries is a short-term victory for China, but it could prove costly to Beijing in the long run.
Beijing reacted to the captain’s release with boastful words, but the growing perception of an aggressive China already is costing Beijing regional support and giving the U.S. an opportunity to improve ties with nearby countries that are seeking a counterweight to the Middle Kingdom’s rise.
The prosecutors’ office in Okinawa made the decision public and Japanese officials cast it as a legal decision, but the abrupt turnabout came as Japan’s leaders, who’d been relatively accommodating to China on other issues, faced an onslaught of Chinese pressure.
“Japan saw the increased influence that China has in the world,” said Zhou Yongsheng, who teaches economic and diplomatic strategy at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
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Zhou later added: “The Japanese should not play with fire on matters of Chinese territorial rights.”
The episode came as Chinese companies are expanding their search for new undersea sources of energy and minerals and on the heels of Beijing’s tepid response to North Korea's apparent sinking of a South Korean warship last March.
At a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Hanoi, Vietnam, in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made waves when he charged that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had attacked China when she advocated creating a legal process to resolve territorial disputes among Asian nations in the South China Sea.
“Once again, the Chinese played a strong hand very badly,” former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, an Asia expert, said Friday in a telephone interview.
The latest incident is sure to push Japan into an even closer alliance with the United States, said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.
Japanese worries about China’s growing economic, political and military power were one reason that officials in Tokyo relented earlier this year and allowed an unpopular American military base in Okinawa to remain.
South Korea also has grown closer to Washington since Beijing refused to condemn its allies in Pyongyang for the apparent torpedoing of a South Korean navy ship. Vietnam, another traditional adversary of China, is discussing a nuclear cooperation deal with Washington.
“Reacting the way China did" to Japan's detention of the captain, "which was essentially issuing threats . . . seemed way out of proportion to the problem,” Kingston said in a phone interview.
That sort of behavior, he said, “creates a strong desire among the (region’s) countries, including Japan, to draw closer to the U.S.”
Nevertheless, China showed a willingness to keep pushing until the fishing boat captain, Zhan Qixiong, was released.
Zhan was taken into custody Sept. 8 after his boat crashed into Japanese coast guard ships near a contested island chain in the East China Sea.
Both Japan and China claim ownership of the uninhabited islands — known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese — and the standoff over Zhan quickly spiraled into a high-pitched showdown over questions of regional influence and sovereignty.
“This was not only a question of this captain, it was about China’s rights,” Zhou said.
As Japan continued to hold Zhan, Beijing this week canceled official meetings, shut diplomatic channels and even called off a trip by 1,000 Japanese students to the Shanghai World Expo.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao threatened further measures Tuesday, telling an audience in New York that, “If Japan clings to its mistake, China will take further actions.”
On Thursday, U.S. officials commented that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty covers areas "administered" by Japan.
Also on Thursday, The New York Times reported that China had halted exports to Japan of so-called rare earth minerals that are crucial to building a long list of advanced electronics that range from missiles to hybrid car batteries.
Chinese officials denied the report, and there were conflicting reports about what actually happened, but the specter of China starting a trade war raised concern across the world.
Toru Suzuki, the vice prosecutor in Naha, Okinawa, said at a news conference Friday that the decision to release Zhan was made because “further investigation while keeping the captain in custody would not be appropriate, considering the impact on the people of our country, as well as the Japan-China relations in the future.”
Asked for comment about Japan letting Zhan go, Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, replied: “I think it was a very wise move.”
Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from the United Nations.
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