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China postpones senior official's visit to Japan amid diplomatic dispute over ship collision

TOKYO (AP) — Japan said Tuesday that China has postponed a senior official's visit to Tokyo in an escalating diplomatic battle over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain after a ship collision near islands claimed by both countries.

The dispute has touched off a war of words between the world's second- and third-largest economies and prompted anti-Japanese activists in China and Taiwan — which also claims the islands — to sail to the area in protest missions.

Li Jianguo, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was scheduled to visit Japan for a five-day trip starting Wednesday at the invitation of the Japanese lower house of parliament.

But Beijing told Tokyo on Monday it wanted to delay Li's visit for "various reasons," said Shu Kajita, an official at Japan's lower house of parliament. Kajita said Chinese officials did not elaborate.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku called China's move "very regrettable."

"In times like these, lawmakers from both countries should be able to talk frankly," Sengoku told reporters.

In Beijing, the government accused Japan of provoking the situation and repeated its demand Tokyo hand over the Chinese captain, who was arrested after his ship and two Japanese patrol boats collided nearly a week ago near a set of disputed East China Sea islands.

"It is imperative that Japan immediately cease the so-called legal procedures and allow the captain to safely return," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular news conference Tuesday.

Japan sought to ease tensions Monday by freeing 14 crew members of the Chinese trawler. But a Japanese court has granted prosecutors permission to keep Zhan Qixiong in custody until Sept. 19 to decide whether to formally indict him on charges of obstructing public duties.

Beijing sees the case against the captain as a provocation against its claim of sovereignty over the disputed islands, called Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkakus in Japanese. Located about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Taiwan, the islands are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by Taiwan and China.

The islets are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are regularly occupied by activists from the countries involved.

Three Taiwanese activists said they were returning to Taiwan on Tuesday after sailing to the disputed islets the day before to promote Taiwan's claim to the area.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry lodged a protest with Japan after Japanese patrol vessels intercepted the Taiwanese ship.

In Taipei, about 80 protesters gathered around the de facto Japanese Embassy on Tuesday, pelting the building with raw fish. Police held the crowd at the bay and there was no violence. Japan switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1972.

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Associated Press writers Debby Wu and Peter Enav in Taipei, and Chi-Chi Zhang and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.