BEIJING – BEIJING (AP) — Japan urged China to remain calm and not inflame their diplomatic spat further Monday after Beijing severed high-level contacts over the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain near disputed islands.
China's rare move late Sunday pushed already-tense relations to a new low, and showed Beijing's willingness to play hardball with its Asian rival on issues of territorial integrity, which include sparring with Japan over natural gas fields in the East China Sea.
The severing of high-level government contacts came after anti-Japanese protests were held across China on the anniversary of the start of a Japanese invasion of China in 1931, which has historically cast a shadow over ties between the world's second- and third-largest economies.
The latest dispute was sparked when a Chinese fishing vessel collided with two Japanese coast guard ships on Sept. 7 near islands in the East China Sea — called Senkaku by Japan and known as Diaoyu or Diaoyutai in Chinese and claimed by both countries.
The 14 Chinese crew were released last week, but the captain's detention for further questioning — pending a decision about whether to press charges — has inflamed ever-present anti-Japanese sentiment in China.
In Tokyo, a Japanese spokesman said the government was assessing the situation but it had not yet been officially informed of the severing of ties. Noriyuki Shikata, spokesman for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, told The Associated Press if China did make such a decision, "it is truly regrettable."
"We call for calm and prudent action by China in order not to further escalate the situation," Shikata said.
The investigation into the Chinese captain's case is based on Japan's domestic law and is "not based on any political intent," he said.
China's Foreign Ministry said Japan's refusal to release the boat captain had caused "severe damage" to relations.
A ministry statement said Beijing had suspended ministerial and provincial-level contacts, halted talks on aviation issues and postponed a meeting to discuss coal.
"If Japan acts willfully, making mistake after mistake, China will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Japanese side," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a separate statement.
The move raises questions about cooperation between China and Japan at international forums such as this week's summit in New York on United Nations goals to fight poverty, which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Kan are attending.
Beijing already has postponed a second round of talks with Japan on contested undersea gas deposits in the East China Sea. The countries agreed earlier this year to start negotiations on a treaty to jointly develop the gas resources.
The latest fight also comes ahead of a planned visit to Japan by China's President Hu Jintao to attend the annual summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders to be held in Yokohama in November. Leaders of the two countries were also due to attend a G-20 summit in Seoul the same month.
Beijing also has been aggressively pursuing its claims on territory in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also have staked claims on all or some of the territory, which straddles vital shipping lanes, important fishing grounds, and rich oil and natural gas reserves.
This is the lowest bilateral relations have fallen to since the 2001-2006 term of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose repeated visits to a war shrine in Japan during his tenure angered China. The two countries halted ministerial-level defense talks for three years from 2003.
China's decision to cut high-level contacts appears to reflect a worry about losing face in front of the Chinese public, which might trigger a nationalistic backlash against the government if it appears weak or unable to protect the country's sovereignty.
Beijing made the announcements shortly after a Japanese court approved a 10-day extension of captain Zhan Qixiong's detention.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.