BEIJING – BEIJING (AP) — China's top foreign policy official increased pressure on Japan on Sunday by summoning its ambassador to again demand the immediate release of Chinese fishermen and their boat detained near disputed islands.
State Councilor Dai Bingguo called in Ambassador Uichiro Niwa early Sunday, China's Foreign Ministry said. It was the fourth time that Niwa has been summoned over the incident, and it was highly unusual for an official of Dai's rank to intercede.
The fishing boat collided with Japanese patrol vessels last week after ignoring warnings to leave the area and refusing to stop for an inspection, Japan's coast guard said.
China has said the confrontation could damage its relations with Japan, underlining the sensitivity of the territorial dispute in the East China Sea, one of several that trouble China's ties with its Asian neighbors.
Beijing is worried about losing face in front of the Chinese public and triggering a nationalistic backlash against the government if it appears unable to protect the country's sovereignty. The spat has stirred passions in China, with newspapers and activists calling for a tough stand against any threats to China's territorial claims.
Tuesday's incident happened off Japan's Kuba island, just north of the disputed islands, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Taiwan. The islands are controlled by Japan but are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Dai urged Japan to find a "wise political resolution" and release the crew and boat immediately, the ministry said in a statement. Niwa replied he would report China's position to Tokyo, it said.
Officials in Tokyo maintain the islands belong to Japan and the collision case should therefore be investigated under its criminal code. Japan's Kyodo News Agency said Niwa reiterated that position Sunday, and urged China to respond to the matter "calmly and carefully."
Also Sunday, Japanese coast guard officials took the fishing boat and its crew out to sea off the southern island of Okinawa to test the boat's capabilities. A Japanese ship closely trailed the fishing boat as it maneuvered in the ocean with coast guard members on board.
Officials also found fish on the boat and were investigating whether they were caught illegally in waters that Japan considers its territory, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
China's Foreign Ministry said it firmly opposed any form of investigation by Japanese authorities into the fishing boat.
"Japan's so-called gathering of evidence is illegal, invalid and futile," ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement. "China urges Japan to stop actions that escalate the situation and immediately and unconditionally release the crew and ship, this is the only way to solve the problem."
A group of about 20 Chinese activists, meanwhile, planned to sail from the eastern coastal city of Xiamen to waters near the disputed islands — known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
They plan to unfurl banners proclaiming Chinese sovereignty over the territory and protest "Japanese aggression," said organizer Li Yiqiang. It was unclear when they would be able to set off.
China announced on Friday that it was postponing talks scheduled earlier with Japan on the East China Sea issue in a sign of its anger. The talks would have been the second meeting over the territorial dispute.
A Japanese court has allowed prosecutors to keep the boat captain in custody until Sept. 19 before deciding whether to press charges. Japanese authorities say the other 14 crew members have remained on the fishing boat and cannot land in Japan because they do not have passports but are free to return home if China sends a vessel to pick them up.
Associated Press writer Jay Alabaster in Tokyo contributed to this report.