China rejects fence-mending meeting with Japan

BEIJING, September 21, 2010 (AFP) - China on Tuesday ruled out prospects for fence-mending talks between its premier and Japan's leader this week in New York as the worst diplomatic crisis in years between the Asian powers deepened.

Japan urged all players in the dispute -- sparked by the arrest of a Chinese boat captain whose trawler collided with two Japanese vessels in disputed waters -- to avoid resorting to "extreme nationalism".

China has denounced the captain's arrest and repeatedly demanded his unconditional release, summoned Tokyo's ambassador no fewer than six times, and called off several official visits and planned negotiations.

On the cultural front, China has now cancelled an invitation to about 1,000 Japanese youths to the World Expo in Shanghai, and ticket sales have abruptly stopped for two concerts at the Expo next month by Japanese pop band SMAP.

"Obviously the atmosphere is not suitable for such a meeting," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters, when asked if Premier Wen Jiabao and Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan could meet at the UN this week.

"The issue has severely hurt bilateral relations. In order to prevent a further deterioration of the situation, the key is that Japan should let the captain return immediately and unconditionally," Jiang said.

"Japan should understand the situation clearly."

In Tokyo, top government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku emphasised the importance of keeping nationalist sentiment at bay, after small groups of anti-Japanese demonstrators protested in three Chinese cities at the weekend.

"What is more important than anything is that government officials in charge should be careful not to arouse narrow-minded, extreme nationalism in Japan, China and other countries," Sengoku, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, said.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, he stressed that a healthy relationship between China and Japan was indispensable for Asia's growth.

"We want to use all possible channels not to escalate the issue and to solve it for the sake of development in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region," Sengoku told a regular news conference.

In a similar vein, Japan's Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said: "We must not escalate this emotionally. We should stay cool-headed, not let this issue influence economic relations."

The flare-up started with the September 7 collisions of a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coastguard vessels near a disputed island chain that lies in rich fishing grounds and near possible oil and gas fields.

Japan arrested the captain, Zhan Qixiong, 41, early the next day, citing its domestic law. On Sunday a court extended his detention until September 29, when he must be either indicted or released.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on Sunday described the collisions as "gu-hatsuteki", a Japanese word which can be translated as incidental or unforeseen -- softer language than had been used before.

China has slammed the arrest as "illegal", and the dispute has highlighted broader tensions over the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, as a newly assertive Beijing flexes its diplomatic muscles.

Wen and Kan are due to meet separately with US President Barack Obama, whose government has called on China and Japan to resolve the issue through dialogue.

US Vice President Joe Biden on Monday sent a warm message to long-time ally Japan, stressing that Washington's ties with Tokyo were at the centre of US foreign policy in Asia.

"There is an emerging relationship that we have to get right between the United States and China... frankly, I don't know how that relationship can be made right other than going through Tokyo," Biden said.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said the flare-up was "unfortunate" in light of efforts by China and Japan to repair relations in recent years.

"Good relations between China and Japan are in our interest. It's in the interest of everybody else in the region," he said.