China says Japan handling of fishing boat incident 'absurd'

BEIJING, September  9, 2010 (AFP) - China on Thursday called the seizure by Japan of a Chinese trawler that collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels and the arrest of its captain "absurd", warning it could adversely affect ties.

The foreign ministry in Beijing said a "law enforcement ship" had been deployed to the area of the East China Sea where the collisions took place, near an island chain claimed by both nations, to protect Chinese fishermen.

The uninhabited islands -- known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- lie between Japan's Okinawa island and Taiwan. They are claimed by Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei and are frequently the focus of regional tensions.

"The Japanese side applying domestic law to the Chinese fishing boat operating in this area is absurd, illegal and invalid, and China will never accept it," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

"If improperly handled, (the incident) could have a serious impact on the larger interests of China-Japan relations," she said.

Jiang called for the unconditional release of the crew and the boat, "so as to avoid a further escalation of the issue" and said a "law enforcement" ship had been sent to the area to "protect the safety" of the fishermen in the area.

China has twice summoned Japan's ambassador to demand the release of the boat's captain, who was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of obstructing officers on duty, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment.

The Japan Coast Guard, which arrested 41-year-old captain Zhan Qixiong and took him to the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, transferred him Thursday to prosecutors who were questioning him before deciding whether to indict him.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman also said "investigators today started inspecting the trawler and will soon start questioning the 14 fishermen on the boat," which is docked off Ishigaki island in Okinawa prefecture.

Tokyo suspects the captain deliberately rammed the two Japanese vessels in a tense confrontation near the disputed island chain.

The incident started Tuesday morning when Japan's 1,300-ton patrol ship Yonakuni ordered the fishing trawler to cease operations near the rocky uninhabited islands.

In the ensuing confrontation, the Chinese boat's bow hit the Yonakuni's stern before it sailed off. About 40 minutes later it collided with another Japanese patrol boat, the Mizuki. No one was injured in the collisions.

Four Japanese patrol ships pursued the Chinese vessel, and Japan Coast Guard personnel later boarded it to question the captain over the incident and on suspicion of violating Japan's fisheries law.

The incident came as the number of Chinese vessels fishing near the disputed islands has risen since last month, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.

The daily said some 160 Chinese vessels were fishing near the islands on Tuesday and 30 of them were inside what Japan says are its territorial waters.

The newspaper quoted a local Japanese fisherman as saying: "The Chinese may be coming down south to seek richer fishing grounds."

Jiang, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, reiterated Beijing's "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands.

"The will and the resolve of the Chinese government to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity is firm and resolute," she said.