Tensions between China and Japan threatened to escalate today over Japan's detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain who was arrested near an island whose ownership is in dispute.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued a stern warning today, stating, "If Japan clings to its course, China will take further action....Tokyo bears all responsibility for the situation and it will bear all consequences."
Meanwhile, in Tokyo Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Songoku, appealed for a calm dialogue. "We hope Japan and China will hold high-level talks as soon as possible to ease the diplomatic row," he told a press conference.
But there are now concerns that China is escalating the war of words, hitting Japan where it hurts hardest, its economy. According to a report in the New York Times today, China is is halting shipments of rare-earth minerals to Japan. These vital minerals are used by Japan in high-tech products like hybrid cars and wind turbines. While China has since denied any official trade embargo the mere whiff of a halt in exports is likely to raise fears in Japan that China is moving to target the country's already ailing economy.
Already, one Chinese company, announced it would a cancel a long-prepared trip of some 10,000 staff members to Japan in October in order "to stand on national dignity." The cancellation was expected to bring a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tourism between the two countries has been affected and millions of China's internet users have flooded the internet with angry comments on the issue, many calling for a boycott of Japanese goods.
Meanwhile, China has halted all high-level government contacts between the two countries and suspended talks on aviation and energy exploration. China said that it would be "inappropriate" for the countries' two premiers to meet with each other during the U.N. meetings in New York this week.
The brouhaha began on Sept. 7 when two Japanese coast guard patrol ships collided with a Chinese fishing boat off of the hotly disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese arrested all those on board and confiscated the boat. Last week they released the crew but a court ruled to extend the captain's detention by another 10 days, throwing the Chinese into a fury.
In response to the incident, China's propaganda machine has gone into over-drive. Today China's state run news agency, Xinhua, published an interview with the family of man at the center of the dispute, 41-year-old Zhan Qixiong, the Chinese fishing boat captain. The headline of the interview read, "China Exclusive: Torture, Anger Overshadow Family Reunion Festival for Relatives of Detained Chinese fisherman." Zhan's wife, Chen Tingting said her husband phoned her after he was detained and said he would be home soon because he had done nothing wrong. Chen blames the arrest for the death of her husband's grandmother.
"She had been able to walk two weeks ago but suddenly passed away after hearing her grandson had been detained by the Japanese while catching fish," Chen told Xinhua.
The family is reportedly too miserable to celebrate the holiday week in China, traditionally a time of cakes and festivities. Xinhua reported the family just ate instant noodles for lunch.
Zhan is from a village of 2,500 in Fujian province which depends on fishing for its livelihood. His neighbors there are outraged. "The waters off Diaoyu Islands have been our fishing area generation after generation. Why can't we Chinese fishermen catch fish in our own Chinese territorial sea?" a fellow villager asked Xinhua.
Xinhua reported that Zhan's mother is nearly blind from cataracts and she has been lying in bed crying since his arrest. And his 13-year-old son said, "I miss my dad. I hope the Japanese will give him back to me soon."