BEIJING/TOKYO (Reuters) - China told Japan on Tuesday to stop interfering with Chinese fishery protection vessels operating in seas claimed by both countries that are at the centre of a deepening diplomatic row between the two.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly complained to China about the presence of two Chinese fishery patrol boats which it says have been in the area near the disputed islands in the East China Seas since Friday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the seas there were traditional fishing grounds.
“China sending fisheries ships to enforce the law is based on the relevant laws and regulations, and they carry out fishery administration activities to protect the fisheries’ ecology and protect the safety of Chinese fishermen’s lives and property,” she told a news briefing.
“We hope that Japan will halt interfering with Chinese fisheries law enforcement vessels.”
Japan’s detention of a Chinese trawler captain, whose fishing boat collided with two Japanese coastguard ships, has sparked renewed tensions between Beijing and Tokyo, highlighting the fragility of relations between Asia’s biggest economies.
Tokyo has struggled to repair worsening ties with Beijing.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said Japanese diplomats might try to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who will both attend the October 4-5 Asia-Europe summit in Brussels, if the environment was right.
But he added: “The ball is in China’s court.”
Japanese ruling party officials had earlier said Kan would skip the meeting due to a parliament session beginning on Friday.
“There’s no question that (this dispute) is not desirable for economic growth and peaceful security conditions in Asia,” Sengoku, the top government spokesman, told a news conference.
“We need to discuss with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and European leaders what kind of a relationship Japan and China will nurture within Asia, how we can enrich our strategically, mutually beneficial ties,” Sengoku added.
Jiang had no comment on whether Wen and Kan would meet in Europe, saying only: “We hope that Japan will take practical steps to repair Sino-Japanese relations.”
A verbal tug of war has continued even after the Chinese trawler captain was released and returned home on the weekend. The collision took place in waters near disputed islands — called the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan — that both sides claim.
The spat has raised concerns about damage to Sino-Japanese trade ties at a time when Japan is becoming increasingly reliant on China’s dynamism for growth.
China became Japan’s biggest trading partner last year.
Concerns have grown that Beijing is holding back shipments of rare earth minerals vital for electronics and auto parts, although China’s Commerce Ministry has denied an export ban.
“China’s de facto ban on rare earth exports to Japan could have substantial impact on the Japanese economy, so we need to restore economic ties between Japan and China as soon as possible,” Economics Minister Banri Kaieda told a separate news conference.
Japan has urged calm, but the government is under fire from domestic media, opposition lawmakers and some in the ruling party for “caving in” to Chinese pressure by releasing the captain after China detained four Japanese citizens on suspicion of violating a law protecting military facilities.
Japan has denied a link between the two matters.
Experts have said the sudden bitter feud between Tokyo and Beijing will likely push Japan to mend ties with close ally Washington and reach out to other countries in the region that are also wary of an increasingly aggressive Beijing.
Sino-Japanese ties have long been plagued by mistrust born of China’s bitter memories of Japan’s past military aggression.
But Tokyo is hardly alone in worrying about China’s growing assertiveness. China claims swathes of the South China Sea, where Taiwan and several of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations also assert sovereignty.
Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka and Kiyoshi Takenaka, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing