BEIJING – China broke off high-level government contacts with Japan over the extended detention of a fishing boat captain arrested near disputed islands. The rare move pushed already tense relations to a new low, and showed China's willingness to play hardball with its Asian rival on issues of territorial integrity.
The move late Sunday came a day after anti-Japanese protests were held across China on the anniversary of the start of a Japanese invasion of China in 1931 that has historically cast a shadow over ties between the world's second- and third-largest economies.
The latest spat between Tokyo and Beijing was sparked when the Chinese vessel collided with two Japanese coast guard ships on Sept. 7 near islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries. The 14 Chinese crew were released last week, but the captain's detention for further questioning — pending a decision about whether to press charges — has inflamed ever-present anti-Japanese sentiment in China.
China's Foreign Ministry said Japan's refusal to release the boat captain had caused "severe damage" to relations.
A ministry statement said Beijing had suspended ministerial and provincial-level contacts, halted talks on aviation issues and postponed a meeting to discuss coal.
"If Japan acts willfully, making mistake after mistake, China will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Japanese side," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.
Takeshi Matsunaga, a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, said the reported measures were unilateral.
"We ask China to respond calmly so as not to escalate the problem further," he said.
The move raises questions about cooperation between China and Japan at international forums such as this week's summit in New York on United Nations goals to fight poverty, which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are attending.
It also throws into doubt whether China's President Hu Jintao will attend the annual summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders to be held in Yokohama, Japan, in November. Leaders of the two countries were also due to attend a G-20 summit in Seoul the same month.
This is the lowest bilateral relations have fallen to since the 2001-2006 term of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose repeated visits to a war shrine in Japan during his tenure angered China.
The two countries halted ministerial-level defense talks for three years from 2003. But even in those tense times, Japan's foreign minister visited China in 2004 and met Wen.
China's decision to cut high-level contacts appears to reflect a worry about losing face in front of the Chinese public, which might trigger a nationalistic backlash against the government if it appears weak or unable to protect the country's sovereignty.
Already, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan has plunged because of the dispute, state broadcaster CCTV said. On Friday, a Beijing-based food company announced it would cancel a planned group tour to Japan for 10,000 people to reward employees, their families and business partners.
Beijing made the announcements shortly after a Japanese court approved a 10-day extension of captain Zhan Qixiong's detention.