TOKYO — Japan will damage its relations with China if it decides to prosecute the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese patrol vessels near disputed islands, Beijing warned Thursday.
The Chinese government also said it was sending a law enforcement ship to the islands in the East China Sea — though it was unclear if the vessel would simply collect fishermen stranded after the collision or patrol those waters.
Territorial disputes have been a disruptive undercurrent in China’s relations with its Asian neighbors in recent years. As the robust Chinese economy’s demand for resources grows, Beijing’s commercial ships are venturing farther from shore and its more powerful navy is enforcing claims in disputed waters.
The likelihood of a trial increased Thursday as the Japanese coast guard handed over 41-year-old captain Zhan Qixiong to prosecutors for further investigation to decide whether to officially charge him in the case, Japan Coast Guard spokesman Masahiro Ichijo said. No one was injured in the collision, and the two Japanese vessels sustained minor damage.
Beijing has reacted to the arrest with swift criticism, twice summoning the Japanese ambassador in Beijing and demanding the Chinese vessel be released immediately.
"The Japanese side applying domestic law to the Chinese fishing boat operating in this area is absurd, illegal and invalid," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular news conference Thursday.
She said the territorial disputes are highly sensitive and improper handling would seriously affect "larger interests of China-Japan relations."
The collisions happened off the northwestern coast of Japan’s Kuba island, just north of the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The islands, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Taiwan, are controlled by Japan but are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Japan’s coast guard said the captain could be released in a couple of days if he acknowledges the allegation of obstructing public duties resulting in the collision and pays a fine. If not, he would likely have to stand trial.
Officials also were questioning the ship’s remaining 14 crew members, who have remained on the fishing boat, the coast guard said. The crew cannot land in Japan because they do not have passports but are free to return to China, if the Chinese send a vessel to pick them up, it said.
Jiang said Beijing has sent "a fishery law enforcement ship" to the disputed area "to safeguard order in the relevant fishing area and protect the safety of fishermen and their assets." She declined to say whether the ship would collect the fishermen.
China’s state media warned Thursday of setbacks to relations if Japan does not release Zhan.
"A wave of indignation is also brewing in Chinese society, which might snowball in a major public outcry if the Japanese authorities continue to take a hardline stance on the incident," the English-language China Daily said in an editorial.
Japan’s largest newspaper, Yomiuri, defended the captain’s arrest as "legitimate," adding that "China’s territorial claim is clearly unreasonable." It said Beijing began asserting its territorial claims over the islands only after the area became known as rich ground for undersea resources in the 1970s.
This isn’t the first territorial dispute between the countries. Last month, a Chinese survey ship allegedly entered Japan’s disputed exclusive economic zone without prior notification, breaking a previous agreement between the two countries. In April, a Chinese helicopter came within 300 feet (90 meters) of a Japanese military monitoring vessel in the vicinity of a Chinese naval exercise.
The latest crash occurred after the Chinese ship refused to stop for an inspection by the patrol vessels after repeatedly ignoring their earlier warnings to leave the area, the coast guard said.
Associated Press Writer Alexa Olesen contributed to this report from Beijing.