BEIJING // China yesterday rejected Japan's call for high-level talks to ease tensions stemming from a ship collision this month near disputed islands that lie close to potential oil and gas fields., Kyodo News reported. Earlier yesterday, Japan's top government spokesman, Yoshito Sengoku, said, Japan proposed high-level talks with China "as soon as possible", over the situation. The disputed islands, which lie north-east of Taiwan and south-east of Okinawa, are referred to as the Diaoyu Islands in China and Senkaku in Japan
In response to the Japanese proposal, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman simply reiterated China's demand that Japan release the skipper of a Chinese fishing vessel involved in the collision "without any conditions". Mr Sengoku said the high-level meetings he had in mind include a possible meeting in New York between the Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan and the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. The two leaders are in New York this week for UN gatherings.
Analysts have said China's stance reflects an increasing regional assertiveness. The Chinese premier urged Japan on Tuesday to "immediately and unconditionally" release the trawler captain Zhan Qixiong, who was detained on September 8. "If Japan clings to its mistake, China will take further actions, and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences that arise," Mr Wen was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying.
This week, Chinese officials revealed that Mr Wen would not be meeting the Japanese prime minister, Mr Kan, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. A Chinese government spokeswoman said "a meeting would clearly be inappropriate". On Tuesday, the Japanese foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, had rejected Chinese claims on the islets, but in a more conciliatory tone, Mr Sengoku, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, said at a news conference yesterday that "it would be good to hold high-level talks, including a comprehensive and strategic dialogue, as quickly as possible".
The dispute has affected an Asia-Pacific ministerial conference in Japan, reports said yesterday. Japan, which in November hosts an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, has invited tourism ministers and officials from the 21-member grouping to the city of Nara. However, Japan's newly appointed minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, Sumio Mabuchi, has declined a meeting with Zhu Shangzhong, the vice chairman of the China National Tourism Administration.
China's delegates at the meeting also said yesterday that they would skip a reception hosted by Mr Mabuchi, Kyodo News reported. Anti-Japanese protests have already flared in numerous locations around China, and the dispute has spilled into cultural ties. Beijing abruptly cancelled invitations to 1,000 Japanese youth to the Shanghai expo and the Japanese pop group SMAP has called off a concert in Shanghai.
Activists from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan have tried to sail private boats to the islands in support of the territorial claims, though most of those plans were thwarted by official pressure. Seven activists from Hong Kong set sail for the islands yesterday in a fishing vessel slightly larger than a private yacht. They were followed by a marine police boat but were not immediately stopped.
Hong Kong's marine department on Tuesday sent a letter to the owner of the fishing boat barring it from venturing beyond Hong Kong waters, the department spokesman, Victor Ma, said. If the order is defied, officials will take "appropriate action", Mr Ma said. The growing dispute faces a test next Wednesday, the deadline for Japanese prosecutors to decide whether to charge the Chinese captain. The 14 crew members and boat have been returned.
Chan Chepo, an assistant professor in the department of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said: "It looks like Japan will back down first". He said the dispute stemmed from an apparent desire by both sides to "test the water to see the response". In the past he said China would tend to never make it a big deal over such disputes, but with its growing naval power, aided by economic growth that has outpaced Japan, it was adopting a more aggressive stance, Mr Chan said.
China's growing naval assertiveness is partly related to ensuring the country's energy security. email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse