Japanese prosecutors on Friday decided to release the Chinese fishing boat captain whose detention in disputed waters of the East China Sea had sparked the worst diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing in years.
The release of captain Zhan Qixiong is set to ease short-term frictions between the often- fractious neighbours, but immediately exposed Japanese authorities to accusations that they had buckled in the face of pressure from Beijing.
Chinese leaders had repeatedly demanded the release of Mr Zhan, who was detained after a clash with Japanese coastguard vessels near a contested island group.
While Mr Zhan’s return may be seen as a foreign policy success for Beijing, it could undermine its efforts to be seen as a peaceful and co-operative player in a region where many are already nervous about growing Chinese influence.
To press Tokyo, Beijing had halted high-level contacts, cancelled exchanges involving more than a thousand people and threatened further “countermeasures”.
China’s announcement on Thursday that it was investigating four Japanese citizens for “illegally” filming a military site was also widely interpreted as linked to the dispute.
Japanese prosecutors in the southern island prefecture of Okinawa made clear that the escalating political tensions were a major factor in letting Mr Zhan go.
“Considering the implications for citizens of our nation and future Japan-China relations?... ?it was not appropriate to continue to hold the captain in custody for further investigation,” said Toru Suzuki, a local prosecutor.
Tokyo had previously stressed the importance of following law in dealing with allegations that Mr Zhan had intentionally rammed his boat into coastguard vessels patrolling near the Japan-controlled islands.
Toshimi Watanabe, leader of the small but fast-growing Your party, said the move showed the government would not stand up under foreign pressure. “I’m stunned that this issue was resolved by such a clear diplomatic defeat,” he said.
China reacted coolly to the news. Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman at the Chinese foreign ministry, said a chartered flight would repatriate Mr Zhan and that any “so-called judicial proceedings” against him would be “illegal and invalid”.
Fujita, the Japanese construction group, said four employees had been detained by authorities in Hebei province while preparing to bid on a project to dispose of Japanese chemical weapons left in China at the end of the second world war.
The company said it had not heard from the employees since Tuesday, when one of them sent a mobile phone text message in Chinese to a colleague that read: “Help”.
规模较小、但正迅速壮大的日本党派“大家党”(Your Party)党魁渡边喜美(Yoshimi Watanabe)表示，此举表明政府在外国压力面前直不起腰来。“此事以如此明显的外交退却解决，令我感到震惊，”他表示。