A Chinese court has seized a Japanese cargo ship over legal claims related to the second world war as escalating tensions between the two countries spill into the realm of commerce.
Japan was quick to denounce the confiscation of the vessel, warning it could have a “chilling effect on all Japanese companies doing business in China”. It is the first time a Chinese court has ordered the seizure of Japanese assets in relation to second world war.
“We are deeply apprehensive, and strongly hope that China will respond appropriately,” said Yoshihide Suga, the country’s top government spokesman.
The incident underlines strained relations between China and Japan, who have recently sparred over a string of disputed islands that some analysts say is the most dangerous faultline in Asia. Extensive economic ties between the two countries have so far served to stabilise the relationship.
It comes on the eve Barack Obama’s much-trailed visit to Asia, which is intended to reassure allies the US remains committed to the region in the face of China’s rising influence. The US President arrives in Tokyo on Wednesday, where he will be pressed for support over what Japan sees as coercive attempts by China to upset the postwar order in the region.
The Shanghai Maritime Court seized the Baosteel Emotion at a port near Shanghai at the weekend, it said on its website. The ship belongs to Japanese conglomerate Mitsui OSK Lines and had been ferrying Australian iron ore to China’s flagship steel mill Baosteel.
The dispute stems from two ships leased to a Japanese shipping line by Chung Wei Steamship, which were commandeered by the Japanese navy in 1937 as it prepared to invade China. One ship was wrecked carrying coal in a typhoon off Japan in 1938 while the Shun Feng was sunk by a torpedo off the Chinese coast in 1944. Through a series of takeovers, Mitsui OSK is heir to the shipping lines that operated the ships after they were requisitioned by the Japanese navy.
Japan has consistently argued that the peace treaties it signed after the war exempt it from having to pay compensation to individuals or companies in former enemy countries. But China and South Korea, which nurse the strongest resentment over Japan’s often brutal imperial expansion, counter that the agreements only cover government-to-government reparations, leaving private groups free to sue for damages.
Still, for many years China discouraged any claims by its citizens against Japan, whether for forced labour, sexual slavery or asset seizures. Former premier Zhou Enlai explicitly rejected the prospect of any Chinese wartime claims, in return for assurances of Japanese development aid and investment. As a result, Chinese activists have had to pursue claims in Japanese courts.
“Overall China is dissatisfied with Japan, so a lot of matters have re-emerged,” said Shen Dingli, an expert in Northeast Asian geopolitics at Fudan University in Shanghai. “In the past they might have discouraged suits like this but now they don’t stand in the way.”
Last year, South Korean courts ruled against Japanese corporations in two landmark cases involving Koreans forced into labour for the Japanese war effort.
Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, called the case “a common commercial contract dispute”. He told reporters on Monday that the Chinese government continues to uphold the principles laid out in 1972, when the two countries normalised relations.
The case is a rare victory for the descendants of Chen Shuntong, the owner of Chung Wei Steamship Co, who lost his fortune in the war. Mr Chen, his son, and his grandson all died awaiting compensation for two ships seized by the Japanese navy; his great-grandson David Chen, whose Chinese name Chungwei reflects the family’s history, has rejected settlement offers from the Japanese company.
“We were in negotiations with them about a settlement so we are very surprised about their sudden decision. We cannot accept it,” a Mitsui spokesperson said. “We are checking the details and now studying what next steps we should take.”
The company said in a 2006 filing that the Chung Wei claim was initially launched in 1990 for Y31.3bn ($305m), but rejected on procedural grounds in the mid-1990s. It was reopened in 2003 by Chen Shuntong’s grandsons.
Mitsui noted at the time that this case and another similar claim for Y1.2bn for a ship originally belonging to Dah Loh Industrial Co could “adversely affect the financial condition of Mitsui OSK lines” if awarded in full.
The Shanghai Maritime Court said it awarded Y2.9bn in compensation to the two grandsons in 2010, and that Mitsui’s appeal and request to reopen the case were both rejected by higher courts.
It awarded $9.45m to plaintiffs in the Dah Loh case. The court said that case was settled last year by Mitsui and Dah Loh’s legal representative.
Additional reporting by Owen Guo in Beijing and Geoff Dyer in Washington
上海海事法院在网站上宣布，周末在上海附近的一个港口对“Baosteel Emotion”轮实施扣押。该船属于日本企业集团商船三井(Mitsui OSK Lines)，此前承运澳大利亚铁矿石至中国旗舰钢厂宝钢(Baosteel)。
这起纠纷源于中威轮船公司(Chung Wei Steamship)租给日本一家班轮航运公司、随后于1937年被准备侵华的日本海军征用的两艘船。其中一艘于1938年在日本近海运输煤炭时被台风摧毁，另一艘（“顺丰”轮）1944年在中国近海被一枚鱼雷击沉。经历一系列收购交易后，商船三井成了在日本海军征用后经营这两艘船的航运公司的继承人。
三井当时指出，这起案件，以及另一起类似案件——就原来属于大陆实业股份有限公司(Dah Loh Industrial Co)的一艘船索赔12亿日元，若被判全额赔偿，可能“对商船三井的财务状况产生不利影响”。
Owen Guo北京和杰夫?代尔(Geoff Dyer)华盛顿补充报道