China severs diplomatic contacts with Japan over detention of trawler captain

China yesterday 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.

It came a day after anti-Japanese protests in China on the anniversary of the start of a brutal Japanese invasion in 1931.

The spat started when the Chinese vessel collided with two Japanese coastguard ships on 7 September. The 14 Chinese crew were released last week, but the captain's detention for questioning has inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

The Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said Japan's refusal to release the captain has "already caused serious damage to Sino-Japanese bilateral contacts". It said Beijing has suspended ministerial and provincial-level contacts, halted talks on aviation issues and postponed a meeting to discuss coal.

"If Japan acts wilfully... China will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Japanese side," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. Japan's Foreign Ministry said the reported measures were unilateral. "We ask China to respond calmly so as not to escalate the problem further."