- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 22, 2010

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in his first comments in a growing fight over disputed islands, threatened action against Japan if it does not release a detained ship captain immediately.

Mr. Wen’s remarks Tuesday night in New York were the first by a top Chinese leader on the issue, which has led Beijing to suspend ministerial-level contacts with Tokyo. China also has said Mr. Wen will not meet with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during U.N. meetings in New York this week.

Mr. Wen laid the blame for the dispute entirely at Japan’s door.

Tokyo “bears full responsibility for the situation, and it will bear all consequences,” he told a gathering of overseas Chinese, according to China’s Foreign Ministry website. The report did not elaborate on what actions China might take.

Chinese-Japanese relations are at their worst in several years after Japan arrested the Chinese captain of a fishing boat that collided two weeks ago with Japanese coast guard vessels near islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both nations. Japan extended his detention Sunday, and China responded by suspending contacts.

The dispute over the islands, known as Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu or Diaoyutai in Chinese, comes as an increasingly confident China — its economy booming and military expanding — asserts its presence in the region.

A Japanese government spokesman made a conciliatory gesture Wednesday morning, but it was not clear if he was aware of Mr. Wen’s comments at the time.

“If possible, it would be good to quickly hold high-level talks, including broad, strategic discussions,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told reporters, saying that the countries should continue to strengthen their ties despite the dispute.

The telephone at China’s Foreign Ministry rang unanswered Wednesday, a national holiday in China.

On Tuesday, ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu explained that Mr. Wen would not be meeting Japan’s Mr. Kan in New York because “the atmosphere is obviously not suitable for such a meeting.”

Anti-Japanese protests already have flared in numerous locations around China, and the dispute has spilled into cultural ties. Beijing abruptly canceled invitations to 1,000 Japanese youth to visit the Shanghai Expo, and the Japanese pop group SMAP has called off a concert in Shanghai.

Also, 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 have been thwarted by official pressure.

Seven activists from China’s special administrative region of Hong Kong set sail for the islands Wednesday in a fishing boat but later were intercepted by two marine police vessels. Officers boarded the fishing boat but didn’t immediately make any arrests, activist David Ko said.

Calls to Hong Kong’s Marine Department seeking comment late Wednesday went unanswered. The department earlier warned it might stop the boat on the grounds that it was making a nonfishing trip.

The growing dispute faces a test on Sept. 29, the deadline by which Japanese prosecutors must decide whether to charge the Chinese captain. Fourteen crew members and the boat have been returned.

Associated Press writers Jay Alabaster in Tokyo, Min Lee in Hong Kong, and Christopher Bodeen and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

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