LANZHOU, China (Reuters) - Chinese police on Sunday broke up protests against Japan in the northwestern city of Lanzhou over a territorial dispute that has stoked tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies.
The protest, by about 200 people who were calling for a tougher line by their government against Japan, followed similar demonstrations by thousands of Chinese and Japanese last week that centred around the status of islands claimed by both nations.
In a sign that the two governments are to a certain extent trying to defuse tensions, their foreign ministries exchanged statements encouraging cooperation over the past two days.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu noted a statement by Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that they should strive to improve ties.
“We expect Japan to work with us in joint efforts to maintain and advance the strategic bilateral relationship of mutual benefit,” Ma said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website on Saturday.
Along with a long-standing dispute over a chain of islands in the East China Sea, Japan is also worried that China has started holding back shipments of rare earth metals, vital in the manufacturing for electronic goods and auto parts.
Japanese Trade Minister Akihiro Ohata on Sunday told Jiang Yaoping, a Chinese vice commerce minister in Tokyo for a forum, to stop restricting rare earth exports, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
China has denied cutting shipments to Japan for political reasons, and says it restricts overall production and exports of rare earths to avoid depleting its reserves and causing harm to the environment.
In the demonstration in Lanzhou, the crowd of mainly students gathered in the city’s central square and marched about two kms (1.2 miles), unfurling banners and demanding a boycott of Japanese products, before police in riot gear halted them. There was no violence.
“We want to boycott Japan. Little Japan, return our China, return our Diaoyu islands,” a university student surnamed Li said.
Sino-Japanese relations have been on edge since last month after Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near the disputed islands — called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
A smaller group of about 100 people reassembled for a second protest in Lanzhou after the first was broken up.
Students dragged the Japanese national flag through the mud and stamped on it. A young woman ripped another flag with her teeth to the cheers of onlookers.
Dozens of police soon arrived and dispersed the crowd.
In a separate demonstration in Baoji, Shaanxi province, anti-Japan protesters also turned their anger against the Chinese government, Kyodo reported. It said that marchers carried banners decrying corruption and high housing prices.
Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Writing by Simon Rabinovitch, editing by Miral Fahmy