Throughout the ups and downs of relations between China and Japan, their governments have separated business from politics. A Shanghai court's seizure of a Japanese iron ore carrier to enforce a verdict over a claimed pre-war debt threatens arrangements. The increasing lack of regard by both sides for agreements shows how low ties have sunk. Only dialogue will save trade and investment links.
No Chinese court previously had ordered the seizure of Japanese assets in relation to the country's invasion and war-time aggression. The confiscated ship was owned by the conglomerate Mitsui OSK Lines, which had ignored a 2007 court ruling to pay compensation over two Chinese ships leased in 1936 by a predecessor of the firm. Both were later taken by the Japanese military and sunk during the war. The Mitsui carrier was freed on Thursday after the firm paid about US$28.5 million to cover outstanding costs. Beijing portrayed the case as being purely a business dispute, but it is nonetheless likely to embolden activists seeking redress from Japan. Tokyo has consistently argued that treaties it signed after the second world war and in restoring relations with China in 1972 exempt it from having to pay damages. The mainland for decades discouraged citizens from seeking compensation and Japanese courts rejected most claims. But a Beijing court in February accepted a case by Chinese seeking redress for claimed enforced labour by Japanese firms during the war.
Disregard by nationalist Japanese leaders of the resentment felt in the region feeds the desire for retribution. Last week, 150 politicians paid respects to Japan's war dead at the controversial Yasukuni shrine, a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering. Revisionist statements by ultra-conservative lawmakers, school textbooks that whitewash history and government policies that give neighbouring countries that suffered during the war a sense that Japan is returning to those aggressive, militaristic, ways are obvious causes for concern.
Japan denounced the ship's seizure, warning it could have a "chilling effect on all Japanese companies doing business in China". That could well be the case, showing how far the relationship has been allowed to deteriorate. Tokyo's purchase of some of the disputed Diaoyu Islands deepened the crisis in 2012; only by acknowledging its mistake and being open to talks can there be a chance of ties being repaired.