BEIJING — China’s growing economic clout, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s diplomatic inexperience and strained Japan-U.S. ties are behind Beijing’s unusually tough response to the arrest of a fishing boat captain near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, according to some foreign policy observers.

China has “more cards in hand than the Japanese, as their economy is largely dependent on China,” Zhou Yongsheng, a professor of Japanese studies at China Foreign Affairs University, was quoted as saying in the Monday issue of the China Daily. “China should take strong countermeasures.”

Beijing has suspended exchanges “at and above” ministerial levels and other bilateral activity after an Okinawa court on Sunday authorized extending the detention of the skipper until Sept. 29 for further investigations into the Sept. 7 incident.

Gao Hong, deputy director at the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted by the paper as saying last week that the “inexperienced government of the Democratic Party of Japan will gradually learn that it is important to maintain a stable and healthy relationship with China.”

Gao expressed optimism that Tokyo would eventually back down. But new Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Sunday that Japan will handle the case solemnly in accordance with domestic law, a sign that the political compromise Beijing seeks from Tokyo is unlikely.

Some foreign policy experts argue that China is playing hardball amid deteriorating Japan-U.S. ties sparked by the dispute over the relocation of the U.S. Futenma air station in Okinawa Prefecture, which forced Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, to step down in June.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said last week he believes China is taking advantage of a “chill” in Japan-U.S. relations, and that Beijing is “testing what they can get away with.”

Armitage told reporters in Tokyo the ship collision incident and the Chinese reaction served as a “warning” to other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei about a territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea, particularly over the resource-rich Spratly Islands.

Japan has urged China to be “cool-headed” in relation to Tokyo’s detention of Chinese skipper Zhan Qixiong, which Beijing calls “illegal.”

Demanding that Japan release Zhan “immediately and unconditionally,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Sunday, “If Japan clings obstinately to its own course and insists on making one mistake after another, China will take strong countermeasures and Japan shall bear all the consequences.”

Ma didn’t say what these tough countermeasures would involve. But observers suspect China may unilaterally start drilling in a disputed gas field in the East China Sea in which the two governments have agreed to let Japanese companies invest.

China’s hardline stance suggests Premier Wen Jiabao will not hold a bilateral meeting with Kan when they attend U.N. meetings this week in New York.

Similarly, Kan is unlikely to visit China, which Chinese leaders requested earlier, at least in the near future.

It has become uncertain whether Japanese and Chinese leaders will hold talks on the sidelines of international conferences later this year, such as the Group of 20 summit in Seoul and the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama, both slated for November.

The fresh retaliatory measures came after Beijing unilaterally suspended scheduled talks on joint gas field development in the East China Sea and postponed a visit to Japan by a delegation of the National People’s Congress.

Zhou, of China Foreign Affairs University, criticized the DPJ for failing to have an “effectual strategy” to support the development of bilateral relations.

Zhan was arrested and sent to prosecutors on suspicion of deliberately causing his vessel to collide with a Japanese patrol boat pursuing it near the Senkaku Islands. He is also suspected of illegally fishing in Japanese territorial waters.

Japan freed the 14 crew members and released the Chinese trawler.

China claims that the islands, administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taiwan, have been Chinese territory since ancient times.

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