China has withdrawn all its badminton players from this week's Japan Open, citing safety fears as ties between Beijing and Tokyo worsen over a territorial row, officials said on Tuesday.
The withdrawal leaves the Tokyo-based tournament bereft of some of the sport's biggest names and is the latest piece of collateral damage in a dispute that has dominated regional headlines in recent weeks.
"The BWF can confirm the Chinese contingent has withdrawn from the Japan Open," Thomas Lund, the Badminton World Federation's chief operating officer, told AFP. "It is unfortunate but the tournament will go on," he added.
An official of the Table Tennis and Badminton Centre of China's central sporting administration told AFP: "We've quit the Japan Open."
"The decision was to ensure players' safety... so considering the intense China-Japan relations these days, we quit."
The decision was taken last Friday, he added.
A Japanese spokesman for the tournament said China informed the BWF on September 14 that 22 players would not be competing.
Nippon Badminton Association official Shigemitsu Imai said they would be sending a bill to the Chinese.
"China sent us an entry list of 40 players last month," he said. "We had to cancel their rooms and we are going to ask them to pay the expenses."
The Japan Open began on Tuesday and ends on Sunday with the BWF re-drawing the men's singles, women's singles and men's doubles ties after the announcement.
The Chinese Badminton Association sent a letter to the BWF saying that its players would not be competing in the eighth leg of the Super Series event, S. Selvam, BWF's Superseries marketing manager, told AFP.
China and Japan are involved in an escalating territorial dispute over a small island chain in the East China Sea administered by Tokyo under the name Senkaku, but vehemently claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
The withdrawal from the badminton tournament is not the first time this year that politics have infringed on sport for Japan.
A South Korean football player was barred from the medals ceremony after his team beat Japan to the bronze at the London Olympics for holding up a sign proclaiming Seoul's sovereignty over a different set of disputed islands.
And Chinese anger towards Japan also bubbled over after the 2004 Asian Cup football final, when angry protests erupted following Japan's 3-1 win over the hosts in Beijing.
The absence of strong Chinese players such as Chen Long, who was due to defend the title, and Lin Dan and Chen Jin, could be a blessing for top seed Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia who becomes the new favourite to win the Open.
Top-seeded Lee will take on Anand Pawar of India in the first round on Wednesday, with Athens Olympics gold medallist Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia in the same half of the draw.
Two-time Japan Open champion Peter Gade of Denmark is seeded second with Nguyen Tien Minh of Vietnam and Japan's Sho Sasaki, the fourth seed, also in the bottom half.
China's withdrawal also opens the door for Denmark's Tine Baun, who won her first big title at the Japan Open in 2007 and is now seeded top in the women's singles.