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Inside Japanese politics

Xi's Japan trip unlikely this year as US-China tensions burn

Tokyo freezes preparations after Hong Kong bill poisons mood

The state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan was supposed to be a symbol of a new era in Sino-Japan relations. Now it is unclear when that visit will take place.   © Reuters

TOKYO/BEIJING -- The Japanese government has decided to halt preparations for a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping for the foreseeable future, all but confirming that the trip will not happen this year as originally planned.

Japan had regarded Xi's visit as a symbol for restoring bilateral relations. It formed the linchpin of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's strategy to establish a level of cooperative ties with China while maintaining a warm personable relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump.

But with Washington and Beijing on the brink of a new Cold War, due to the handling of the new coronavirus and China's controversial security bill for Hong Kong, Tokyo is left with little choice but to revise the strategy.

The visit was initially slated for April. But these plans were pushed back in March over coronavirus concerns, and the two sides have not been able to arrange a new date.

On Wednesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi suggested in a television interview that the Xi visit would wait until after the Group of Seven summit, now being rescheduled for September, and the Group of 20 summit slated for November.

"The G-7 summit will undoubtedly come first," he said, adding that international forums like the G-20 at which Japan can shape opinion also would precede Xi's visit. "We're not at the point of working out a specific schedule."

Tokyo's stance on the trip shifted after China indicated on May 21 it would enact security legislation for Hong Kong barring acts of "treason, secession, sedition or subversion."

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is Abe's right-hand man, hinted the next day that Tokyo would rethink the state visit.

"We will communicate [with China] while examining the relevant circumstances as a whole," he said.

Suga used the same language in answering a question about the impact of the Hong Kong situation on May 28, when China's National People's Congress passed the legislation.

This contrasts with Suga's statement in March, when the visit was postponed, that it would be held "at a convenient time for both sides." In late April, he said it was "extremely important as an opportunity to show, domestically and abroad, that we will together fulfill our responsibilities."

If it takes place, Xi would be the second leader received by Japan as a state guest since Emperor Naruhito was enthroned last May, following Trump.

But the enthusiasm for embracing Xi had waned in recent months. On May 29, two foreign policy panels of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party drew up a resolution criticizing China over the Hong Kong situation and urging Abe to rethink Xi's visit as a state guest.

"The visit won't happen unless Xi is invited as a state guest," a senior official in Japan's Foreign Ministry said. Even if talks between the two countries resume in the fall, a visit within the year appears unlikely.

The Chinese side is also hesitant to go ahead with the trip unless Xi would be fully welcomed in Japan.

Escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing forced a change in tone. The U.S., where more than 100,000 people have died from the coronavirus, has blasted China over its handling of the initial outbreak as the strong economy that underpinned Trump's reelection hopes nosedived.

U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested expanding the G-7 to include other countries but not China, giving the idea the appearance of an anti-Beijing move.   © Reuters

With the presidential election less than half a year away, Trump hopes to regain support by bashing China, much as he did four years ago. He said in mid-May that Washington could "cut off the whole relationship" with Beijing.

The Hong Kong situation has become another potential flashpoint. Trump said May 29 that the U.S. would revoke the territory's special trade status due to its loss of autonomy to Beijing, playing a new card in the two countries' ongoing trade battle.

If Washington imposes sanctions, Tokyo likely will face pressure to support its closest ally. Even with Xi's state visit on the agenda, Japan will have little leeway to accommodate China.

Trump's talk of enlarging the G-7 is further cause for concern. His suggestion to invite Russia, India, Australia and South Korea is likely to be perceived as an effort to hem in China, escalating tensions further. Receiving Xi as a state guest around the time it participates in an expanded G-7 gathering could put Japan in an awkward position.

Domestic political factors also play a role. Abe has faced criticism from the LDP for being relatively slow to restrict travel from China amid the virus outbreak. China's repeated forays into waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyu, have sparked outrage as well.

Xi has conducted teleconferences with leaders from the U.S., Russia, South Korea and other countries, but he has yet to hold a phone conversation with Abe. Only two of the G-7 leading industrial nations have not received a phone call or a cable expressing sympathy from the Chinese leader. Japan shares that distinction with Canada, which is holding a Huawei Technologies executive for a U.S. extradition case.

China wants Xi's trip to Japan to show the rest of the world that it has overcome the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing also wishes to pressure the Trump administration by wooing an American ally. It cannot afford to have Japan back out because of U.S. concerns.

When Abe told reporters on May 25 that the virus had spread to the world from China, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times hit back with an editorial urging Japan to stay neutral.

The Chinese foreign ministry is treating the postponed trip with extreme caution. Foreign Minister Wang Yi refused to answer a question regarding Xi's trip in a news conference May 24, and a later release on the event cut out the exchange altogether.

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