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International relations

Japan shies away from sanctions on China over Xinjiang

In echo of Tiananmen Square, Tokyo takes different path than that of key allies

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato expressed "grave concern" Tuesday about the situation in Xinjiang without mentioning independent sanctions by Tokyo. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- As Europe, the U.S. and other major Western economies hit China with a spate of sanctions over alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, Japan has so far stood pat, because of both a lack of effective tools and concern about harming an already complicated relationship with Beijing.

When asked in a news conference Tuesday whether Japan would impose sanctions on its own, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato made no mention of doing so. He did express "grave concern" about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, where the Uyghur Muslim minority population has reportedly been subject to large-scale detentions and other abuses.

China is Japan's neighbor and largest trading partner, and tensions between the two have already been inflamed by Beijing's forays around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Tokyo and claimed by China as the Diaoyu. Japan wants to avoid steps that could invite even more military pressure, though it could face a push from Washington and Brussels to toe the line.

But even without these complicating factors, there is a more basic problem. Unlike Washington and Brussels, Tokyo lacks a legal framework that would easily allow for sanctions on human rights grounds, along the lines of the Global Magnitsky Act used by the U.S.

"There are no rules under which we can impose sanctions that are directly and explicitly connected to human rights issues," Kato said.

Japan can employ existing laws, such as the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act, for asset freezes and travel bans on foreign officials, but these have no provisions related to human rights.

Past steps by Tokyo, such as a 2011 freeze on personal assets of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, have mostly been based on United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Japan has also hesitated to go after Beijing over the Xinjiang situation because of the difficulty of confirming the real extent of the alleged human rights abuses. The U.S., the U.K. and Canada point to satellite photos and Chinese government documents that they consider to be overwhelming evidence.

"We'll consider more deeply how Japan should respond," Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Tuesday.

When asked in a television appearance that day whether Washington and Brussels had pressed Tokyo to support their sanctions, Motegi responded, "not at all."

"There are a variety of ways to send a warning to China," he said.

Meanwhile, calls for a harder line toward Beijing are growing within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A project team on human rights within the party's Foreign Affairs Division will discuss legal measures to enable further action, aiming to put together recommendations by June.

Masahisa Sato, director of the Foreign Affairs Division, told Nikkei that the team will look to speed up these discussions. "If Japan is too slow to adopt a legal framework [for sanctions], it could find itself isolated at the Group of Seven summit in June," he warned.

"We can't change the situation through criticism and protest alone," former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said of the human rights situation in China.

Back in 1989, Japan did not impose sanctions on China unlike the other G-7 members in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Beijing is far more economically and militarily influential on the international stage now than it was three decades ago, and the sanctions issue poses a test to the unity of major democracies.

"Japan, as [China's] neighbor, would need to be prepared for serious economic harm if sanctions are imposed at this stage," said Hiroyuki Banzai, a professor of international law at Waseda University. "It can't be helped that it's in a different position from the U.S. and Europe."

But Banzai also argued that a legal foundation for sanctions over human rights violations will be needed over the longer term. "That would send a message to China, even if it's not mentioned by name," he said.

With U.S. President Joe Biden's administration signaling a tough stance on China, Tokyo is likely to face increasing pressure to get on board. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to visit the U.S. as soon as early next month for his first in-person meeting with an American leader, with the G-7 summit in the U.K. coming not long after in June.

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