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International relations

Xi set to delay Japan visit over coronavirus crisis

Beijing and Tokyo to focus on combating growing outbreak

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping may have to wait for the coronavirus to run its course before meeting again.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan and China are discussing postponing Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit in April at least until the fall as both countries hope to prioritize combating the growing outbreak of the new coronavirus, sources said.

Officials in Beijing and Tokyo feel that preparing for a successful visit has become nearly impossible given the growing epidemic. The two sides will renegotiate the new dates based on their political and diplomatic schedules. Xi's state visit to Japan will be the first by a Chinese president since 2008. 

Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, visited Tokyo on Friday and Saturday to discuss the situation. Yang held talks with his counterpart Shigeru Kitamura, head of Japan's National Security Council. He also met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi.

Xi's visit "will be the first by the Chinese president in 10 years, and we need to make sure the visit will bring full results," Abe told a press conference Saturday. 

Xi's visit is intended to showcase improved Sino-Japanese relations, broadcasting to the world a "new era" in bilateral ties.

Japan and China are considering crafting documents defining their new bilateral relations. They have been negotiating cooperation in such areas as joint projects in third countries, the environment, medicine and nursing care. But the spread of the virus has delayed the preparations. 

The Chinese leadership led by Xi, who doubles as general secretary of the Communist Party, makes improved relations with Japan a top priority, especially in light of tensions with America over trade and other issues.

Even after the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing was still trying to arrange an April visit. But infections and deaths have continued to skyrocket, and the epidemic is expected to steamroll the Chinese economy. Beijing fears Xi would be seen as neglecting domestic policies if he goes ahead with the visit.

On Feb. 24, Beijing postponed the annual National People's Congress, which was scheduled to open on March 5 -- a momentous decision given that the meeting had convened on that date since 1998.

Before then, the Congress failed to meet a number of times during the Mao-inspired cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976.

Coronavirus cases are also increasing in Japan, with the government trying hard to cap them in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. This has led officials to question the wisdom of accepting a large Chinese delegation.

China-Japan relations deteriorated in 2012 after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands. The islands -- a group of small uninhabited islets in the East China Sea -- are administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.

But over the past few years, diplomatic visits have resumed at a brisk pace. In May 2018, Li Keqiang visited Japan, becoming the first Chinese premier to do so in seven years. Later that year in October, Abe paid an official visit to China, the first such visit by a Japanese premier in about seven years, excluding those for international conferences.

In 2019, Xi returned the favor by going to Osaka for the Group of 20 summit in June, while Abe again traveled to China in December.

Relations between Japan and China are still tense over security issues, including the East China Sea, so the Chinese president's visit is much anticipated by both sides. Xi has said that China will "aggressively build constructive security relations" with Japan.

Japan has tried to resolve the issue of Chinese ships intruding into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, as well as sort out joint development of natural gas fields in the East China Sea.

This will not be the first time a Chinese president's visit to Japan has been postponed. In September 1998, then-President Jiang Zemin was scheduled to arrive in Japan, but was delayed until November due to serious floods at home.

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