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Politics

Japan's ruling party torn over Xi Jinping invitation

Concern over economic ties with China dampens criticism on Hong Kong law

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, had been set to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a state visit that is now up in the air.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling party on Tuesday put together a resolution saying that its members "have no choice but to urge" the government to cancel a planned stated visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It was a watered-down version compared with the original draft language, which demanded that the visit be called off.

While the resolution is a condemnation of China's adoption of the new Hong Kong national security law, the tussle over the wording reflects the dilemma Japan faces, as it seeks to maintain economic relations with the world's second-largest economy.

The document, drafted by the Liberal Democratic Party, initially said that members "urge cancellation" of the visit.

But when the draft was presented, lawmakers close to LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who has strong ties to China, pushed for revision. Takeo Kawakami, a Nikai faction member and a former chief cabinet secretary, warned Monday against phrasing that risks "destroying the Japan-China relationship that elders before us took so much effort to build."

The response was left to Yasuhide Nakayama, director of the foreign affairs division, who presented a revised draft Tuesday stating that members "have no choice but to urge" that Xi's visit be canceled.

The resolution calls on the government to "appeal strongly to China," to work toward "building a friendly relationship for a new era" while also "arguing what needs to be argued." And instead of presenting it as a party-wide resolution, the document has been downgraded to a joint document by party members involved in foreign affairs and diplomacy.

While the U.S. has imposed sanctions in response to the security law, Tokyo has responded less forcefully, expressing "regret" but taking no concrete action.

China has been Japan's largest trading partner for 13 years, and it has contributed significantly to the country's economic growth via supply chains and tourist spending. Tokyo cannot afford to ignore this aspect of the relationship.

"Various concerns exist regarding China, but we will continue to take opportunities for high-level meetings, including summits," Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Tuesday.

Tokyo was also relatively quick to reconcile with Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. While Group of Seven leading industrial nations responded by imposing sanctions and cutting off high-level diplomacy, Japan worked to avoid isolating Beijing. Then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu in 1991 became the first Western Bloc leader to visit China after the incident, and then-Emperor Akihito traveled there the following year.

"The coronavirus has made it necessary to be conscious of China-related risks," said Long Ke, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, who noted that Japan is being forced to reevaluate its reliance on China for crucial parts and equipment such as ventilators.

But "we need to think of a strategy that maintains relationships with Chinese companies and Japanese brand power, which have been built up over many years, and protects economic interests," Long said.

"There's no choice but to suspend the state visit for now," said Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki of the Tokyo-based Sojitz Research Institute. "Japan and China will probably seek out contact through person-to-person exchanges and trade."

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