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Coronavirus

China eager to show return to normalcy with Xi's Japan visit

Beijing sends top diplomat to Tokyo to stress coronavirus is under control

Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to show progress in the fight against coronavirus by carrying out his planned trip to Japan.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- The dispatch of Beijing's foreign policy chief to Japan -- and its adherence to its diplomatic schedule -- appears to be an attempt by China to show that the country will soon overcome the new coronavirus outbreak and resume normal economic activity.

Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday in Tokyo as part of a two-day visit. The meeting comes ahead of the planned state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which is slated for April.

Yang touted China's efforts to contain the virus, which has infected more than 78,000 in mainland China and killed more than 2,680 people there. 

"The countermeasures are showing incremental progress, and the situation on the whole is changing for the better," Yang said.

Yang also offered to help Japan combat its own growing outbreak. "We offer active backing and support for the Japanese people's fight against the novel coronavirus."

Before meeting with Abe, Yang met with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. After the session, Motegi reported that "there is no change in plans" for Xi's April state visit at this stage.

Japan had initially expected to receive Yang much sooner to coordinate preparations for Xi's visit in April. But the coronavirus had threatened to derail that. Unable to set dates for Yang's visit even after the Lunar New Year, the Japanese side had begun to speculate that he would not be able to make it. 

"If the top foreign policy official postponed the visit to Japan, it would look as if China is not in control of the domestic outbreak," a diplomatic source said at that time. "China's image has also deteriorated externally."

Then the Chinese side informed Japan in mid-February of its plans to send Yang this Friday and Saturday.

Once the dates were set, the Chinese side moved quickly to highlight its gradual return to normalcy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that the outbreak would soon come to an end in a meeting with Motegi in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 15. "It is affecting the Chinese economy, but we will make efforts to offset the losses," Wang said. 

Wang again spoke with Motegi on the phone on Wednesday to assure the Japanese side. "The number of new patients in China is declining," Wang said. "China's economic base is solid."

Given that infections are rising in Japan, Wang said that China can offer Japan protective suits, goggles and masks. The offer appears to be an attempt to demonstrate that China has controlled its coronavirus outbreak to an extent that it can help Tokyo combat the spread.

But the outbreak's spread to other countries has also raised concerns that China's control efforts are inadequate. The U.S. and Australia have banned the entry of non-citizens who have recently visited China.

To calm his worried counterparts, Xi has held phone conferences with world leaders to stress China's response to the disease. The postponement of the National People's Congress, announced earlier this week, was to show that the leadership is entirely focused on containing the epidemic.

Yang's visit to Japan is thus an opportunity for Beijing to show the world that it can engage in diplomacy while trying to contain the outbreak.

If Xi makes a state visit, he would be the first Chinese leader to do so since 2008. Given the trade war with the U.S., China's top officials have turned to Japan for cooperation and to avoid international isolation. 

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