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Coronavirus

In search of a friend, China dials up pro-Japan rhetoric

Xi seeks support over outbreak but has not let up on Senkaku-area incursions

China appears eager to emphasize its friendship with Japan amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

BEIJING -- As China's rift with the West deepens amid the growing coronavirus outbreak, Beijing leaders are playing up bilateral ties with Japan in an apparent effort to ease its international isolation.

"As neighbors across a narrow sea, let's help each other in times of need," tweeted Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Japanese on Monday.

"The Japanese government and people from all walks of life have offered sincere support and assistance to China," ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a briefing that day. "We will never forget this and are deeply grateful."

China's confrontation with the U.S. has deepened. Beijing on Wednesday revoked the credentials of three Wall Street Journal correspondents over a headline on an opinion piece describing the country as "the real sick man of Asia." The previous day, the U.S. designated five Chinese news agencies as Communist Party operatives, leading to speculation that the pulling of the journalists' press credentials was done in retaliation.

Meanwhile, the official Xinhua News Agency has described Japan's actions in unusually glowing terms. Earlier this month, it said that a Japanese institution had donated boxes of masks to China, bearing a Chinese-language verse: "Although we are in different places, we are under the same sky."

"The sentence, from an ancient poem depicting the long-lasting friendship between China and Japan, has gone viral on social media, with the heartfelt support of the Japanese people touching many in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak," the Xinhua report said.

The poem, shown in this photo, roughly translates to: "Despite having different mountains and rivers, we share the wind and moon under the same sky." (Photo by Tsukasa Hadano)

A Shanxi Province television broadcaster decided Feb. 9 to delay the airing of "Red Sorghum," a drama set during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This came in response to the "unprecedented friendship" shown by Japan, a representative said on Weibo.

In a likely attempt to buoy public sentiment on Japan, state media have remained silent on criticisms by Japanese conservatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit in April.

"China seems to want to highlight our bilateral friendship," a Japanese government source said. Beijing was extremely cooperative when Japan asked to send chartered flights to pick up its citizens from outbreak epicenter Wuhan, according to the source.

These moves are likely motivated by China's desperate attempt to avoid isolation. Xi told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a phone conversation Tuesday that Chinese efforts to contain the outbreak are yielding "notable results." He also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Xi continues to call counterparts in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East every few days, state media report.

But despite such overtures to Japan, Beijing has not compromised on security issues. Eight Chinese government vessels entered territorial waters of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, on Feb. 5 and on Feb. 13. China also carried out sail-bys in the islands' contiguous zone for 15 days straight through Sunday, then again on Wednesday and Thursday.

"Our leaders must acknowledge that we are in a new era for Japan-China relations and respond appropriately on bilateral issues," Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono has said.

State-led Chinese efforts to sway public opinion on Japan can also go the other way. Anti-Japan protests broke out across China in 2012, fueled largely by official media, after Japan nationalized the Senkakus.

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