National | ANALYSIS

With Xi visit now delayed, coronavirus threatens to spoil Abe's 2020

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to request nationwide school closures, call for large events to be canceled or postponed and seek to pass legislation that would enable the government to declare a state of emergency.

Now, the virus has claimed its latest casualty: his chance to showcase improved Japan-China relations.

By postponing Xi’s visit and expanding entry restrictions to cover the entirety of China, Abe seems to have come to terms with the fact that the coronavirus is beyond his control and has put on the back burner his attempt to score a major victory through his greatest strength: diplomacy.

The delay could also be seen as an olive branch for conservatives in his base, who may have felt alienated while urging a much tougher stance on the outbreak and relations with China as a whole.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga confirmed Thursday afternoon that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan as a state guest was postponed due to COVID-19, hampering the prime minister’s political ambitions.

“Japan-China relations have begun improving since 2018, so Mr. Xi’s visit as a state guest is meant to consummate it,” said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor specializing in Japan-China relations at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, referring to an agreement the two sides came to that year to shift relations “from competition to cooperation.”

Both countries were motivated to carry out the visit as planned, Kawamura noted. Abe was looking to solidify relations with China partly due to Japan’s tumultuous relations with South Korea and Russia. Xi was hoping to reinforce economic ties with Japan to mitigate damage from China’s trade war with the U.S.

The state visit would have been a perfect opportunity for Xi to declare that the coronavirus has been stamped out.

“In that sense, there was a miscalculation,” Kawamura said.

In addition, Abe on Thursday evening made yet another surprise announcement, asking visitors from China and South Korea to undergo a two-week voluntary quarantine. They will be requested to stay at designated facilities to check for infection and asked to avoid using public transportation. Visas already issued to those travelers will be nullified and visa-waiver programs will be temporarily halted.

On Friday, South Korea pushed back against Tokyo’s move. The country’s foreign ministry blasted the quarantine action as “unreasonable and excessive” and threatened to take similar countermeasures.

China, on the other hand, took a sedate response and showed understanding. The Beijing municipal government implemented a similar 14-day quarantine measure against coronavirus for travelers from countries including Japan and South Korea.

Abe is determined to solidify Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing, which has recovered from a strained period due to riffs over history and territory.

“Japan and China together share a major responsibility for the peace and prosperity of this region and the world,” Abe said in a policy speech in January. “We will build a mature Japan-China relation in the new era, by expanding and deepening exchanges at every field in addition to mutual visits by the leaders.”

From the early stage of the outbreak in late January, though, hard-line Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who are skeptical of Chinese leadership and opposition lawmakers alike have urged Abe to adopt entry restrictions on Chinese visitors.

Abe, with the state visit on the horizon, was reluctant to take tougher measures, limiting the entry ban to two Chinese provinces with significant numbers of coronavirus patients. The United States and Australia, meanwhile, prohibited the entry of foreign nationals who have been to China in the past two weeks.

In 2019, travelers from South Korea and China comprised 47.6 percent of all foreign visitors to Japan, bringing into focus the heavy blow the outbreak is taking on the tourism industry. By late January, China had already banned group travel overseas, dramatically reducing the number of inbound tourists to Japan.

The number of foreign nationals who entered Japan in February dropped below 1 million, compared with 2.37 million in the same month last year, according to the Immigration Service Agency. Less than 60,000 Chinese citizens entered the country, roughly one-tenth of the figure from last year.

In a sunnier scenario, 2020 could have been a landmark year for Abe: A successful state visit and Tokyo Games might have boosted his popularity and created momentum for a snap Lower House poll with the idea of building support for his long-held aspirations of amending the Constitution.

But the coronavirus has undercut the plan.

A daily uptick of coronavirus patients has turned the tide on Abe’s would-be banner year and more cases are being found with unknown infection routes. On Friday, at least a dozen new cases were reported nationwide.

Even Abe’s traditional allies — conservative lawmakers and commentators — have become increasingly vocal and grown impatient with him. Shigeharu Aoyama, an LDP Upper House member who is an outspoken critic of China, had opposed Xi’s visit as a state guest even before the coronavirus outbreak, citing human rights abuses in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

When the public health situation took a turn for the worse as China grappled to contain the virus, Aoyama and other conservative hard-liners seized the moment to assert their claim, urging the administration to abandon the state visit.

The prime minister, too, has been under intense political pressure to exert his leadership.

To rebut criticism on his weak grip on command and project an image of a confident leader, he has stepped up the government’s actions in its fight against coronavirus, announcing drastic measures such as the requested school closures, which elicited even more criticism for its abruptness.

Yongwook Ryu, assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Abe’s legacy will not be compromised by the delay of Xi’s visit.

“Much more depends on what the two leaders produce and agree on when they meet rather than how soon they meet,” Ryu the assistant professor said. “If they could agree on a new course for the future development of the bilateral relations, people will pay attention to that, not the delay.”

Information from Kyodo added. Staff writers Magdalena Osumi and Enzo DeGregorio contributed to this report.

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