Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday that Japan hopes to “take the lead” in a Group of Seven statement on the turmoil in Hong Kong, where China has vowed to impose strict new security laws.
“Rightfully, the G7 bears the responsibility to lead global opinion,” Abe told lawmakers in the Diet. “That being said, Japan wants to take the lead in releasing a statement within the G7 (framework) about Hong Kong affairs based on the principle of ‘one country, two systems.’”
Later Wednesday, China said it had issued a protest to Japan over Abe’s remarks.
“China has expressed grave concerns to the Japanese side,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference in Beijing. Hua reiterated China’s stance that the security laws are an internal matter.
“The concerned countries should abide by international laws and basic rules in international relations,” she said.
China has come under fire from Western countries, including the United Kingdom and Japan’s top ally, the United States, over the new laws, which could jeopardize the city’s special autonomy and freedoms.
Japan said it was “seriously concerned” with the move on May 28, the same day China’s rubber-stamp parliament passed the laws. The Japanese Foreign Ministry also summoned the Chinese ambassador to “immediately communicate its strong position at a high-level directly to the Chinese side,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said at a news conference Tuesday.
Motegi also his ministry is already coordinating with other nations on a separate statement by G7 foreign ministers.
Some of the four countries that released a joint statement slamming the security legislation shortly after its passage — the U.K., U.S., Canada and Australia — reportedly expressed their disappointment with Japan for not signing on.
Tokyo has denied this was the case, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, saying that the nations concerned “appreciate our country’s response” and that it was “not at all true that voices of disappointment were conveyed to us.”
But some experts have said that a larger grouping such as the G7 would provide some level of cover from Chinese ire at any criticism over its Hong Kong policy.
Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University and an Asia security expert, said that the G7 would offer Japan “safety in numbers,” while specifically noting that “with the Europeans involved … it is likely any fallout specifically directed towards Japan will be minimized.”
The G7 groups Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong was promised it would enjoy the rights and freedoms of a semi-autonomous region for 50 years when it reverted to Chinese from British rule in 1997.
Critics argue that the security laws will effectively spell the end of this system, and Japan has repeatedly urged Beijing to maintain the status quo.
Japan has a deeply intertwined economic relationship with Hong Kong, and the ongoing pro-democracy protests and now the national security legislation have unnerved the business community. The city accounted for roughly 2.5 percent of Japan’s total trade in 2019, making it the country’s ninth-largest trading partner. Some 1,400 Japanese companies have operations in the city.
Observers say Japan has been concerned that taking too hard of a line with China on Hong Kong could anger Beijing just as stability returns to Sino-Japanese ties. Tokyo has also worked deftly to maintain a balance between Washington and Beijing as tensions soar between the two global powers.
Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said that while it was difficult to gauge the Abe administration’s intent, the prime minister “could be pursuing a strategy that allows Japan to shape the statement in a way that it can both satisfy the U.S. while not totally alienating China.”
Still, the passage of the Hong Kong security laws and the implications have also resonated throughout the political spectrum in Japan, according to observers.
“Despite Japanese government positioning itself to balance and moderate the Sino-American rivalry, and to preserve the economic benefits from enhanced economic cooperation with China … the Hong Kong situation has made it impossible to avoid a more publicly forthright statement and approach to the situation,” said Kanagawa University’s Wallace.
Considering this, as well as criticisms over his delay in closing Japan’s borders to China amid the coronavirus pandemic — a move some have attributed to his desire to keep Beijing content ahead of a planned spring state visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping — Wallace said that Abe has probably been “reluctantly and reactively pushed” into taking a tougher line over the Hong Kong crackdown.
Xi’s visit was delayed amid the pandemic, but a new date has not been announced.
Although Abe has touted universal values such as human rights and the rule of law, including in his remarks on Wednesday, he has been criticized for failing to implement concrete measures in response to the situation in Hong Kong, said Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Tatsumi cited the British government’s decision to open a pathway toward citizenship for Hong Kong residents unless China reverses its course on the laws, as well as the U.S.’s hinting that it will end its favored trade status with the city, as examples of “strong measures.”
‘So Abe is not exactly walking the talk when he talks about Japan adhering firmly to ‘universal values,’” she said.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that the Hong Kong response or any other factors on the horizon will lead to a major overhaul in Japanese policy toward China, said Wallace. Instead, he said, the most likely scenario is a “tactical retreat” from a more conciliatory approach.
“The Japanese government may well be taking the lead to draft a joint G7 statement to demonstrate to the U.S. that it is not going soft on China on the one hand, and on the other to moderate some of the wider-ranging language on strategic competition that the Trump administration will want to insert,” he said.
“This could preserve Japan’s ability to quickly re-engage with (China) on matters of economic cooperation later if domestic and international conditions allow,” Wallace added.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report