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Japan on Tuesday delivered what amounted to its toughest words yet to China on the issue of Hong Kong, after Beijing reportedly passed a sweeping national security law for the city that Tokyo said would shake international faith in the “one-country, two-systems” principle.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking at a regular news briefing, called the move “regrettable,” noting that it had come in the face of “strong concerns from the international community and citizens of Hong Kong.”

“The enactment of the national security law undermines the credibility of the ‘one-country, two-systems’ principle,” Suga said, adding that Japan would continue to cooperate with concerned countries on appropriate responses.

China did not officially confirm the move, but state media was expected to publish details of the law — which comes in response to last year’s often violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces — later Tuesday.

Asked about the law the same day, Defense Minister Taro Kono, a future contender for prime minister, told a news conference that the move could have grave implications for a planned state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The invite to Xi, which had been scheduled for the spring but was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, has come under fire from some lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over Beijing’s moves in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

“If (the news of the security law passage) is true, I can’t help but say it will have a significant impact on Chairman Xi’s planned state visit,” Kono said.

Japan had reportedly faced flak from four of its closest partners earlier this month over its response to the security law. Kyodo News, citing an unnamed official with one of the countries, reported that they were “disappointed” Tokyo had not signed on to a joint statement condemning the legislation.

Tokyo, however, denied this was the case, with Suga saying the nations concerned “appreciate our country’s response.”

On Tuesday, he reiterated this stance.

“We have watched this issue with great concern and interest,” Suga said. “And we have repeatedly communicated Japan’s thoughts on the matter to China through various routes.”

In an apparent demonstration of how seriously the government was taking the move, Suga’s choice of the word “ikan,” or “regrettable,” was one step short of the most critical word in the Japanese diplomatic dictionary, “hinan,” which means “to denounce.”

The chief Cabinet secretary, as well as Foreign Ministry officials, had used incrementally stronger words — from “chūshi,” or “closely monitoring,” to “yūryo,” or “seriously concerned” — last month to describe Tokyo’s reaction to the Chinese push to pass the contentious legislation.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong was promised it would enjoy the rights and freedoms of a semiautonomous region for the 50 years after it reverted to Chinese from British rule in 1997.

Suga on Tuesday called the future of the principle “extremely important” for Japan. Tokyo had repeatedly urged Beijing to maintain this status quo, but analysts say the new security law will effectively spell its end.

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. The move also comes as Tokyo works deftly to maintain a balance between Washington and Beijing as tensions soar between the two global powers over the coronavirus pandemic response and economic and military moves in the Asia-Pacific.

It’s unclear how the latest development — and the Japanese response — will affect the relationship, but Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said the Japanese government will likely attempt to continue walking “a fine line of criticizing the law and maintaining a functional relationship to secure current and future trade” while not becoming a “target of Chinese coercive policies in the region.”

Ultimately, it will be the manner in which Beijing implements the new law that will garner more criticism, Nagy said, noting that Japanese firms operating in the city have viewed disruptions associated with pro-democracy protests, the extradition law and now the national security law as detrimental to their business interests and bottom lines.

“Japanese businesses on the whole will probably look favorably on the law if it stabilizes Hong Kong’s society and business climate,” he said.

Information from Reuters added.

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