Beijing – China wrapped up this year’s annual session of the country’s parliament after setting the scene for a controversial third term for President Xi Jinping, and with its neighbor Japan increasingly on guard against the Asian power’s ambition.
In a bid to cement the authority of the Communist Party, the National People’s Congress on Thursday also adopted a resolution to alter Hong Kong’s electoral system so that the mainland can exclude pro-democracy activists from the political arena in the territory.
The Chinese government also pledged measures to make China the world’s biggest economy by 2035, surpassing the United States, in a move that highlights Xi’s eagerness to remain in power at least for the next decade.
In February, Xi’s leadership enforced a law allowing China’s coast guard to use weapons in waters it claims, sparking fears in Tokyo over Beijing’s attempts to bring the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan but disputed by China, into its fold.
“Xi has successfully contained the novel coronavirus, and then he has been trying to expel nuisances in Hong Kong and enhance citizens’ loyalty to him by vowing to boost the Chinese economy,” a diplomatic source in Beijing said.
“Unfortunately, Xi has been steadily preparing to become China’s emperor for life,” he added.
“At the same time, Xi has been keen to bolster China’s influence on its neighbors including Japan,” the source said. “And for that purpose, he may take every step he can. Japan should become much more vigilant against China.”
In the early 2010s, Beijing and Tokyo were mired in a territorial row over the uninhabited islands, called Diaoyu in China. But, having effectively shelved the dispute over the past few years, bilateral ties have been improving.
With its relations with the United States deteriorating under former President Donald Trump, over issues such as trade, Hong Kong and Taiwan, China has been extending an olive branch to Japan — one of Washington’s closest allies worldwide.
Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed at a news conference that the nation’s new coast guard law does “not target any specific country,” while expressing hope for further improvement in ties with Japan.
Asked about how the two Asian nations can cooperate, Wang said China and Japan have “every reason to support each other” for the success of the Tokyo Olympics, which has been put off by one year to July, as well as the Beijing Winter Games in February 2022.
“Wang talked about Sino-Japanese relations in a very careful manner. It seems that China has put emphasis on Japan as its tensions with the United States have shown little sign of easing soon,” a source familiar with Beijing’s thinking said.
“For peace and stability in the region, Japan should maintain the current relations with China, while gauging how U.S. policy toward Beijing will change” under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, he said.
At home, however, the Chinese Communist Party has taken actions to strengthen Xi’s power, erode democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong and accelerate the country’s military rise in nearby waters.
In 2018, China removed from its Constitution a two-term limit for the president and vice president. The move enables Xi, who became the head of the party in 2012, to hold on to power for life.
All eyes are on whether Xi will be re-elected as leader of the Communist Party at its twice-a-decade congress in autumn next year.
In late June, the mainland enacted a national security law for Hong Kong that cracked down on what it views as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, aiming to quell protests against the pro-Beijing government in the territory.
China also plans to increase its defense spending in 2021 by 6.8% from last year to 1.36 trillion yuan (¥22.6 trillion), with Xi having promised to give the nation’s military forces “world-class” status by the middle of the 21st century.
Since the coast guard law took effect, Chinese official vessels have continued to enter Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus frequently, with Beijing insisting that the islets are the country’s “inherent territory.”
In response, Japanese policymakers have recently argued that it is possible for the nation’s coast guard to fire on foreign official vessels under laws by considering their forcible landing on the islands to be violent crimes.
“There is speculation that China’s economy will become the world’s largest as early as in 2028, so it is still necessary for Tokyo to get along with Beijing in economic terms,” a Japanese government source said.
“But we should also warn against China’s military moves. We have to seriously map out our diplomatic strategy toward China, while closely watching how the country will change under long-term rule by Xi,” he said.
The source added that Xi’s first state visit to Japan since he became president in 2013, which has been delayed due to the pandemic, may be canceled amid a backlash from conservative lawmakers in the ruling party headed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
“Under the present circumstances, it is impossible for Suga’s government to invite Xi to visit Japan,” the source said. “But if Japan proposes the cancellation of Xi’s visit, that could shake relations between Japan and China.”
At the news conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Foreign Minister Wang did not mention whether Beijing and Tokyo had been making arrangements for Xi’s trip to Japan.
This year’s session of China’s parliament was held for seven days through Thursday.
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