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With Australia having announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday, pressure is mounting on Japan as it attempts to walk a fine line between the U.S. and its top trading partner, China.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno reiterated Wednesday that no decisions have been made regarding Japan’s Olympic delegation following the announcement of Washington’s boycott, which will see government officials skip the Winter Games scheduled for February but won’t affect the participation of athletes.

“The government will make its own decision at an appropriate time, taking into account a comprehensive range of issues,” he said.

But a report by the Sankei daily the same day indicated that Tokyo is already sorting out who to send to the Games and that members of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet may sit them out.

The government is considering sending lower-level officials to the Games instead, with Koji Murofushi, director-general of the Sports Agency, and Yasuhiro Yamashita, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, proposed as potential delegates, according to the paper.

That would match China’s delegation for the Tokyo Olympics this summer, when Gou Zhongwen, director of China’s sports administration and Chinese Olympic Committee president, attended a subdued opening ceremony in Tokyo that many world leaders opted to skip due to the pandemic.

Still, a Japanese delegation that doesn’t include a member of the Cabinet would be a far cry from the 2018 Winter Games, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and met with President Moon Jae-in.

The nature of the discussions outlined in the Sankei report highlight the difficult position Japan finds itself in as it seeks to find a happy medium amid growing tensions between the world’s top two economies and as human rights activists put more pressure on the country to call out Beijing over its alleged human rights violations.

Teppei Kasai, a program officer for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said after the U.S. announcement that Japan “should follow suit by announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Games as soon as possible,” while also urging Tokyo to “simultaneously coordinate with like-minded governments to investigate and map out pathways to accountability” over what Washington has said are China’s human rights “atrocities.”

Even some ruling party lawmakers have urged Kishida to go ahead with a diplomatic boycott.

On Tuesday, conservative Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers submitted a proposal saying Japan should announce a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games if China fails to improve the its human rights situation.

Kishida has taken a tougher line on China than many observers had expected, calling Beijing out over its stance on Taiwan, creating a new human rights advisory post and devoting resources to economic security measures. All of these moves have directly or indirectly had a heavy China focus, even as the two neighbors prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties next year.

Senior Japanese officials have stressed the need to maintain dialogue with Beijing, but not at the risk of compromising Japan’s principles.

“We need to build a constructive and stable relationship,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “But we mustn’t try to maintain stable ties at all costs.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited a number of reasons for his country’s diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, including China’s treatment of Uyghurs in its far-western Xinjiang region and its moves to restrict imports from Australia. | REUTERS
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited a number of reasons for his country’s diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, including China’s treatment of Uyghurs in its far-western Xinjiang region and its moves to restrict imports from Australia. | REUTERS

Experts say that while the decision by Australia, another top U.S. ally in Asia, puts Japan in a tight spot, it is an open question as to just how much more pressure it will put on Tokyo.

“The decision on whether to follow suit isn’t likely to become easier the longer that Japan waits,” said Tom Corben, a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Corben said that sending lower-level officials as a compromise option would make sense.

“But regardless of whether Tokyo sends only lower-level officials or none at all, this still boils down to a choice around framing: whether to cite concerns over the regional COVID situation — which could be made easier if China imposes blanket restrictions on foreign officials’ attendance — or whether to underscore the same human rights concerns as Canberra and Washington have,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited a number of reasons for his country’s diplomatic boycott of the Games, including China’s treatment of Uyghurs in its far-western Xinjiang region and its moves to restrict imports from Australia.

“We have been very pleased and very happy to talk to the Chinese government about these issues,” he told reporters. “But the Chinese government has consistently not accepted those opportunities.”

The Chinese Embassy in Australia responded by blaming Canberra for soured bilateral ties.

“​​The Australian side’s statement that it will not send officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics runs counter to its public statement of its so-called desire to improve China-Australia relations,” it said, labeling the move a “political show” by Australian politicians.

Tokyo’s position could only get more precarious should other U.S. allies join the diplomatic boycott, and the Sankei report noted that Japan is expected to keep an eye on moves by other Group of Seven developed nations in the weeks ahead.

Canada, which saw its relations with China plummet following the arrest of a top Huawei executive in Vancouver and the subsequent detainment of two Canadians in China, and the U.K. said Wednesday they wouldn’t send diplomats to the Games.

France’s Foreign Ministry, reiterating a statement from the office of President Emmanuel Macron, said Tuesday there would be coordination “at the European level” with regards to any diplomatic participation at the Games.

A South Korean official said Seoul is undecided on whether to join the boycott, the Yonhap news agency reported Wednesday.

New Zealand, meanwhile, announced Tuesday that top officials won’t be going to Beijing for the Games but cited COVID-19 as the main reason, saying the decision was made before the U.S. announcement.

If more countries do join the U.S.-led boycott, those that remain silent could risk being left the odd one out, according to the University of Sydney’s Corben.

“Waiting until the last minute runs the risk other countries will announce their own boycotts, which will only increase the spotlight on prominent U.S. allies and partners like Japan to do the same, or raise questions as to why they haven’t.”

Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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