Chinese President Xi Jinping has postponed his state visit to Japan this spring, as both Japan and China struggle to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. The decision to defer the visit to allow both countries to give top priority to virus countermeasures is appropriate.
The Japanese and Chinese governments are reportedly seeking to reschedule Xi's visit for this autumn or beyond. The Chinese leader's visit would be a valuable opportunity for both countries to find a stable framework to cope with the changing times. We urge Tokyo and Beijing to keep up close communications with each other.
During the G-20 summit meeting in Osaka in June 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told President Xi that he wanted to welcome the Chinese president as a state guest when "the cherry blossoms are in bloom" in Japan. As it would be the first official visit by China's head of state to Japan since 2008, when then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda met Chinese President Hu Jintao, both countries have been eyeing the creation of a "fifth political document" to follow the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique and other bilateral statements.
However, the new coronavirus outbreak came to light in Wuhan, Hubei province, in January. The Chinese government has since been preoccupied with containing the spread of viral infections, while Japan was also pressed to tackle transmission aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored at Yokohama Port south of Tokyo, and take other border control measures. Preparations for Xi's visit stalled amid the confusion.
China has even postponed the National People's Congress in March due to the outbreak, with no prospects for convening the annual meeting anytime soon.
In Japan, there is strong criticism that the imposition of entry restrictions on Chinese travelers to Japan was delayed out of consideration for Xi's planned visit. In fact, the Japanese government announced tougher restrictions for Chinese and South Korean visitors to Japan shortly after it decided to postpone Xi's state visit. Some people have decried the measure, saying it was long overdue. The Abe administration is apparently lagging behind in taking necessary infection control measures.
First and foremost, Tokyo and Beijing should put all their efforts into containing the virus and try to create a public environment where Xi's visit to Japan can be taken calmly. This would be effective to deepen public discussion once more about the significance of Japan-China relations.
Since last year, China has been a target of growing criticism in the international community over ongoing anti-government protests in Hong Kong and China's repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. As Chinese government ships continue to threaten waters near the Senkaku Islands in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan, Japanese citizens' distrust of China cannot be easily dispelled.
In the meantime, the coronavirus crisis has brought renewed awareness about the importance of China to the Japanese economy, as supplies of parts from China are stalled and the number of Chinese travelers to Japan is dwindling.
President Xi's state visit to Japan would bear significance beyond mere protocol. His visit would be meaningful if both leaders can share common awareness about how to ensure stability in East Asia while weighing changing circumstances such as China's rise in the region.
China has abundant knowledge and expertise in tackling the new coronavirus. Promoting cooperation between the two countries in their efforts to thwart the spread of viral infections could make for an even more desirable setting for the bilateral meeting.