world news As the World Gets Tougher on China, Japan Tries to Thread a Needle

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TOKYO — Earlier this year, as it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic was not going to pass quickly, the Japanese government delayed plans for what would be the first state visit by a Chinese leader to Tokyo since 2008.

Now, with Chinese military aggression rising in the region and Beijing cracking down on Hong Kong, Japan is considering canceling Xi Jinping’s visit altogether — but very gingerly.

“We are not in the phase of arranging a concrete schedule now” was how Toshimitsu Motegi, the foreign minister, put it this month.

While its top allies have taken a harder line on China — especially the United States, which dramatically escalated tensions this past week by closing the Chinese Consulate in Houston — Japan has pursued a delicate balancing act, mindful of the economic might of its largest trading partner and its own limited military options.

China has responded by curbing Australian imports and threatening an array of retaliatory actions against any countries that move to punish it. On Friday, China responded to the closure of its Houston consulate by ordering the United States to shut its consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

To some extent, Japan’s mild-mannered response to China echoes its broader approach to foreign policy, in which it tends to avoid direct conflict or public rebukes of other nations. It has also sometimes sought a mediating role, as when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met last December with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, to try to ease tensions in the Middle East.

Not so long ago, China and Japan — the world’s second- and third-largest economies — were engaged in a diplomatic thaw as a hedge against an unpredictable Trump administration. In 2018, Mr. Abe became the first Japanese leader to visit China in seven years, and the two leaders pledged deeper economic and political cooperation. The invitation to Mr. Xi to visit Japan followed soon afterward.

Now, given China’s muscle-flexing as the world is preoccupied with the pandemic, some have expressed disappointment that Japan has not rebuffed its neighbor more vigorously, such as by definitively canceling Mr. Xi’s visit. In recent weeks, China has engaged in deadly clashes on its border with India in the Himalayas, and it has sent ships for 100 straight days — the longest period in years of such incursions — to patrol waters around the Senkakus, islands administered by Japan but contested by China.

Japan “should just say ‘we cannot have him if China continues with this sort of behavior,’” said Jeffrey Hornung, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, referring to Mr. Xi. But Mr. Hornung acknowledged that Tokyo would not want to draw China’s full ire, either.

“If you look at what China is doing with India or Hong Kong, Japan doesn’t want to be at the tip of China’s spear right now,” Mr. Hornung said. “They know what they could do around the Senkakus in terms of swarming it with ships.”

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