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.”

On Hong Kong, Japan did not join the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain in an initial statement criticizing the national security law.

One area where Japan has taken steps against China is the economy. Earlier this year, it passed a law restricting foreign investment in industries that the government designates as important to national security, a move that many viewed as targeting China. It has also offered financial incentives to companies — especially those in crucial sectors — to move operations out of China and into Japan or Southeast Asia.

“The Chinese economy is recovering while other countries are still deteriorating,” said Takahide Kiuchi, an economist at Nomura Research Institute, a think tank. “Now China is in a good position to purchase companies in other countries, so the government is cautious about critical industries related to the military and national security.”

Still, Japan does not want to push too hard.

In addition to being Japan’s largest trading partner, China sent more tourists to Japan than any other nation before the pandemic shut borders. Last year, close to 115,000 Chinese students were studying at Japanese universities. The government, which has imposed entry bans on nearly 150 countries during the pandemic, is now discussing admitting travelers from several Asian countries, including China.

“A couple of years ago, it seemed like there was space for Japan to be seen as a mediator because relations between the U.S. and China had become so bad,” Ms. Govella said. But with China’s increasing aggression, it “really is an actor that has different values and dubious intentions in the region,” she said.

As China pursues this more belligerent policy, Japanese analysts say they hope that Beijing might learn from Japan’s own history and not try to expand its power too far, particularly by repressive means.

China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea, for example, are “one step toward kicking out the Western elements from their sphere of influence, which they have been dreaming of for the past century and a half,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who is now teaching at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

“Their nationalistic ambition will not end,” he said. “I am very concerned, and nobody can stop it, as they couldn’t stop us in Manchuria in the 1930s,” Mr. Miyake said, referring to Japan’s invasion of that region of eastern China.

“At that time, the more pressure we had, the more adamant and arrogant and self-assertive we became, because we were too nationalistic and too undemocratic, and that was our destiny,” Mr. Miyake said. “China is following the same path.”

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