As the world toughens on China, Japan tries to thread a needle

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China has responded by restricting Australian imports and threatening a series of retaliatory measures against any country that wants to punish it. China responded to the closure of its Houston consulate on Friday by ordering the United States to close its consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

To some extent, Japan’s moderate response to China echoes its broader approach to foreign policy, in which it tends to avoid direct conflict or public rebuke from other nations. He has also sometimes sought a mediating role, such as when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last December 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 to protect themselves against an unpredictable Trump administration. In 2018, Abe became the first Japanese leader to visit China in seven years, and the two leaders pledged to deepen their economic and political cooperation. The invitation for Xi to visit Japan followed soon after.

Now, given China’s muscles flexing as the world worries about the pandemic, some have expressed disappointment that Japan has not pushed back its neighbor more vigorously, for example by permanently canceling Xi’s visit. . In recent weeks, China has engaged in deadly clashes on its border with India in the Himalayas, and has sent ships for 100 consecutive days – the longest period in years of such incursions – to patrol in the waters around the Senkakus, islands administered by Japan but disputed by China.

Japan “should just say ‘we can’t have it if China continues with this kind of behavior,” said Jeffrey Hornung, analyst at RAND Corporation, referring to Xi. But Mr Hornung admitted that Tokyo would not want to attract China’s full wrath either.

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

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