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Japan faces pressure to join China sanctions before US talks

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during the virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting, at his official residence in Tokyo on March 12, 2021.

KIYOSHI OTA, GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By ISABEL REYNOLDS | Bloomberg News | Published: March 28, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is under pressure to join other major democracies in imposing sanctions on China over human-rights violations as he prepares for his first face-to-face summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Numerous reports of serious human-rights abuses against the Uyghur ethnic group in China's far western region of Xinjiang have prompted several countries in the West to sanction Communist Party officials. Beijing has routinely dismissed the accusations about its behavior against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs as politically motivated lies, and on Saturday it announced retaliatory sanctions on individuals in the U.S. and Canada.

While Japan has long resisted putting economic penalties on its largest trading partner, some in Suga's ruling party are calling for him to take a more radical line — particularly with the Group of Seven summit in the U.K. coming up in June.

"Japan is the only G-7 country not taking part in the sanctions," said Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister, who co-chairs a cross-party group of lawmakers on China policy. "It's shameful for Japan to be seen as a country that's pretending not to know what's going on."

Suga is set to become the first foreign leader to visit Biden at the White House, with media reports saying the summit may take place as soon as April 9. Japan was also the first foreign destination for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who held talks with his counterpart in Tokyo earlier this month.

Japan, similar to neighbor South Korea, is stuck in the awkward position of being deeply entwined with China economically, even as it relies on the U.S. for defense as its sole military ally. The Japanese government has often sought to maintain ties with U.S. adversaries and traditionally keeps criticism of other countries over human rights low-key.

The debate comes as Japanese brands find themselves at risk of boycotts in China similar to those faced by Hennes & Mauritz AB and Nike Inc. after pledging not to use Xinjiang cotton. H&M stores in some parts of China were closed by their landlords in recent days as fallout from a months-old fashion retailer's statement about forced labor in Xinjiang continues to spread.

Ryohin Keikaku Co., the operator of the Muji chain of minimalist furniture and clothing stores, saw its shares tumble after it issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" about reports of human-rights abuses in the area.

"Relevant people on the Japanese side claimed they care about human rights, but have they forgotten the 35 million Chinese casualties from the war of Japanese aggression?" Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters last week. She added that it was "not in Japan's interest" to attack China.

Tokyo's relations with China have frequently been strained by territorial disputes and disagreements over history, but the Japanese government usually steers clear of head-on clashes that risk damaging economic ties. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had focused on rebuilding a relationship with Beijing that was in tatters when he took office in 2012 because of opposing claims over a chain of East China Sea islands.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Japanese government and citizen groups provided aid shipments to China, an effort that elicited gratitude and praise from Beijing. The warmer ties were to be feted in a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan in spring 2020, but that was postponed indefinitely as the pandemic worsened.

The past year has seen cracks starting to reappear, with Japan taking a lead role in pulling together a joint statement from Group of Seven foreign ministers in June condemning China's crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy advocates. Increasing tension around the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, as well as Beijing's passage of a law allowing its coast guard vessels to fire on foreign ships, have turned some in Japan more hostile.

Magnitsky debate

"It's not only the U.S. and Japan," said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat and now special adviser to Suga's cabinet. "This is a concern about attempts to change the status quo even by force, or neglect of universal values including democracy or human rights."

Canada, the U.K. and the EU have passed their own versions of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which allow governments to revoke visas and freeze the assets of people involved in human-rights violations or corruption. Japan has no such law. Nakatani and other lawmakers, including Shiori Yamao of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, want to enact similar legislation, or at least pass a resolution having the same effect.

Asked about the need for such a capability, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters last week that policy "must constantly be analyzed and considered from various perspectives, including the way Japan's human-rights diplomacy has been managed up until now, and the direction of the international community."

It remains unclear whether the Japanese government will eventually back the bill, or make use of it even if it's passed. Some members of Suga's Liberal Democratic Party, as well as its ruling coalition partner, Komeito, pride themselves on warm ties with China.

"Of course China is an important neighbor for us and they won't move away, we won't move out," Miyake said. "Having the means to do something, to send the right message to the right country is one thing. Activating it is another matter."


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