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Xi to delay visit to Japan following coronavirus crisis


TOKYO – Japan and China discuss postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to April at least until fall, the two countries hoping to prioritize the fight against growing outbreak of the new coronavirus, sources said.

Officials in Beijing and Tokyo believe that preparing for a successful visit has become almost impossible given the growing epidemic. The two parties will renegotiate the new dates according to their political and diplomatic calendars. Xi's state visit to Japan will be the first of a Chinese president since 2008.

Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese diplomat, visited Tokyo on Friday and Saturday to discuss the situation. Yang had talks with his counterpart Shigeru Kitamura, head of the National Security Council of Japan. He also met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi.

Xi's visit "will be the first of the Chinese president in 10 years, and we must ensure that the visit will bring complete results," said Abe at a press conference on Saturday.

Xi's visit aims to highlight the improvement in Sino-Japanese relations, spreading to the world a "new era" in bilateral relations.

Japan and China plan to develop documents defining their new bilateral relations. They negotiate cooperation in areas such as joint projects in third countries, the environment, medicine and nursing. But the spread of the virus has delayed preparations.

Chinese leadership led by Xi, who also acts as general secretary of the Communist Party, makes improving relations with Japan a top priority, especially in light of trade tensions with America and other questions.

Even after the coronavirus epidemic, Beijing was still trying to arrange a visit in April. But infections and deaths have continued to skyrocket, and the epidemic is expected to explode the Chinese economy. Beijing fears that Xi will be seen as neglecting domestic policies if he continues his visit.

On February 24, Beijing postponed the National People's Congress, which was scheduled to open on March 5 – a crucial decision given that the meeting had been held on that date since 1998.

Before that, the Congress did not meet several times during the Mao-inspired cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976.

Coronavirus cases are also increasing in Japan, with the government trying to cap them as the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games approach. This led officials to question the wisdom of accepting a large Chinese delegation.

Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated in 2012 after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands. The islands – a group of small uninhabited islets in the East China Sea – are administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.

But in recent years, diplomatic visits have resumed at a brisk pace. In May 2018, Li Keqiang went to Japan, becoming the first Chinese Premier to do so in seven years. Later that year, in October, Abe paid an official visit to China, the first such visit by a Japanese prime minister in about seven years, excluding international conferences.

In 2019, Xi returned the favor by traveling to Osaka for the Group of 20 summit in June, while Abe visited China again in December.

Relations between Japan and China are still strained over security issues, including the East China Sea, so the visit of the Chinese president is eagerly awaited on both sides. Xi said China would "aggressively establish constructive security relations" with Japan.

Japan has attempted to resolve the problem of intrusions by Chinese ships into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, as well as to resolve the joint development of natural gas fields in the East China Sea.

It will not be the first time that a visit by the Chinese president to Japan has been postponed. In September 1998, the then president, Jiang Zemin, was due to arrive in Japan, but was delayed until November due to severe flooding in his home.

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