Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is under pressure to join other major democracies in imposing sanctions on China over human rights breaches as he prepares for his first face-to-face summit with US President Joe Biden.
Numerous reports of serious human rights abuses against the Uighur ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region have prompted several Western nations to sanction Chinese Communist Party officials.
Beijing has routinely dismissed the accusations about its behavior against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs as politically motivated lies, and on Saturday it announced retaliatory sanctions on individuals in the US and Canada, adding to those imposed earlier on the UK and the EU.
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 G7 summit in the UK coming up in June.
“Japan is the only G7 country not taking part in the sanctions,” said Gen Nakatani, a former Japanese minister of defense who cochairs 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 might take place as soon as April 9. China is likely to be on the agenda there, as well as at the G7 talks, to which Asian democracies would be invited to counter China and other states criticized for being authoritarian.
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 US for defense as its sole military ally.
While the Biden administration has signaled a renewed focus on human rights in its foreign policy, the Japanese government has often sought to maintain ties with US adversaries and traditionally keeps criticism of other countries low key.
The debate comes as Japanese brands find themselves at risk of boycotts in China similar to those faced by Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) 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 statement by the fashion retailer 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) 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 Japanese 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 (習近平) to Japan in spring last year, 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 G7 foreign ministers in June last year condemning China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy advocates.
Increasing tension around the disputed islands known as Diaoyutai (釣魚台) in Taiwan and China, and Senkaku in Japan, 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.
“It’s not only the US 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 UK and the EU have passed their own versions of the US 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, Japanese 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.”
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