Japan ruling party softens demand to cancel Chinese President Xi's visit over Hong Kong clampdown

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Dec 23, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party watered down a proposed demand to cancel a visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping following his clampdown on Hong Kong, as some Japanese lawmakers sought to allay tensions with the country's biggest trading partner.

The resolution now says that two groups within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party "feel forced to urge that President Xi's state visit be cancelled", according to a document distributed to reporters on Tuesday (July 7).

The document's proponents had previously sought to have a demand for cancellation ratified by the whole party.

The resolution is set to be presented to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, according to lawmaker Yasuhide Nakayama.

The changes may not be enough to satisfy China, which has criticised Japan over its expressions of concern for Hong Kong and shown displeasure at mentions of calling off the state visit.

Mr Abe has spent much of his nearly eight-year tenure trying to repair ties with China while maintaining Japan's postwar alliance with the US.

The Japanese lawmakers' pressure for an official cancellation of the visit, which was postponed from early April as both countries battled the coronavirus, comes amid growing disquiet over China's behaviour among US allies around the world.

There are fears the sweeping security law that came into effect last week in Hong Kong would undermine the city's autonomy from the mainland and have a chilling impact on free speech.

Police last Wednesday made their first arrests under the new law amid protests marking the July 1 anniversary of the city's handover from British rule.

There's been criticism from foreign governments, with the US Senate approving a sanctions Bill aimed at banks that do business with Chinese officials involved in clamping down on Hong Kong's protesters, and the UK offering a home to millions of Hong Kong residents.

"Our fears have become a reality," Japan's LDP said in the document. "Just as China pushed through the legislation, many people were arrested. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. We renew our strong condemnation."

The Japanese government's criticism of China has been relatively muted.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi issued a statement of regret over the legislation, in which he also urged China to respect the rights of Japanese people and companies in Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, he reiterated that Japan was not in a position to set a date for Mr Xi's visit at present, adding that high-level meetings are an important opportunity to resolve problems.

The toning down of the resolution follows the longest incursion in eight years by Chinese coast guard ships into East China Sea waters administered by Japan over the weekend, NHK reported.

It also came after LDP secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai on Tuesday called for caution on diplomatic issues.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a briefing in Beijing on Monday that a China coast guard ship followed and monitored a Japanese fishing boat it said was illegally in its territory and asked it to move out of Chinese waters.

Ties between China and Japan deteriorated to their worst point in decades after Japan purchased part of a disputed island chain from a private owner in 2012.

Relations slowly returned to a relatively even keel, but coast guard and military vessels from both countries continue to follow one another around the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

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