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As G-7 snubs Beijing Olympics, Japan fears being left in the cold

  • December 10, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 6:01 a.m.
  • English Press
  • ,

RINTARO TOBITA, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — As more countries announce diplomatic boycotts of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida faces calls from his own party to get off the fence and follow suit.


“Japan is expected to send a political message to the world on human rights,” former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday in a meeting of his faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.


“The time is coming to show Japan’s determination,” he said.


The U.S., Australia, the U.K. and Canada all confirmed this week that they will not send officials to the Games in February, citing human rights concerns in China. Japanese conservatives argue that Tokyo risks becoming the lone holdout if it stays on the sidelines. The trend leaves Japan caught between its sole ally and its largest trading partner less than two months from the Games.


A growing contingent within the LDP is pushing to move in step with Washington. Sanae Takaichi, a China hawk who chairs the party’s powerful Policy Research Council, urged a diplomatic boycott in a parliamentary meeting Wednesday.


Sending political officials “would not be a good message to the world,” Masahisa Sato, who heads the LDP’s foreign affairs division, said Monday.


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi speak at a Diet session on Dec. 6.   © Reuters

The boycott announcements come days before Group of Seven foreign ministers meet in Liverpool on Friday local time. Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly plans to call on Japan, Germany and France, which have yet to take a firm stance, to join the diplomatic snub.


Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi will discuss the issue with his German and French counterparts to get on the same page, as Tokyo could stick out if it sits by while Berlin and Paris choose to act.


The French minister for Europe and foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Thursday that he is seeking a common stance from the European Union on the matter, according to Agence-France Presse. Jean-Michel Blanquer, minister of national education, youth and sports, indicated to French media that the country intends to send an official to the Olympics.


After the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Japan was the quickest of the G-7 members to soften its stance toward Beijing, distancing itself from others in the group out of concern about deteriorating relations with its neighbor.


More than three decades later, China has vastly expanded its military, and the East Asian security environment is increasingly challenging. The boycott poses a test of whether leading democracies can unite in opposition to Chinese authoritarianism, and the outcome may affect security cooperation with Japan.


Beijing’s human rights record is a concern in Japan for not only conservatives, but also the public more broadly.


“I will consider the various factors together and make a decision in line with our national interest at the appropriate time,” Kishida said Thursday when asked about a diplomatic boycott in a session of the Diet’s lower house.


Japan wants to avoid either the U.S. or China losing face. It has in the past prioritized cooperation with its ally, but Beijing is its top trading partner, and the 50-year anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations is coming up. By not jumping immediately on board with the boycott, Tokyo may have sought to signal that it is not merely following Washington’s lead.


Officials envision a few potential paths forward.


One is announcing a boycott soon, aligning itself with the U.S. This would likely anger China, which has threatened retaliation against the countries involved, and could have economic consequences.


Some in the Foreign Ministry here would prefer to wait and keep an eye on the situation. With the spread of the new omicron variant of the virus behind COVID-19, China may end up not accepting foreign diplomatic delegations at all.


Tokyo could also simply not send high-level officials to the Games, without using the word “boycott.” Proponents say this would send a message to the U.S. and others that it is essentially on their side, without irritating China as directly.


If Japan takes one of these routes, its decision will likely become clear around the new year. The delay could risk opening it up to criticism if more European countries join the boycott before then.


It has also been suggested that Japan could send a senior official from the Japanese Olympic Committee instead. This would let Tokyo say it is responding reciprocally to Chinese Olympic Committee President Gou Zhongwen’s trip to this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo. Gou also holds a cabinet-level post leading the China’s General Administration of Sport.


Komeito, the junior member of Japan’s ruling coalition, has hinted that it is leery of a boycott. “There are points where the U.S. and other countries differ on their perception of the human rights situation,” party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said Tuesday.

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