An outbreak of the new coronavirus has not only delayed Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to Japan but may lead to cancellation of it amid mounting criticism against him for his handling of human rights and territorial issues.
As Xi has been also under scrutiny both at home and abroad over shortcomings in his response to the new pneumonia-causing virus, first detected late last year in China's central city of Wuhan, Tokyo and Beijing are likely to struggle to rearrange his trip to Japan.
The governments of the world's second- and third-biggest economies, which have tried to improve their ties by effectively shelving bilateral rows, had accelerated preparations for Xi's state visit to Japan this spring, possibly in early April.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who critics say has so far failed to secure major diplomatic achievements since he took office in December 2012, has hoped for a foreign policy win by realizing the first trip by a Chinese head of state in more than a decade.
With conflict over trade and technology with the United States weighing on the Chinese economy, Xi has been also eager to bolster economic cooperation with Japan since he started his second term as chief of the Communist Party in October 2017.
Abe has emphasized Sino-Japanese relations, which had markedly deteriorated for around five years since 2012 over a territorial spat in the East China Sea, have "returned to a normal track."
On the occasion of Xi's first visit to Japan as a state guest since he became the country's president in 2013, Tokyo and Beijing were expected to agree on a new political document that will lay the foundation for their future ties, diplomatic sources said.
(People line up for temperature checks at the entrance of an office building in Beijing on March 5, 2020.)
The Japanese government, however, said Thursday that Xi's state visit has been postponed, pledging to concentrate on curbing the spread of the new virus that has already killed over 3,000 people across the globe.
"This is only a delay. I don't think it will put a break on the recent improvement in relations between the two nations," a Japanese government official said.
At their talks on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June last year, Abe invited Xi to make a "state visit" to Japan "when cherry blossoms bloom."
During his stay in Japan, the Chinese head of state planned to entail a meeting with Abe as well as an audience with Emperor Naruhito and a lavish banquet at the Imperial Palace, sources close to the matter said.
Nonetheless, there remains an objection to the state visit among Japanese conservative lawmakers, who have lambasted what they call human rights violations under Xi in Hong Kong and the far-western Xinjiang region and Chinese vessels intruding into Japanese territorial waters.
Xi's visit "would become a good chance to show the responsibility of Japan and China in the international community," Abe told a press conference in late December.
But Abe, whose political base is in the right wing of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, had to "make a tough choice" about whether to proceed with the plan to invite Xi as a state guest and arrange an audience with the emperor, a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said.
(File photo taken in September 2012 shows the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.)
In the wake of the decision to put off Xi's visit, some conservative lawmakers in Abe's ruling party have begun to urge the prime minister to consider canceling it.
Hiroshi Yamada, an LDP upper house lawmaker, said, "Unless issues such as human rights and the Senkakus are improved, (Xi's planned visit) should be taken back to the drawing board," referring to the disputed islands in the East China Sea.
China-Japan tension intensified after the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Abe's predecessor, brought the uninhabited Senkakus under state control from private ownership in 2012. The islets are controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
Masahisa Sato, an LDP upper house lawmaker who served as senior vice foreign minister under the Abe administration for nearly two years until September 2019, also said, "Nothing has been improved between Japan and China," while asking Abe to call off Xi's visit.
Shi Ping, a foreign affairs commentator who was born in China and whose Japanese name is Seki Hei, said that even without the outbreak of the new coronavirus, there is no "environment" where Xi's state visit to Japan is welcomed.
"China has still intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus," said Shi, who is well-versed in bilateral ties.