China on Wednesday suspended visa-free stays in the country for Japanese and South Korean citizens heading to a third nation, introducing additional measures to counter tighter border controls implemented by the two Asian neighbors.

The move comes one day after Beijing suspended issuing visas to Japanese and South Korean nationals. Tokyo has protested the suspension and urged Beijing to repeal it, while Seoul has also defended its border controls targeting travelers from China as "science-based and objective."

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said Wednesday that Japan and South Korea have taken "discriminatory measures" against Chinese travelers, causing difficulties and obstacles to personnel exchanges and that China has reasons to respond, according to Chinese media.

Photo taken on Jan. 11, 2023, shows the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

"It is extremely regrettable that China is restricting issuing visas for reasons besides novel coronavirus countermeasures," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a regular news conference earlier on Wednesday, adding Tokyo has protested through diplomatic channels.

Late last year, Japan tightened border controls for travelers from mainland China as a temporary measure, requiring them to test for COVID-19 upon arrival amid a surge in cases and fears that a new coronavirus variant could emerge there.

As Beijing reopened the country's borders and abandoned quarantine measures on Sunday, Tokyo further beefed up Japan's border controls for travelers whose trips originated in China, requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test before departure.

Matsuno, the top Japanese government spokesman, defended the government's decision, saying the measures are "temporary steps designed to avoid a rapid influx" of infected people into Japan.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi separately said, "(The measures) have been put in place so as not to hinder as much as possible the global movement of people," speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Argentina.

"We will examine the COVID-19 conditions in China and how the country discloses information and act accordingly," said Hayashi, who is on a trip across the Americas.

The Japanese Embassy in Beijing tweeted in Chinese that Beijing's approach "completely lacks reciprocity" as Tokyo has not restricted the issuance of visas for Chinese citizens intending to visit Japan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin defended the measures against Japanese and South Korean citizens as "legitimate and reasonable," saying they were introduced to "protect the legitimate rights of Chinese citizens and to uphold the environment necessary" for the exchange and cooperation between countries.

At a press conference in Beijing Wednesday, Wang urged relevant countries to adopt "science-based and proportionate" steps and "avoid politicizing the issue."

The spokesman indicated tighter border controls only targeting travelers from China are not necessary, introducing experts' comments that virus variants circulating in China have been found elsewhere.

He also said threats to the health system could come from anywhere, referring to the rapid increase of the XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant in the United States.

China's decision to suspend the issuance of new visas is a worrying development for Japanese businesspeople and students who are planning to study in China, as Beijing has not set an expiration for the measure.

Many Japanese company officials were concerned about the visa suspension as it would make planned personnel reshuffles and business trips difficult, affecting their operations.

There are more than 30,000 operation bases of Japanese firms in China, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

An official of electronic component maker Murata Manufacturing Co., which has production bases in China, said, "If the same situation continues for two to three months, then it may start affecting our staff rotation and production at our factories in China."

"Unless business predictability is ensured, we cannot chart a growth strategy," a senior Japanese automaker official said.

At the Chinese Visa Application Service Center in Tokyo, an official explained to some 30 people who lined up Wednesday morning to file documents that visas would be granted only on "humanitarian grounds," such as death or critical illness of immediate family members.

A Japanese woman, 60, whose parents are in their 90s, living in Beijing and have contracted the coronavirus, was denied entry to the center, as she did not have certificates showing they were critically ill.

"I came here thinking there could be a chance for me, but I wonder how I can prove my parents have been in a critical condition," she said.

The Chinese visa suspension is "not a border control step, just harassment," another woman, who was prevented from filing an application, said angrily.

Since late last year, China has significantly relaxed its stringent antivirus rules, including no longer restricting people's movement, in a complete departure from its strict "zero-COVID" policy involving lockdowns and isolation measures.

The drastic shift triggered an explosion in coronavirus cases across the country, creating fear among other nations of an influx of infected people from China amid a lack of verified data on the spread of the virus.

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