China said Sunday it will resume issuing ordinary visas for Japanese citizens, a procedure it suspended in early January in protest of Japan's tightened COVID-19 measures for travelers from China, in a move that could thaw bilateral relations.

The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo said it was resuming issuance the same day. The step is expected to ease concerns among Japanese businesses operating in China.

The end of the restrictions came as Beijing focuses on the recovery of its economy battered by stringent antivirus measures involving lockdowns and a subsequent explosion of infections later in 2022.

Pedestrians walk by a billboard advertising Japan at a subway station in Beijing on Jan. 29, 2023. (Kyodo)

Beijing has similarly halted issuing visas to South Korean citizens but yet to announce the restart of the procedure. China had approved issuing some types of visas to Japanese and South Korean citizens as exceptions made for diplomats, government officials and businesspeople facing urgent needs.

Japan, South Korea and a number of other countries have tightened border controls on travelers from China as it reopened its borders and scrapped quarantine measures on Jan. 8.

They cited a lack of credible infection data and fears that a new virus variant could emerge in China. On Jan. 10, Beijing halted visa issuance for Japanese and South Korean travelers, criticizing their entry restrictions on visitors from China as "discriminatory."

Tokyo had lodged a protest with Beijing through diplomatic channels and demanded termination of the restrictions, which Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said "seem to have nothing to do with" countermeasures against COVID-19.

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

Japanese business representatives welcomed the move, with an executive of a business body saying China "tried to minimize negative impact" on economic activities as it lifted the restrictions soon after the Lunar New Year holidays through Friday, during which production is usually suspended.

A senior official of the China unit of a Japanese manufacturer expressed hope that Beijing will reintroduce a 15-day visa-free visit for Japanese citizens at an early date so that business leaders can travel to the neighboring country more easily.

Specifically, Japan currently requires travelers from mainland China to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure.

In addition, all travelers from mainland China and those who have visited the country within seven days are required to take a PCR or high-sensitivity antigen test upon arrival in Japan. Those who test positive must quarantine at a designated facility for up to seven days.

On Friday, South Korea extended its restrictions on issuing short-term visas for travelers from China through Feb. 28, citing concerns that the virus could spread further in the neighboring country following the Lunar New Year holidays.

Chinese health authorities said last Wednesday that COVID-19 infections in China had peaked on Dec. 22 last year, with new daily cases reaching 6.94 million, after the end of lockdowns and frequent PCR testing earlier that month sparked a massive wave of cases.

The number of new cases has since fallen to 15,000 as of last Monday. About 80 percent of the country's 1.4 billion population has already been infected, according to an official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The center has also reported 6,364 COVID deaths in the week through last Thursday, about a half of the figure in the previous week. The official death count, which does not include those who died at home, has surpassed 70,000 since China drastically eased its antivirus measures on Dec. 7.

China has said it will allow the resumption of group tours to 20 countries starting Feb. 6, but Japan and South Korea are not among the destinations.

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