Japan’s Foreign Minister Expresses ‘Serious Concerns’ to Chinese Counterpart

April 7, 2021 Updated: April 7, 2021

Japan’s foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi clashed with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in a telephone conversation on April 5 over a range of issues, ahead of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington to strengthen Japan–U.S. ties on April 16.

Motegi criticized China’s behavior in disputed waters, the human rights situation in Xinjiang, and issues in Hong Kong in a 90-minute phone discussion with Wang.

While confirming with Wang the importance of contributing to the region and the international community, Motegi expressed “serious concerns” about the invasion of the Senkaku Islands (also called the Tiao-yu Islands in Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands in mainland China) by the China Coast Guard, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and the human rights situation in Xinjiang during the longer-than-expected conversation.

On the Chinese side, however, Wang said that Hong Kong- and Xinjiang-related issues are China’s domestic affairs, and he hoped Japan wouldn’t be led by countries that stand against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Japan should not stretch its hand “too far,” he said.

On April 6, a cross-party group of Japanese lawmakers called for a law enabling sanctions for human rights violations at its inaugural meeting. Akihisa Nagashima, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, told the meeting that serious human rights violations are occurring around the world.

“The world is focusing more and more on how Japan, whose constitution emphasizes human rights, will respond,” he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato also expressed that Japan should constantly evaluate the need for its own sanctions law, at a news briefing in Tokyo.

Currently, Japan lacks a legal framework to impose sanctions on human rights abuses.

It’s rare for Japan to criticize China publicly, especially in terms of human rights. For decades, Japan has cautiously maintained its relationship with the communist regime, its top trading partner.

However, the Japanese government has been increasingly critical of the practices of the CCP in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and in disputed waters. On Feb. 1, China’s controversial coast guard law took effect, which empowers its maritime law enforcement to open fire on foreign vessels if needed.

Jun Tsuruta, an associate professor of international law at Meiji Gakuin University, believes that the China Coast Guard poses a challenge for Japan because China hasn’t provided a clear definition of its jurisdictional waters in a geographical sense, according to an April 6 article in The Japan Times.

He suspects “China is making claims under its own interpretation of maritime zones beyond what the UNCLOS states” and deems the China Coast Guard as a maritime law enforcement agency and a military agency as well, after examining the text of the law in detail. UNCLOS stands for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

On April 4, Japan’s Ministry of Defense said the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning had, a day earlier, sailed between Okinawa and Miyakojima islands to enter the Pacific Ocean, the first time that a Chinese ship has crossed the waters since April last year.

On March 16, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Tokyo for a ministerial meeting with Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.

At the meeting, the officials joined forces to criticize China’s behavior, which presents various challenges to the U.S.–Japan alliance and the international community.

Japan was the first destination of the visiting U.S. officials’ overseas travel under the Biden administration.