China’s COVID feud with Japan ratchets up Indo-Pacific tensions

A diplomatic feud between Australia’s biggest trading partner and closest friend in the region is escalating after China stopped issuing visas for Japanese travellers as a punishment for the introduction of COVID-19 testing rules for Chinese arrivals.

The move has infuriated Tokyo, with Japan’s embassy in Australia demanding Beijing lift the freeze on Japanese visa applications on the grounds the measure has nothing to do with the management of COVID-19.

Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian said Japan posed a bigger security threat to Australia than China.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

China has also suspended visa applications from South Korea.

Australia and most other nations have so far been spared from retaliation from Beijing for imposing testing requirements on Chinese travellers, but Australian officials are watching the downturn in Japan-China relations with trepidation.

Since coming to power, the Albanese government has been trying to stabilise relations with Beijing while expanding security co-operation with Tokyo.

The revelation about China’s suspension of Japanese and South Korean visa applications came a day after Beijing’s top envoy in Australia launched a stunning attack on Japan, declaring the nation a greater military threat than China and warning Australia not to place too much trust in its former World War II adversary.

The dispute has taken on a personal edge, with Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian accusing his Japanese counterpart, Shingo Yamagami, of failing to do his job properly by trying to drive a wedge between Australia and China.

A spokesman for the Japanese embassy in Canberra said Japan’s testing requirements were “based on the difficulty to access accurate information regarding the COVID situation in China” while China’s visa freeze was “taken for reasons other than COVID”.

“Japan strongly regrets that China took such a measure,” the embassy spokesman said.

“We are communicating our objection to the Chinese government through diplomatic channels and demanding that the measure be dropped.”

Speaking before departing on a trip to Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia had “a very positive relationship with Japan” and wanted to see improved relations with China.

Noting speculation that China could be about to lift its ban on Australian coal, Albanese said the government would “continue to put our case that any impediments which are there towards trade should be removed in Australia’s interest and in China’s interest”.

The state-owned Global Times newspaper reported the first batch of Australian coal was expected to arrive in China in late February.

In a speech to Papua New Guinea’s parliament on Thursday, Albanese will say Australia and PNG are “bound not just by a shared past and a shared border but by a common determination to shape our own futures”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will talk about Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea in a speech.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“As two big Pacific Ocean states, Australia and PNG must work as equals with our fellow Pacific states to build a stronger, safer, more secure region,” he will say.

Albanese will say he hopes to achieve a swift conclusion to negotiations on a bilateral security treaty with PNG and increase the number of PNG workers in Australia.

It was unclear why China singled out Japan and South Korea for retaliation, but both countries have tougher entry COVID requirements for Chinese travellers than Australia.

South Korea requires travellers from China to obtain a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival and remain in isolation until receiving negative results. Japan requires travellers from China to be tested upon arrival.

Lowy Institute China expert Richard McGregor said it would run counter to recent improvements in the Australia-China relationship if Beijing were to impose retaliatory measures on Australia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Tuesday: “Regrettably, a handful of countries, in disregard of science and facts and the reality at home, have insisted on taking discriminatory entry restriction measures targeting China.

“China firmly rejected this and took reciprocal measures.”

The withholding of visas from South Korean or Japanese businesspeople could delay a much anticipated return of commercial activity after China abruptly ended its tough “zero COVID” policy last month.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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