China is opening up visa-free rules for Europe and Asia. Why have Japan and the UK not made the cut?


In a move last year that surprised many, China made short visits visa-free for five European nations and Malaysia for a year starting December 1.
The departure from China’s usually strict entry requirements was expanded last month to cover Irish and Swiss nationals, after France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain in the first round.
In Southeast Asia, China has recently also signed mutual visa waiver agreements with Singapore and Thailand, after earlier reinstating a 15-day unilateral visa-free rule for Singapore and Brunei nationals that had been suspended during the Covid years.

Beijing has described the relaxations as designed to help “China’s high-quality development and high-standard opening up”, and said it will seek to open up more visa-free travel and expand reciprocal visa exemption deals.
However, its policy appears to be selective, with economic powerhouses Japan and Britain yet to be included in the scheme.
Japanese passport holders enjoyed 15-day visa-free stays under the same pre-pandemic scheme as Singapore and Brunei, but have yet to see the policy resume.
Britain also missed out, despite China’s post-Covid travel policy covering nearly all of Europe’s major economies.
Observers said while Beijing might be trying to shed the isolationist image of three years of strict pandemic-related border controls, visa-free arrangements are also seen as a litmus test for diplomatic relations.
Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics and international relations at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, said Beijing’s apparent difference of attitude when it came to visa policies for Britain and Japan showed it was mindful of geopolitical considerations.
“While many European governments have followed the US too closely on issues like de-risking and various anti-China narratives, in fact it’s possible that China-EU relations are not irretrievably broken,” Mahoney said, arguing that ties could “still improve despite serious setbacks in recent years”.
Beijing would like to improve ties through people-to-people exchanges that might help “deconstruct the demonising narratives” against China in Western media, he added.
“Many in Europe are suspicious of US hegemony, they don’t like the EU’s prospects if divorced from Russian energy and the Chinese market, so there’s still a chance to encourage a return to better relations.”
The world’s No 2 economy is trying to court foreign investors and tourists while it struggles with weakened consumer demand and patchy post-Covid recovery.
“Without a doubt more visits would … improve China’s economic recovery and ability to attract [foreign direct investment] and new business development,” Mahoney said.
However, Japan and the United Kingdom were more clearly aligned with the US and this was a source of frustration for Beijing, according to Mahoney, who said: “It seems rather clear that the UK and Japan are committed to Washington’s attempts to contain and suppress Chinese development, but this is less so in Europe.”
Japan, which has historical and territorial disputes with China, has stepped up joint military drills in the region with treaty ally the United States. Tokyo has in recent years also voiced concerns about being caught up in the crossfire should Beijing choose to attack Taiwan, which it sees as part of China to be reunited by force if necessary and holds up as a “red line” in international relations.
A pro-Taiwan politician has been named as Japan’s new defence minister, after a serving government official was reportedly deputed to act as its de facto defence attaché in Taiwan last year.
When William Lai Ching-te, slammed by Beijing as a “troublemaker”, won Taiwan’s presidential vote last month, Tokyo hailed the island as “an extremely crucial partner”. In 2020 when Tsai Ing-wen won her second term, Tokyo said Taiwan was an “important partner”.
Beijing’s reactions to the waste water release from Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant and a reported leak there have added to the friction.
London has also sparred with Beijing over Taiwan. In November, Beijing told London to stop trying to “enhance” ties with Taipei after it signed a new trade agreement with the island and held high-profile meetings with Taiwanese officials.
Neither Japan nor the UK recognises self-governed Taiwan as independent or has formal diplomatic ties with it.
UK-China relations have also been strained over issues such as alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang and a national security crackdown in Hong Kong, a former British colony.
But while the UK has never had a visa-free agreement with China, Japan did so until just a few years ago.
Lu Xiang, a research fellow in US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a reciprocal visa-free regime with Japan was still possible, despite the geopolitical tensions.
Negotiations on resuming the visa-free policy may face some “twists and turns”, he said, but it was still possible to expect “some achievement soon”.
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said even though Beijing’s visa-waiver policy was politically driven, Japan’s economic importance was too big to ignore.
Japanese investment in China in 2021 was nearly five times larger than the other way round, creating a strong market for Japanese business travel to the country. Japan was also China’s second-largest trading partner as an individual country in the same year.
In a positive signal from China, its foreign ministry confirmed late last month that Beijing aimed to “intensively look into” a resumption of the visa-free arrangement for Japanese visitors.
“We hope that Japan can work with us in the same direction to make cross-border travel between our two countries easier,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
The British Chamber of Commerce in China said Beijing’s move to introduce visa-free entries for several countries “had resonated with members, with many calling for the UK’s inclusion at our annual ‘British Business in China: Sentiment Survey’ launches across the country in January”.
“We hope this can be facilitated to encourage more people-to-people exchanges in turn creating a better climate for trade and investment,” it said.


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