BEIJING (AP) — Chinese embassies on Tuesday suspended issuing new visas to South Koreans and Japanese nationals in apparent retaliation for the COVID-19 testing requirements those countries recently imposed on travelers from China.
Embassies in Tokyo and Seoul announced the suspension in brief online notices.
An announcement from Seoul posted on the embassy’s WeChat social media account said the ban would continue until South Korea lifted its “discriminatory entry measures” against China. The announcement concerned tourist, business and some other visas.
China’s foreign ministry last week threatened countermeasures against countries that announced new virus testing requirements for travelers from China. At least 10 in Europe, North America and Asia have done so recently, with officials expressing concern about the lack of information about fast-spreading virus outbreaks in China.
It was unclear why South Korea and Japan were targeted and whether the suspension would be extended to other countries that have introduced virus testing for travelers from China.
The Chinese embassy in Tokyo said only that the issuance of visas had been suspended. The notices appeared to only apply to new applicants and nothing about people currently holding visas.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement that “our government’s move to strengthen anti-virus measures for travelers arriving from China is based on scientific and objective evidence. We provided information to the international community in a transparent manner and communicated with the Chinese side in advance.”
A Japanese foreign ministry official earlier said it would be “regrettable” if restrictions were put in place. The official spoke on the customary condition of anonymity.
Withholding visas for South Korean or Japanese businessmen could delay an expected recovery in commercial activity and potential new investment after China’s sudden lifting of virus controls last month.
Business groups have previously warned that global companies were moving investment plans out of China because it was too difficult for foreign executives to visit under the pandemic’s control. A handful of foreign automakers and other executives have visited China over the past three years, but many companies have relied on Chinese employees or managers already in the country to run their operations.
The owner of a South Korean restaurant in Beijing said the announcement forced the friends to postpone plans to visit China. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern it could affect his business. He added that he is preparing to renew his Chinese work visa and doesn’t know if that will have an impact.
In a phone call on Monday before announcing the visa suspension, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang “expressed concern” over the measures taken by South Korea to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Park Jin. Qin said he “hopes the South Korean side will uphold an objective and scientific attitude.”
China’s move appears to be based on demands that its citizens be treated the same as those of other countries. About a dozen countries have followed the US in requiring either a negative test before departure from China, a test for the virus upon arrival at the airport, or both.
“Unfortunately, a handful of countries, regardless of science and facts and reality at home, have insisted on adopting discriminatory entry-restriction measures aimed at China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday. “China firmly rejected it and took reciprocal measures. .”
Asked whether the new visas for South Koreans and Japanese had been suspended, he did not directly answer, saying only that he “said that very clearly”.
The World Health Organization and several countries have accused China of withholding data on its outbreak. A WHO representative said on Tuesday that the agency saw no immediate threat to the European region from the Chinese outbreak, but that it needed more information.
China’s ambassador to Australia has said that the response of these countries to China’s COVID-19 epidemic has not been adequate or constructive.
Xiao Qian told reporters in Canberra that China shifted its strategy from preventing infections to preventing serious cases late last year. He said countries should use a science-based response.
“Restrictions on entry, if they are aimed at China, are unnecessary,” the ambassador told reporters.
Once cordial relations between South Korea and China, its biggest trading partner, have soured after Beijing targeted businesses, sports teams and even K-pop groups to protest the deployment of an advanced US anti-missile system in South Korea.
China fought on North Korea’s side in the 1950-1953 war and has remained a supporter of North Korea despite its missile launches and nuclear tests, and has opposed further sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s government.
China abruptly changed its strict requirements to contain the pandemic last month in response to what it says is the changing nature of the epidemic. That came after three years of lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing that sparked rare politically-tinged protests on the streets of Beijing and other major cities.
The most optimistic forecasts say that China’s business and consumer activity could pick up as early as the first quarter of this year. But before that happens, businesses and families face painful pressure from a surge in virus cases that has left employers without enough healthy workers and kept wary customers away from malls, restaurants, hair salons and gyms.
A decision by Xi Jinping’s government to end controls that have shuttered factories and kept millions at home will push back the timeline for an economic recovery but could disrupt activity this year as businesses struggle to adjust, forecasters say.
China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing for further spread to less developed areas with the start of Lunar New Year tourism expected to accelerate in the coming days. While international flights are still restricted, authorities expect domestic rail and air travel to double from the same period last year.
Associated Press writers Joe McDonald in Beijing and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.