Morning Alert - Friday, January 29, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on the number of COVID-19 cases in Tokyo topping 1,000 yesterday despite the preventive measures being taken under the state of emergency (NHK), the return of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to the Rakuten Eagles after completing seven seasons with the New York Yankees (NTV), the number of people who died of COVID-19 nationwide reaching a record high of 112 on Thursday (TBS), the finding that three people in Saitama tested positive for the UK variant of COVID-19 yesterday (Fuji TV), and snowfall in Tokyo on Thursday (TV Asahi).

Asahi, Yomiuri, and Mainichi gave top play to an agreement reached between the ruling LDP and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan on removing from GOJ legislation on COVID-19 a provision on jailing or fining virus carriers who refuse to be hospitalized. Nikkei’s lead item was the GOJ’s plan to launch a centralized database on coronavirus vaccination so as to ensure the swift immunization of every citizen in the country.


U.S., Japanese leaders apparently agree to take hard line toward China

All national dailies reported extensively on the first teleconference between President Biden and Prime Minister Suga early Thursday morning. The two leaders reportedly discussed a range of security issues, such as the U.S. commitment to extending the “nuclear umbrella” to Japan and the application of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security treaty to the Senkaku Islands. As they also agreed to promote the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative, the papers stressed that the U.S. and Japanese leaders are in sync on firmly dealing with China’s hegemonic ambitions. According to the articles, the Japanese side was particularly pleased that the President mentioned the phrase FOIP, hence demonstrating his administration’s policy of pursuing the strategy in partnership with the other Quad members. Yomiuri claimed that while some members of the Biden administration were initially negative about endorsing the FOIP vision in the belief that it was a Trump initiative, the Japanese side has explained that it was first conceived by the former Abe administration.

Mainichi said that while the Japanese side felt reassured that the Biden administration intends to strengthen the bilateral alliance and focus on Asia with the goal of deterring China, the Suga administration may need to make careful policy adjustments when it comes to dealing with the Korean Peninsula. As Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Sakai, who sat in on the session, refused to provide details to the press on what was discussed between the two leaders on South Korea, the daily conjectured that the U.S. leader may have asked the premier to improve ties with Seoul. While noting that President Biden is apparently committed to promoting the FOIP initiative to rein in China, Sankei voiced concern that U.S. military pressure on the PLA may weaken as the U.S. leader will need to enlist Beijing’s cooperation in combating climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

Nikkei speculated that not much attention was given to economic issues during the teleconference because the primary topics of discussion were security and climate change. The paper added that the President appears to be extremely keen to take the lead in addressing global warming and has already launched various ambitious policy initiatives on this front, such as the convening of a climate change summit in late April and introducing “carbon pricing.” The daily projected that the Suga administration may run into difficulties taking a concerted approach with the Biden administration on environmental issues because some in Japanese business circles are cautious about taking drastic measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Asahi said Suga was anxious to build a personal bond with the U.S. leader, asking him during the teleconference to call him “Yoshi” and going on to say: “May I call you Joe?” While Suga is hoping to visit the U.S. at an early date to meet with the President in person, the U.S. side has reportedly explained to the Japanese side that hosting a foreign leader would be difficult in February.

Meanwhile, Nikkei wrote that the first Biden-Suga teleconference started just after midnight Tokyo time, which was extremely unusual from a Japanese viewpoint, explaining that past phone conversations between the U.S. and Japanese leaders were generally held in the morning Tokyo time (late evening Washington time). The daily speculated that the U.S. side may have taken into account the health of the “elderly” President amid the COVID-19 pandemic when it arranged the Biden-Suga session just before 11 a.m. Washington time.

Secretary Blinken to focus on human rights

Nikkei took up Secretary of State Blinken’s first press conference on Wednesday, focusing on his comments on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and China’s oppression of Uyghurs. The daily said the new top U.S. diplomat underscored the Biden administration’s strong commitment to human rights diplomacy in a bid to play up a clear departure from the Trump administration’s foreign policy, explaining that partly because of his family background, the Secretary is a powerful advocate of improving the human rights situation around the world. The paper added, however, that the Secretary’s strong focus on human rights may end up stalling the administration’s foreign policy agenda since China and other autocratic states are bound to reject U.S. emphasis on human rights. The daily stated in conclusion: “Since President Trump did not accept the results of an election even though elections constitute the core of democracy, the U.S. may no longer be qualified to criticize other countries for human rights violations. It is imperative for the Biden administration to repair the divisions in U.S. society and embody the values of democracy.”

Nikkei separately reported that in a bid to reconstruct the U.S. diplomacy that was thrown into confusion by former President Trump’s intuitive approach, President Biden has appointed veteran diplomats to key portfolios at the State Department, including Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary and former Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland as under secretary for political affairs. While noting that Secretary Blinken and many other appointees at the department have deep expertise in Europe and the Middle East, the daily said it remains to be seen how these diplomats will formulate and conduct Asia diplomacy at a time when China looms larger on the U.S. security radar.


State of emergency unlikely to be lifted on Feb. 7

Asahi front-paged yesterday’s informal meeting of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus advisory board at which many participants expressed opposition to lifting the COVID-19 state of emergency on Feb. 7 as scheduled because the healthcare capacity is still under heavy strain. According to the daily, a consensus is also emerging within the Kantei for extending the declaration by two to four weeks, although Tochigi Prefecture may be removed from the designation because the number of new cases per day and other indicators have improved there.

Three people in Saitama test positive for UK strain of COVID-19

All national papers highlighted a Health Ministry announcement last night that three individuals in Saitama have tested positive for the UK variant of the novel coronavirus, saying that none of them have traveled to the UK recently. Since one of their coworkers in Tokyo was previously infected with the UK strain, the ministry suspects that they got it from this person.

In a related story, Yomiuri reported that according to the Tokyo metropolitan government, the positivity rate of a coronavirus antibody test conducted in December on the blood samples of some 4,000 residents in Tokyo was 1.8%, up 50% from two months ago. The increase reportedly indicates an increase in community transmission of the virus.


Mori, Bach vow to go ahead with Tokyo Olympics in summer

All national papers reported on a videoconference held between IOC President Bach and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee Chairman Mori yesterday during which the two officials affirmed their commitment to holding the international sports event in July as planned. Although they reportedly did not discuss the issue of spectators, Mori told the press afterward that his committee has been looking into various scenarios, including not allowing any spectators to attend.


ACCJ voices concern about NTT realignment

Nikkei focused on a comment made by an American Chamber of Commerce representative during a meeting held yesterday at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The unnamed U.S. businessperson reportedly expressed apprehension about the realignment of the NTT group centering around the delisting of NTT Docomo by saying that the move will “hamper free competition.” The ACCJ official reportedly dismissed the telecom giant’s motive for realignment, which is aimed at countering Google, Apple, and other U.S. IT giants, as “groundless.”

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team