Morning Alert - Monday, February 22, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on Tokyo Governor Koike’s call for residents to continue refraining from nonessential outings despite a gradual decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases (NHK), Naomi Osaka’s second Australian Open victory (NTV, Fuji TV), the arrival of the second batch of Pfizer vaccines at Narita Airport yesterday (TBS), and the unusually warm weather across Japan on Sunday (TV Asahi).

All national dailies gave front-page coverage to Administrative Reform Minister Kono’s remark yesterday that the number of elderly people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in April will be limited due to a shortage of vaccines.


Japan’s new envoy in Washington comments on bilateral relations

Sunday’s Asahi and Yomiuri reported on Japanese Ambassador Tomita’s first press conference held in the U.S. capital on Friday. “I’ve been tasked with building robust relations with the new administration,” he was quoted as saying. Speaking on bilateral cooperation in dealing with China, the diplomat said: “As the Biden administration has made clear that it will deal with China in partnership with its allies, I would like to cooperate to ensure smooth policy coordination while offering Japanese input.” He added that Washington’s posture toward China remains severe.

In a related story, Sunday’s Yomiuri claimed that U.S.-Japan relations have gotten off to a good start under the Biden administration, as Foreign Minister Motegi has already spoken twice over the phone with Secretary Blinken. The Japanese side is particularly pleased that the new administration is strongly committed to bilateral coordination in dealing with “China’s attempts to alter the status quo with force.” It also welcomes the Democratic administration’s policy of maintaining the Quad framework with Australia and India. While some MOFA officials say there are “no outstanding issues of mutual concern,” others are worried that Japan may be at odds with the U.S. over human rights issues, such as the “genocide” of Uyghurs in China and the military coup in Myanmar (Burma). They are concerned that the Biden administration will call on Japan and other partners to adopt sterner measures, including economic sanctions.

G7 leaders discuss pandemic, Tokyo Olympics

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported on a videoconference held by the G7 leaders on Friday night (Japan time) at which they agreed to cooperate in reconstructing the global economy by combating the coronavirus pandemic. In a joint statement released afterward, the participants voiced support for Japan’s determination to host the Tokyo Olympics in a safe and secure manner as a “symbol of global solidarity in overcoming COVID-19.” The GOJ is reportedly hoping that this endorsement by the G7 will help rebuild momentum for the Games among the Japanese public, with Prime Minister Suga telling the press afterward that the session was “very encouraging.”

As President Biden expressed his commitment to taking a concerted approach with international partners in addressing such challenges as the pandemic and climate change by returning to the Paris accord and pledging to contribute to the COVAX Facility COVID-19 vaccine initiative, the papers said his first G7 meeting demonstrated Washington’s departure from the “America First” approach pursued by the Trump administration. Nikkei expressed the view that since the joint statement promised to make 2021 a “turning point for multilateralism,” the G7 members appear to be determined to repair the internal divisions caused by President Trump. The business daily also wrote that G7 unity will be tested on such issues as fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the creation of a carbon-free economy, and how to deal with a rising China. While the G7 leaders reportedly agreed to take a unified approach to engaging with China to realize a fair global economic system by addressing its unfair trade practices through mutual coordination, the paper added that some European nations are dependent on the Chinese economy.

Sankei wrote that although the main topics of the conference were the pandemic and the global economy, Suga ventured to bring up China’s maritime push in the South and East China Sea to remind other participants of the need to be watchful of Beijing’s disruptive behavior.

President Biden reaffirms apology for internment of Japanese Americans

Sunday’s Yomiuri took up a statement issued on Friday by President Biden on the internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War that began 79 years ago after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order. President Biden reaffirmed the country’s apology that was offered by the Reagan administration in 1988, calling the episode “one of the most shameful periods in American history.”

Japan keen to address India’s misgivings ahead of Quad summit

Saturday’s Asahi reported on a consensus recently forged between the foreign ministers of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India on organizing a summit meeting between their leaders, saying that Tokyo is being especially careful to assuage New Delhi’s concern that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will become a coalition against China. “As relations between India and China are very sensitive, it’s very important to ensure that the four-way venue is amenable to India,” a senior Japanese diplomat was quoted as saying. Japan has reportedly underscored to India that the members are not interested in forming a coalition against China and that the four-party framework will not be a military arrangement.

Meanwhile, today’s Sankei speculated that China may have elected to seal a disengagement agreement with India following the recent border dispute in Kashmir out of concern that continuing to take a hard line could prompt New Delhi to further strengthen its partnership with the other Quad members.

USG voices apprehension about China’s coast guard law

Sunday’s Mainichi and Sankei took up press remarks made on Friday by State Department spokesperson Price on China’s new coast guard law. He criticized the statute for its language “expressly tying the potential use of force, including armed force” to the enforcement of China’s claims in territorial and maritime disputes. The official emphasized that since the wording also strongly implies that the law could be used to intimidate China’s neighbors, Washington “stands firm” in its alliance commitments to both Japan and the Philippines.

In a related development, all national Sunday dailies wrote that two China Coast Guard (CCG) cutters intruded into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus for two hours on Saturday. MOFA reportedly filed a protest with the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo. Two CCG patrol boats reportedly violated the territorial waters again yesterday while apparently chasing a Japanese trawler.

Large majority of Japanese think ties with China, ROK, Russia are in bad shape

The Saturday editions of all national papers reported on the results of a public opinion survey on diplomacy conducted by the Cabinet Office late last year showing that about 82% of Japanese citizens said the nation’s relations with China were “not good,” up 6.3 points from a year ago. The corresponding figures for South Korea and Russia were 82.4% (down 5.5 points) and 74% (up 7.1 points). The daily attributed the Japanese public’s negative sentiments toward the three neighbors to bilateral disputes over the Senkakus, requisitioned workers, and the Northern Territories. In contrast, over 86% of respondents felt that ties with the U.S. were in good shape, up 6.1 points.

The dailies also focused on a finding that a record 40.4% of Japanese said “the development of Japan-ROK ties is not important for the two nations or the region,” up 2.7 points. Nevertheless, some 35% of respondents said they “felt an affinity” for South Korea, up 8.2%. The Foreign Ministry reportedly surmises that an increasing number of Japanese young people find Korean pop culture appealing.

International community denounces crackdown on demonstrators in Myanmar

Asahi wrote today that following the killing on Saturday of two Myanmar (Burma) citizens by the military during a protest rally against the coup, Japan, the U.S., and many other nations issued statements strongly condemning the junta and urging it to stop using violence against civilians immediately. Yomiuri and Nikkei filed similar articles.

In a related development, NHK reported last night that some 3,500 Myanmar citizens staged a rally near the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on Sunday to call for the international community to step up pressure on the junta. Footage showed them assembling across the street from the chancery and pleading for international support for their cause.


SDF conducted record number of “asset protection” operations for U.S. military

Saturday’s Nikkei and Mainichi highlighted the Defense Ministry’s disclosure on Friday that a total of 25 operations were conducted by the SDF last year to protect U.S. military assets, marking a record high and up 11 from the previous year. While explaining that the figure reflects enhanced coordination between the two militaries, the ministry chose not to disclose the details of such operations for security reasons.

SDF pilot killed during flight training in U.S.

All national papers reported on Sunday that an ASDF pilot and his American instructor died in a crash while conducting a training flight in Alabama on Friday, saying that the Japanese pilot in his 20s had been in the U.S. for two years to participate in a USAF flight training course. Defense Minister Kishi voiced “profound regret” over the death of the two men.

Russia deployed electronic warfare equipment in Northern Territories

Saturday’s Sankei led with a report saying the Defense Ministry has concluded that the Russian military has deployed in the Northern Territories an array of equipment for electronic warfare, including small drones used to identify and attack enemy platforms by detecting and analyzing their data transmissions. While noting that this deployment of state-of-the-art defense hardware represents Moscow’s relentless efforts to militarize the contested islands, the daily quoted an unnamed senior GOJ official as saying: “The Russian military intends to make the neighboring Sea of Okhotsk a ‘stronghold’ for stationing strategic submarines and warships to increase its naval presence in the Pacific.”


Coronavirus vaccination program to cover 1 million additional healthcare workers

The Saturday editions of all national dailies wrote that the GOJ has revised its estimate of the number of doctors and nurses who need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, saying that over 5 million medical practitioners are now expected to be inoculated, about 1 million more than initially projected. While the ministry plans to distribute some 2.34 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine nationwide in March, the amount will cover only 1.17 million, or just over 20% of all healthcare workers. The GOJ is reportedly running into difficulty securing enough vaccines to meet domestic demand, with a source close to Prime Minister Suga saying that there is not much Japan can do about it on account of the “vaccine war.”

In a related development, all Monday papers reported on remarks made on a Sunday talk show by Administrative Reform Minister Kono, who suggested that the planned immunization of people aged 65 or older may not start on April 1 as previously planned due to a lack of vaccine supplies and an increase in the number of healthcare professionals who need to be inoculated. As Pfizer will not be able to ramp up vaccine production drastically until early May, the politician also indicated that vaccine supplies will probably be “extremely limited” for a while. As a result, vaccination of the general public may not begin until early summer or later, especially in metropolitan areas, Kono said. He added that a new timeline for the immunization program that reflects more accurate vaccine delivery plans will be unveiled later this week.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s Nikkei wrote that multiple Japanese pharmaceutical companies, including Takeda and Daiichi Sankyo, are moving rapidly to produce and roll out vaccines of their own so that domestic vaccination programs can be conducted periodically without worrying about supplies from abroad. The daily added, however, that Japanese drug makers are lagging behind their foreign rivals in gaining expertise in vaccine development.

Decline in new COVID-19 cases begins to level off in Tokyo

Monday’s Asahi and Nikkei wrote that the number of new coronavirus cases in the nation’s capital in the past week did not decrease as substantially as the metropolitan government had hoped, saying that the seven-day rolling average was 341 as of Feb. 21, down by about 10% from the previous week. Following the declaration of a state of emergency on Jan. 7, the seven-day average had decreased by almost 30% from the previous week for every week until early February. Public health professionals attribute the slowdown in the decline to an increase in outings following the steady improvement in the infection situation for the past month or so.

Osaka to ask GOJ to lift COVID-19 state of emergency for Kansai region

All national dailies reported on Saturday that Osaka Governor Yoshimura decided on Friday to ask the central government to lift the state of emergency for the prefecture in late February in view of the steady improvement in the infection situation there. He is set to consult with his Kyoto and Hyogo counterparts on making the request jointly. The papers added, however, that the GOJ is still cautious about lifting the emergency declaration.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team