Morning Alert - Monday, March 15, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on an increase in the weekly average of new COVID-19 cases in Tokyo (NHK, NTV), the likelihood that the GOJ will lift the state of emergency for the Tokyo area on March 21 as planned (TBS, TV Asahi), and an increase in the number of people out and about in Tokyo on Sunday to enjoy the cherry blossoms that have just begun to bloom (Fuji TV).

No papers were published this morning due to a press holiday.


Prime Minister Suga to visit U.S. in April

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported on the GOJ announcement on Friday that Prime Minister Suga will visit the United States for talks with President Biden in the first half of April, projecting that China’s rise will be the main topic of discussion. In what will be the new U.S. leader’s first in-person summit since taking office, Suga is hoping to confirm bilateral partnership toward realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific. The two leaders are also expected to exchange views on a decarbonized society ahead of the climate change summit that the President plans to host on April 22. Sunday’s Yomiuri speculated that the U.S.-Japan summit will likely be held in Washington on April 9. As the visit will take place during the coronavirus pandemic, Suga’s activities will be kept to a minimum and the number of people in his delegation will be limited. Foreign Minister Motegi is unlikely to accompany him. Suga and his entourage of 80 to 90 GOJ officials are likely to receive their first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine soon so they will be fully inoculated ahead of their departure.

Noting that Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin will soon visit Japan for their first foreign tour and President Biden just held a videoconference with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India, the papers said these moves reflect Washington’s growing expectation for Japan to play a greater role in curbing the rapid rise of China. Yomiuri opined that the U.S. leader is determined to prevail in what he describes as “the long-term strategic competition with China” by enhancing cooperation with Japan. The daily also claimed that White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell was instrumental in arranging Suga’s U.S. trip and securing India’s participation in the first-ever Quad online summit by formulating a COVID-19 immunization program for Asia and Africa using Indian vaccines.

Japan welcomes greater U.S. engagement with Asia

All national papers wrote on Saturday that the GOJ is extremely pleased that Prime Minister Suga is likely to be the first foreign dignitary to be hosted by President Biden, quoting Foreign Minister Motegi as saying: “It represents the U.S. administration’s strong commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance.” An unnamed Japanese diplomat reportedly said, “The invitation was a result of Tokyo’s intense efforts to obtain Washington’s understanding of Japan’s importance” in reining in China. According to Yomiuri, LDP officials are hoping that what they referred to as the U.S. leader’s “special treatment” of the premier will help shore up public approval of the Suga cabinet, which has plunged amid the coronavirus resurgence and the scandal involving telecommunications ministry officials who were entertained by NTT and the broadcasting company where Suga’s son works.

Yomiuri predicted that Japan will need to present concrete measures for countering China in response to Washington’s strengthened commitment to the peace and stability of the region. The daily said some GOJ officials are worried that the Suga administration may not be able to live up to Washington’s high expectations for Japan to take on more security responsibilities because Suga appears to be less interested in foreign and security affairs than former Prime Minister Abe. As an example, the paper cited Suga’s failure to heed his predecessor’s call for speedy discussions on allowing the SDF to possess capabilities to strike enemy bases.

Quad leaders hold first summit online

All national papers reported extensively over the weekend on the first-ever quadrilateral summit between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India that was held remotely on Friday. As the chair of the landmark conference that was carefully choreographed to counter China’s growing influence, President Biden set the tone by saying: “We’re renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values, and free from coercion.” The participants stressed that they are bound by such shared values as the rule of law and democracy.

The four leaders agreed to implement a COVID-19 vaccination program for impoverished countries in Asia and Africa by providing them with 1 billion doses of vaccines manufactured by pharmaceutical companies in India and other countries in a bid to counter China’s “vaccine offensive” in the Third World. They agreed to hold an in-person session later this year. In a joint statement entitled: “The Spirit of the Quad” that was released afterwards, the participants emphasized their agreement to launch working groups on such issues as coronavirus vaccination, climate change, and emerging technology. With China’s unilateral and forceful attempts to alter the status quo in the South and East China Seas in mind, the leaders also pledged to promote mutual cooperation to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order.

As India has been reluctant to make the quadrilateral format an anti-China coalition, the other three members reportedly avoided playing up security issues and instead focused on enhancing cooperation in such areas as the pandemic, the global economy, and the environment during the 100-minute meeting. National Security Advisor Sullivan told the press after the confab: “Today is a big day for American diplomacy, this summit is a big deal for the President and for the country…. The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China. But today was not fundamentally about China. Much of the focus was on pressing global crises, including the climate crisis and COVID-19.”

Washington Post carries op-ed by Quad leaders

NHK reported on Sunday that President Biden, Prime Minister Suga, Australian Prime Minister Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Modi expressed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region in an opinion piece they contributed to the Washington Post. According to the network, the leaders touched upon their first Quad summit held on Friday and said they are summoned “to act together in support of a region in need.” They reportedly added that they strive for an Indo-Pacific that is “governed by international law and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes.” The network noted that although the op-ed did not specifically mention China, it kept the nation in check by underlining their resolve to tackle regional issues together.

Tokyo satisfied with Quad summit

All national papers wrote that the GOJ was extremely pleased with the outcome of the Quad leaders’ summit, with an unnamed high-ranking MOFA official calling it a “historic accomplishment.” Although Prime Minister Suga said during the session that Tokyo has “serious concerns” about and is “strongly opposed” to China’s new coast guard law, such wording was not included in the joint statement. Still, the Japanese side was pleased that the Quad format has now been firmly established. “The convening of the four leaders in and of itself serves as a more powerful message to China than criticizing it by name or using strong language,” a senior Japanese diplomat said. Suga told the press after the teleconference that the four-party framework has now “entered a new phase.” A Japanese diplomatic expert praised the U.S. and Japan for successfully making the quadrilateral summit a venue in which the Indians could take part with little hesitation.

U.S. may bring up Senkakus during talks with China in Alaska

Sunday’s Yomiuri focused on remarks made to the press on Friday by National Security Advisor Sullivan, who suggested that when he and Secretary of State Blinken hold talks with top two Chinese diplomats in Anchorage on March 18, the U.S. side may raise concerns about the situation in the vicinity of the Senkakus.

G7 voices concern about China’s move to alter Hong Kong electoral system

Kyodo reported on Saturday that the G7 foreign ministers issued a joint statement on Friday voicing serious apprehension about China’s adoption of a resolution to change the electoral system in Hong Kong. The top diplomats criticized the move by saying it undermines Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and stifles political pluralism there, urging Beijing to respect fundamental rights and freedoms as provided for in the Basic Law.

Japan’s economic assistance for Myanmar stalled

Saturday’s Nikkei reported that the military coup in Myanmar (Burma) a month ago has brought Japan’s economic aid programs for the nation to a virtual standstill. However, the GOJ is set to continue offering humanitarian assistance through international organizations and financing ongoing ODA projects so as to dissuade the junta from reaching out to China. It has also stopped short of suspending new aid projects given that the U.S. now appears to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. The business daily added that the prospects for Japan’s decade-long commitment to supporting the economic development of “Asia’s last frontier” remains uncertain amid the prolonged political and social unrest there.


GOJ calls for swift Diet approval of budget for host nation support

All national papers except Asahi wrote on Saturday that parliamentary debate began on Friday on the U.S.-Japan agreement to extend the five-year Special Measures Agreement governing Tokyo’s host nation support for the U.S. military by one year through March 2022. Foreign Minister Motegi called for swift Diet approval by saying the pact will help cement U.S.-Japan relations and ensure the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.

Defense chief criticizes China at international security conference

Sunday’s Sankei and Mainichi wrote that Defense Minister Kishi participated remotely in the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defense on Saturday and criticized China’s “unilateral and forceful attempts to alter the status quo” in the South and East China Seas and Hong Kong. He warned that the military balance between Taiwan and China is being tipped in favor of China due to its rapid arms buildup.

Quad members plus France to hold joint naval training off India

Sunday’s Yomiuri reported from New Delhi that final arrangements are being made for the navies of the U.S., Japan, Australia, India, and France to conduct a joint drill in the Bay of Bengal in early April, speculating that the Quad members are anxious to strengthen defense partnership with European nations to hold China’s growing presence in the region in check.

General Yoshida to become new GSDF chief

The Saturday editions of all national papers wrote that GSDF Chief of Staff Goro Yuasa will retire on March 26 and be replaced by Commanding General Yoshihide Yoshida of the GSDF Ground Component Command. As Yoshida is a graduate of the University of Tokyo, Sankei said this will be the first time in almost three decades for a graduate of a college other than the National Defense Academy (NDA) to assume the top GSDF post. According to the articles, the GOJ decided on Friday to appoint Tokyo University Professor Fumiaki Kubo as NDA president. The renowned academic on U.S. foreign policy will succeed incumbent Ryosei Kokubun, a China expert who plans to step down on March 31.

Article on Aegis Ashore by former GOJ official pulled soon after posting

Saturday’s Asahi reported that an opinion piece by a former top Defense Ministry official criticizing the GOJ’s initial decision in December 2017 to procure Aegis Ashore batteries was taken down within hours of being posted on a website managed by a group of retired civilian officials of the Defense Ministry on Feb. 17. The author, former Vice Defense Minister for International Affairs Ro Manabe, called the plan a “politically motivated initiative” that failed to take into account the expertise of ministry officials. The official criticized the Abe administration and the LDP for putting unreasonable pressure on the ministry to approve the procurement. The controversial article was removed on the grounds that “discussions are still being held” on an alternative plan to the ground-based missile defense platform that was canceled last June.


GOJ likely to lift COVID-19 state of emergency next Sunday

Sunday’s Sankei claimed in its lead story that the GOJ is likely to decide on March 18 to lift the coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures on March 21 on account of a gradual decrease in hospital bed occupancy rates. While the epidemic curve appears to be rising slightly, many GOJ officials and some public health experts have concluded that it would be difficult to bring the trajectory down significantly with the current prevention measures alone. An unnamed cabinet minister was quoted as saying: “The declaration is no longer effective. We have no choice but to end it swiftly.”

Meanwhile, according to a public opinion survey conducted by Mainichi on Saturday, almost three out of five respondents called for the emergency declaration to be extended beyond March 21.

Japan to secure 100 million doses of Pfizer vaccine by June

The Saturday editions of all national dailies took up the disclosure by Administrative Reform Minister Kono on Friday that Japan will probably be able to secure enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine for 50 million people by the end of June after the export is authorized by the EU.

New COVID-19 strains spreading rapidly in Japan

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported on the rapid spread of the new strains of the novel coronavirus across Japan, saying that a total of 271 people had tested positive for the UK, South African, or Brazilian variants as of March 9, up 60% from a week ago. An additional 74 cases had been detected at ports of entry. One of the carriers was infected with the Philippine strain, which is said to be just as contagious as the three other variants. Public health experts are reportedly calling for tighter border control at ports of entry to prevent further infiltration.


Japan perplexed by China’s offer to provide COVID-19 vaccines to Olympic athletes

Saturday’s Mainichi and Sankei reported that Japanese officials were bewildered by International Olympic Committee President Bach’s unexpected announcement on Thursday that he had received an offer from China to provide Chinese coronavirus vaccines to any participant in the Tokyo Olympics. Mainichi noted that the proposal was made as part of Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy,” speculating that it was intended to deflect the international community’s criticism of its human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. Sankei conjectured that the offer was meant to prevent calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics from growing. The paper said Japan has no intention to accept the offer and noted that Olympic Minister Marukawa underscored that foreign athletes will be able to participate in the Tokyo games without being vaccinated because thorough prevention measures will be implemented.

Olympic spectators to be limited to 50% of capacity

Sunday’s Sankei wrote that the GOJ, the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, and other relevant authorities are inclined to limit the number of spectators at the Games to 50% of full capacity or 20,000. The paper projected they will formally decide on the restriction in April, adding that if the COVID-19 situation improves in the run-up to the Games in July, more than 20,000 fans may be allowed to attend events at certain large stadiums and arenas, but the 50% cap will still be in place.

In a related story, Sunday’s Nikkei wrote that the GOJ has asked foreign governments around the world to limit the number of people accompanying heads of state, presidents, and prime ministers to the Tokyo Olympics to 12 in principle and those accompanying cabinet ministers to five. The GOJ plans to open the border to top foreign government officials so as to capitalize on their attendance at the opening or closing ceremonies to conduct in-person diplomacy. Foreign dignitaries will be exempted from quarantine requirements but will still be subject to PCR testing at ports of entry.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team