Morning Alert - Monday, March 22, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on the GOJ’s plan to take all-out measures to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 following the lifting of the state of emergency for the Tokyo region yesterday (NHK), people’s expectations and concerns about the lifting of the state of emergency (NTV), crowds of tourists in Hakone on Sunday (TBS), and the stormy weather across Japan yesterday (Fuji TV, TV Asahi).

Main front-page items in national dailies included a report saying many prefectural governments underestimated the number of patients requiring hospitalization ahead of the third wave of COVID-19 in the fall, data compiled by the Transportation Ministry showing a modest decline in the number of train commuters on weekdays during the second COVID-19 state of emergency that was lifted yesterday, the prolonged suspension of a plant operated by the nation’s second largest semiconductor producer due to a fire on Friday, and the halt of patrol operations by a Japan Coast Guard cutter in the vicinity of the Senkakus in January because the vessel was no longer seaworthy.


High-level U.S.-China talks end on acrimonious note

All Sunday papers reported extensively on the conclusion of two days of a high-level dialogue in Alaska between the U.S. and China on Friday, saying that the two superpowers ended their first round of talks under the Biden administration without reaching any substantive agreements. Instead, the two sides were sharply at odds over a host of bilateral, regional, and global issues, such as human rights in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet and cyberattacks. Climate change, North Korea’s denuclearization, and Iran’s nuclear development were the only areas in which the participants agreed to cooperate.

Asahi observed that the international order will continue to be shaken by the conflict between Washington and Beijing, which it projected will persist for many years to come. The daily said Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan entered the talks with the goal of conveying the Biden administration’s concern about China’s diplomatic conduct around the world. The daily added that China’s primary intention in the Alaska session was to demonstrate at home and abroad that Beijing is now on an equal footing with Washington in international geopolitics, quoting China’s de facto top diplomat Yang as saying: “The U.S. does not represent the world.... It is not qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.”

Yomiuri noted that the Biden administration is poised to take a hard line in dealing with China in coordination with U.S. allies, explaining that the new approach was adopted while taking into account the Obama administration’s “weak-kneed” posture that failed to rein in China’s rise and the Trump administration’s disregard of alliance relations. The daily said Secretary Blinken’s stance during the Alaska meeting offered an indication of the new U.S. approach toward China.

Nikkei argued that the Anchorage “showdown” was a revival of the East-West confrontation that is far older than the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, expressing deep concern that the intense rivalry may even hamper cooperation between the two nations over such pressing challenges as the coronavirus pandemic and global warming. While noting that China warned Japan against further deepening cooperation with the U.S. following the recent 2+2 meeting, the paper said Tokyo will need to renew its commitment to advancing the trans-Pacific alliance in the face of Beijing’s likely use of economic and trade tools aimed at preventing it from enhancing anti-China cooperation with Washington.

Sankei opined that the Alaska session was the opening salvo in a power struggle between the democratic nations headed by the U.S. and an autocratic regime determined to alter the status quo in the international community. The daily said attention is focused on whether Washington will be able to continue to ratchet up the pressure on Beijing, warning the Biden administration against taking a conciliatory approach when China employs various tools to seek U.S. concessions.

Japan unruffled by outcome of U.S.-China talks

Yomiuri wrote over the weekend that the Japanese government reacted calmly to the outcome of the high-level U.S.-China talks held in Anchorage, quoting Foreign Minister Motegi as saying: “The views and concerns of the U.S., Japan, and countries that cherish the same basic values were conveyed clearly to China.” Another senior MOFA official reportedly said Japan had predicted that the two sides would exchange harsh language. Although Tokyo supports Washington’s taking a hard line toward Beijing in principle, some GOJ officials are apprehensive that the division between the two global superpowers will further deepen. “It appeared as though the Biden administration declared the start of a new cold war with China during the Alaska meeting,” said a source close to Prime Minister Suga.

Japan dismisses China’s characterization of 2+2 meeting

Saturday’s Yomiuri took up remarks made to the press on Friday by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato regarding China’s description of Japan as a “vassal state” of the United States following the recent 2+2 conference. “Such a characterization is unacceptable,” said the government spokesperson, who disclosed that the GOJ lodged a protest against what he described as unprecedented derogatory rhetoric used by the Chinese. An unnamed senior Japanese diplomat said: “The use of such language perhaps represents Beijing’s frustration with the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts to build an anti-China coalition.”

Suga comments on trip to U.S.

All national dailies reported on Monday that Prime Minister Suga commented yesterday on his planned visit to the U.S. next month for talks with President Biden during a speech at the National Defense Academy commencement ceremony. “I am determined to further strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance without fail while deepening my personal relationship of trust with President Biden,” Suga said. “No country can defend peace and security without support from others.” In a separate speech he made during the LDP convention later in the day, Suga noted that he will be the first foreign leader to be invited to visit the U.S. by President Biden, saying that this is proof of the high level of importance the new administration attaches to its relations with Japan. The premier expressed hope for reaffirming mutual coordination with the President on such issues as the coronavirus pandemic, climate, change, China, and the abductions.

Japan, Italian leaders hold teleconference

Saturday’s Nikkei and Sankei wrote that Prime Minister Suga and his Italian counterpart spoke by phone on Friday. The two officials shared concerns about China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo in the South and East China Seas. They also voiced concern about the change to Hong Kong’s electoral system and the violation of human rights in Xinjiang.

Suga comments on unrest in Myanmar

According to Saturday’s Nikkei, Prime Minister Suga called for the swift restoration of the democratic system in Myanmar (Burma) during a Diet session on Friday. “Japan will play a role as well since we have a host of communication channels with Myanmar,” he added.


FM Motegi comments on U.S. military helicopters flying low in central Tokyo

Saturday’s Mainichi wrote that during a Lower House committee meeting on Friday, Foreign Minister Motegi commented on reports that U.S. military helicopters have repeatedly conducted low-altitude flights over central Tokyo. He was quoted as saying: “Both the U.S. and Japan take the matter seriously.... We were told by the U.S. side that each unit has been given additional instructions to operate flights in accordance with military regulations without fail.” He added that the U.S. side has not confirmed any helicopter flights that ran counter to U.S. military regulations, which are compatible with the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) rules and Japan’s Aviation Law.

In a follow-up report, the daily wrote on Sunday that the mayors’ association of the 23 wards in Tokyo has decided to conduct a survey on complaints from local residents about the U.S. military’s low-altitude flights.

Mainichi reported separately on Saturday on numerous eyewitness accounts in Okinawa of low-altitude flights by U.S. military airplanes since last year, saying that because all of the aircraft involved were USAF MC-130Js, which airlift special operations commandos and supplies to front lines during contingencies, they were probably conducting training flights to reduce the likelihood of radar interception amid China’s rapid military buildup in the Western Pacific. The U.S. military has reportedly told the Defense Ministry that the flights were conducted to maintain the pilots’ readiness and were in accordance with U.S.-Japan agreements.

Japan to conduct joint training with U.S. for defense of Senkakus

Saturday’s Sankei and Sunday’s Nikkei focused on remarks made on a TV program on Friday night by Defense Minister Kishi. He reportedly suggested that later this year the SDF and the U.S. military will hold a joint exercise for defending the Senkaku Islands from foreign aggression. “It is important for Japan to enhance SDF readiness through joint training so that adversaries will know how Japan would react” in the event of a contingency, said the defense chief, adding that the envisaged drill will involve the participation of all three branches of the SDF.

New MSDF Aegis warship commissioned

All papers reported on Saturday that the MSDF Haguro, a new MSDF Aegis destroyer, was commissioned at a dockyard in Yokohama on Friday. The ship will reportedly be deployed at Sasebo in the near future, bringing the total number of MSDF vessels equipped with advanced ballistic missile capabilities to eight as called for by the 2013 National Defense Program Guidelines. Asahi said the eight-vessel Aegis fleet is now expected to monitor not only North Korea but also China on account of the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore procurement.

In a related story, Saturday’s Sankei and Asahi highlighted a Defense Ministry announcement on Friday that PLA Navy’s largest destroyer passed through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan. This was the first time for the ministry to confirm the operation of the Chinese warship in the Sea of Japan.


Coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo metropolitan area lifted

All national dailies reported today that the GOJ ended the COVID-19 state of emergency for Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures yesterday, quoting Prime Minister Suga as saying during an LDP convention: “We are determined to prevent a resurgence by remaining vigilant and closely monitoring the new strains.” He asked the public to keep practicing social distancing and other mitigation protocols.

The papers said signs of a resurgence have already been emerging across Japan, with the seven-day rolling average of the number of new patients per day nationwide standing at 1,254 as of March 20, up almost 10% from a week ago. Cases are rising not only in Osaka, Hyogo, and other urban prefectures, but also in rural areas such as Miyagi, Yamagata, and Okinawa. The dailies expressed concern that the UK variant may soon be the dominant form of the virus, with Sankei saying that the number of patients infected with the UK and other emerging strains has increased by about 50% every week.

According to the results of a public opinion survey conducted by Asahi over the weekend, half of the public considered the lifting of the state of emergency “premature,” while 32% thought it was “appropriate.” Support for the Suga cabinet rose 6 points from a month ago to 40% whereas nonsupport stood at 39%, down 4 points. The daily said cabinet approval appears to be closely connected to the public’s evaluation of the GOJ’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

In a related story, Sankei took up the election of former Chiba Mayor Kumagai as the governor of Chiba Prefecture on Sunday, noting that since he defeated a candidate supported by the ruling LDP, the GOJ is afraid the new leader may team up with Tokyo Governor Koike when dealing with the pandemic. Some LDP lawmakers accuse Koike of repeatedly staging political stunts to undermine the Suga administration. The daily noted that outgoing Chiba Governor Morita is very close to Prime Minister Suga, so he tried to prevent Koike from outmaneuvering the premier in deciding what to do about the state of emergency.

Event capacity in Tokyo metropolitan area to be raised to 50%

All national dailies reported over the weekend that the GOJ has decided to ease the ongoing restrictions on seating capacity for concerts, sporting events, and other cultural events in Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures in light of the lifting of the state of the emergency on Sunday. The limit will be set at 10,000 spectators starting on Monday and the cap will be eased to 50% of capacity on April 19.

Kono confident of COVID-19 vaccine procurement in May

Saturday’s Sankei carried an interview with Administrative Reform Minister Kono, who projected that there will be “no bottlenecks” in May when it comes to coronavirus vaccine supplies from abroad. He said Pfizer has been very cooperative in trying to provide sufficient doses for Japan.

GOJ may require every visitor to undergo second COVID-19 test at port of entry

The Monday editions of all national dailies took up remarks made on a Sunday talk show by Health Minister Tamura. He reportedly said the GOJ is likely to mandate all travelers from abroad undergo a second PCR test for COVID-19 three days after testing negative upon arrival. At present, second tests are only required for those traveling from 24 countries in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa that are designated as regions where new COVID-19 strains are widespread. They are also required to present at ports of entry negative results of tests conducted prior to their departure for Japan. The ministry is reportedly likely to expand the scope of testing to cover all visitors irrespective of nationality in light of the rapid spread of emerging variants.


IOC supports Japan’s decision not to host overseas spectators

The Sunday editions of all national dailies reported on a videoconference on Saturday between the GOJ, the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Paralympic Committee, during which they agreed that no overseas spectators will be allowed to attend the Summer Games to make the event safe and secure amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Japan will not be able to deliver on former Prime Minister Abe’s pledge to hold the Tokyo Games in their “complete form.” Asahi said the Summer Games will not embody the spirit of the modern Olympics in the absence of overseas spectators since the spirit calls for the creation of a peaceful society through deepening mutual understanding among people assembled from all over the world.

While Japan was hoping to capitalize on the Olympics to boost inbound tourism, the Summer Games’ impact on the domestic economy will now be significantly limited. Mainichi speculated that the GOJ gave up on prioritizing the economic benefits of the Olympics to stem the growing domestic clamor for cancellation of the Games amid the rapid spread of new strains of the coronavirus across the globe. The papers added that the five organizations will decide what to do about domestic spectators in April while taking into account the coronavirus situation at home and abroad.

In a related story, Saturday’s Asahi said the organizing committee also decided not to host any international volunteers other than those who can communicate in rare languages.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s Sankei claimed that the GOJ has concluded that as many as 90,000 people will be able to enter Japan from abroad for the Tokyo Olympics, including athletes, umpires, journalists, and other officials. They will be exempted from the two-week quarantine requirement on the condition that they limit their activities and not use public transportation. The GOJ has reportedly developed an app-based mechanism to monitor the visitors’ health condition while in Japan.

American father and son allegedly admit helping Ghosn flee Japan

According to Saturday’s Yomiuri, the former Green Beret and his son who were arrested for assisting former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn in his escape from Japan have admitted the charges, telling the prosecutors that Ghosn’s wife Carole reached out to them for help. They allegedly decided to help Ghosn flee Japan in response to repeated pleas from Carole, who reportedly told them that her husband had been tortured during his detention. The suspects have reportedly said that based on their own experience of being detained in Tokyo, torture is not taking place and the criminal justice system is fair. “We were framed by Carole Ghosn,” they were quoted as saying.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team