Russia deploys coastal missile system on island chain near Japan

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has deployed its Bastion coastal missile defense system to a remote part of the Kuril island chain in the Pacific near Japan, the Ministry of Defense’s Zvezda TV channel said on Thursday.

Japan lays claim to the Russian-held southern Kuril islands that Tokyo calls the Northern Territories, a territorial row that dates back to the end of World War Two when Soviet troops seized them from Japan.

The dispute has prevented them signing a formal peace treaty.

Russia used large landing ships to deliver equipment and personnel to the remote Matua island in the central part of the island chain, Zvezda said.

Russia is trying to beef up its military infrastructure on the island chain, the Ministry of Defense announced in August.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Anton Kolodyazhnyy; editing by Barbara Lewis)

 

Washington caps year of drills to deter China with ten-day military exercise

By Tim Kelly

USS CARL VINSON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday completed ten days of joint military drills in Asian waters with Japan and other allies as it ups the ante on deterring China from pursuing its territorial ambitions amid growing tension in the region over Taiwan.

The ANNUALEX drill included 35 warships and dozens of aircraft in the Philippine Sea off Japan’s southern coast. The U.S. and Japanese forces were led by the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson carrier, which was also joined by ships from Canada, Australia, and for the first time, Germany. On Tuesday, the Vinson was being shadowed by a Chinese navy ship.

“We try to deter aggression from some nations that are showing burgeoning strength that maybe we haven’t experienced before,” U.S. Seventh Fleet commander Vice Admiral Karl Thomas said at a briefing aboard the carrier.

The exercise was meant to “tell those nations that maybe today is not the day,” he said.

Thomas was accompanied by the commander of the exercise, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Vice Admiral Hideki Yuasa. Home to the biggest concentration of American forces outside the United States, Tokyo is Washington’s key ally in the region.

Increasing pressure by China on Taiwan is causing concern in both Japan and the United States. Japan worries that key sea lanes supplying it will come under Beijing’s sway should it gain control of the island. That move would also threaten U.S. military bases in the region.

China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, says its intentions in the region are peaceful.

The ten-day exercise caps a year of drills between the United States, Japan and other countries, including Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

London this year deployed its new $4.15 billion aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region, culminating in a visit to Japan in September along with two destroyers, two frigates and a submarine.

To get there, it sailed through the contested South China Sea, of which China claims 90%. Also in September, Britain’s HMS Richmond passed through the Taiwan Strait separating the island from mainland China, prompting a rebuke from Beijing.

Tokyo, in its latest annual defense strategy paper, identifies China as its main national security threat and said it had a “sense of crisis” regarding Taiwan as Chinese military activity around the island intensifies.

The British carrier joined a Japanese carrier, along with the Vinson – which operates F-35 stealth jets – and the USS Ronald Reagan, for a rare four-carrier training exercise in the waters around Japan.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Japanese volcano spews plumes of ash, people warned away

TOKYO (Reuters) -A volcano erupted in Japan on Wednesday, blasting ash several miles into the sky and prompting officials to warn against the threat of lava flows and falling rocks, but there were no reports of injuries or casualties.

Mount Aso, a tourist destination on the main southern island of Kyushu, sent plumes of ash 3.5 km (2.2 miles) high when it erupted at about 11:43 a.m. (0243 GMT), the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

It raised the alert level for the volcano to 3 on a scale of 5, telling people not to approach, and warned of a risk of large falling rocks and pyroclastic flows within a radius of about 1 km (0.6 mile) around the mountain’s Nakadake crater.

Local police said there were no reports of people injured or missing as of Wednesday evening, and that 16 people who had gone hiking on the mountain earlier on the day came back safely.

Television networks broadcast images of a dark cloud of ash looming over the volcano that swiftly obscured large swathes of the mountain.

Ash falls from the 1,592-metre (5,222-foot) mountain in the prefecture of Kumamoto are expected to shower nearby towns until late afternoon, the weather agency added.

Mount Aso had a small eruption in 2019, while Japan’s worst volcanic disaster in nearly 90 years killed 63 people on Mount Ontake in September 2014.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park, additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Kim Coghill)

Japan extends COVID-19 emergency lockdown as cases surge

By Daniel Leussink, Leika Kihara and Sakura Murakami

TOKYO/FUKUOKA, Japan (Reuters) – Japan on Tuesday extended its state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions and announced new measures covering seven more prefectures to counter a spike in COVID-19 infections that is threatening the medical system.

The current state of emergency, the fifth of the pandemic so far, was due to expire on Aug. 31 but will now last until Sept. 12. Tokyo announced 4,377 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, after a record 5,773 on Friday.

“The Delta variant raging across the world is causing unprecedented cases in our country,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said. “Serious cases are increasing rapidly and severely burdening the medical system, particularly in the capital region.”

The emergency will now cover nearly 60% of Japan’s population with the prefectures of Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka included. Less strict “quasi-emergency” measures will be applied to a further 10 prefectures.

Restaurants are being asked to close early and stop serving alcohol in exchange for a subsidy. Suga announced a fresh subsidy of 300 billion yen ($2.7 billion) to help businesses cope with the fall-out.

Suga said the government would also request occupancy limits at department stores and ask people to reduce by half the times they go to crowded areas.

Speaking at a news conference explaining the steps, the government’s top health advisor, Shigeru Omi, said Japan needed to come up with steps to “prod individuals to avoid taking action that could potentially spread infections”.

He said that could be done under the current laws, which are mostly based on voluntary cooperation, but added that there’s also room for a nationwide debate on how to do this under a new legal framework”. He did not go into details.

Speaking beside Omi, Suga said the government would consider crafting legislation to swiftly prepare enough hospital beds for critically ill COVID-19 patients, and speed up vaccinations.

Suga dismissed the idea of imposing a blanket, nationwide state of emergency, saying that would pose “excessive restrictions for some prefectures” that were succeeding in containing new infections.

FALLING SHARES

Japanese shares fell for a fourth day on Tuesday as concerns about the Delta variant overshadowed optimism about upbeat earnings.

Japan’s case fatality rate stands at about 1.3%, compared with 1.7% in the United States and 2.1% in Britain.

But health experts fear the number of deaths could soar in Japan as the Delta variant tears through the younger population and hospitals become too crowded to treat serious cases.

“Many experts expressed an extremely strong sense of crisis about the medical care situation and the status of infections,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said after consulting with health advisers.

More than 80% of Tokyo’s critical care beds are occupied, and the rate is already 100% in neighboring Kanagawa prefecture. Serious cases climbed to records of 276 in Tokyo and 1,646 nationwide on Tuesday.

Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimated that the government’s extended and expanded state of emergency would lead to a total economic loss of about 1.2 trillion yen ($11 billion) and could cost 66,000 jobs.

That was about 60% higher than an expected loss of about 750 billion yen if the emergency remained at its current scope and schedule.

Repeated states of emergency have had a limited effect in slowing the spread of the virus.

Takuto Honda, 20, a university student in the southwestern city of Fukuoka who works part-time at a karaoke shop, said a harder lockdown with government pay-outs would be more effective. “If there is money to host the Olympics, there should be money to compensate us,” he said.

Pandemic fatigue and summer vacations have also been blamed for contributing to the latest COVID-19 surge in a nation where only around 37% of people have been fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Sakura Murakami in FUKUOKA, Daniel Leussink, Leika Kihara and Rocky Swift in TOKYO; Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Susan Fenton, Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich)

Top Japan medic urges nationwide state of emergency amid COVID surge

By Akiko Okamoto, Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – The head of the Japan Medical Association called on Tuesday for a nationwide state of emergency to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases in Olympics host city Tokyo and elsewhere, Kyodo news agency said, as worries grow about a strained healthcare system.

The call by JMA President Toshio Nakagawa followed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s announcement that only COVID-19 patients who are seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so will be hospitalized, while others isolate at home, a shift in policy some fear could boost the death toll.

Japan has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus cases. Tokyo, which had a record high of 4,058 new infections on Saturday, had another 3,709 new cases on Tuesday.

Tokyo hospitals are already feeling the crunch, Hironori Sagara, director of Showa University Hospital, told Reuters.

“There are those being rejected repeatedly for admission,” he said in an interview. “In the midst of excitement over the Olympics, the situation for medical personnel is very severe.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters fewer elderly people, most already vaccinated, were getting infected.

“On the other hand, infections of younger people are increasing and people in their 40s and 50s with severe symptoms are rising,” he said, adding some could not immediately get admitted to hospital.

Suga announced the change in hospital policy on Monday, saying the government would ensure people isolating at home can be hospitalized if necessary. Previous policy had focused on hospitalizing a broader category of patients.

Suga and Olympics organizers say there is no link between the July 23-Aug. 8 Summer Games and the sharp increase in cases.

Medical experts, however, have said holding the Olympics sent a confusing message about the need to stay home, contributing to the rise.

Unlike the voluntary restrictions and low vaccination rates elsewhere in Japan, more than 80% of the people in the Olympic village in Tokyo for athletes and coaches are vaccinated, testing is compulsory and movement is curtailed.

Organisers on Tuesday announced 18 new Games-related COVID-19 cases, bringing the total since July 1 to 294.

‘IN-HOME ABANDONMENT’

On Tuesday, Suga, meeting with heads of national medical groups, vowed to “protect people’s lives”.

“The spreading infections on a nationwide scale are approaching our biggest crisis since last year’s first wave,” Nakagawa said.

Some worry the hospital policy shift could lead to more deaths.

“They call it in-home treatment but it’s actually in-home abandonment,” opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano was quoted as saying by NHK public TV.

Japan on Monday expanded its state of emergency to include three prefectures near Tokyo and the western prefecture of Osaka. An existing emergency in Tokyo – its fourth since the pandemic began – and Okinawa is now set to last through Aug. 31.

Japan’s latest emergency steps, unlike stricter measures in many countries, have focused mainly on asking eateries that serve alcohol to close and those that don’t to close by 8 p.m.

The country has avoided a devastating outbreak of the virus, with about 941,000 total cases and just over 15,000 deaths as of Monday.

But it is now struggling to contain the highly transmissible Delta variant even as the public grows weary of mostly voluntary limits on activities and the vaccination rollout lags.

Just under 30% of the population is fully vaccinated, including three-quarters of those 65 and over.

Nearly 70% of hospital beds for seriously ill COVID-19 patients were filled as of Sunday, Tokyo data showed.

Showa University Hospital’s Sagara said there was a difference between theoretically available beds and beds that could accept patients immediately.

“I think the latter is close to zero,” he said, adding that if infections keep rising, hospitals will have to limit surgery and other non-COVID-19 treatments.

“We must avoid a situation in which the Olympics was held but the medical system collapsed,” he said. “At present, infections are spreading quite a lot and if they spike further, (the Olympics) will be considered a failure.”

According to health ministry guidelines, seriously ill patients are defined as those admitted to intensive care units (ICUs) or needing artificial respirators.

The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper said 12,000 patients were isolating at home, a 12-fold increase in the past month.

(Reporting by Linda Sieg, Akiko Okamoto and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando, Ami Miyazaki and Tim Kelly; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie)

U.S. and allies accuse China of global hacking spree

By Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its allies accused China on Monday of a global cyberespionage campaign, mustering an unusually broad coalition of countries to publicly call out Beijing for hacking.

The United States was joined by NATO, the European Union, Britain, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada in condemning the spying, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said posed “a major threat to our economic and national security.”

Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Justice charged four Chinese nationals – three security officials and one contract hacker – with targeting dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the United States and abroad.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have previously said China is also a victim of hacking and opposes all forms of cyberattacks.

While a flurry of statements from Western powers represent a broad alliance, cyber experts said the lack of consequences for China beyond the U.S. indictment was conspicuous. Just a month ago, summit statements by G7 and NATO warned China and said it posed threats to the international order.

Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called Monday’s announcement a “successful effort to get friends and allies to attribute the action to Beijing, but not very useful without any concrete follow-up.”

Some of Monday’s statements even seemed to pull their punches. While Washington and its close allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada held the Chinese state directly responsible for the hacking, others were more circumspect.

NATO merely said that its members “acknowledge” the allegations being leveled against Beijing by the U.S., Canada, and the UK. The European Union said it was urging Chinese officials to rein in “malicious cyber activities undertaken from its territory” – a statement that left open the possibility that the Chinese government was itself innocent of directing the espionage.

The United States was much more specific, formally attributing intrusions such as the one that affected servers running Microsoft Exchange earlier this year to hackers affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. Microsoft had already blamed China.

U.S. officials said the scope and scale of hacking attributed to China has surprised them, along with China’s use of “criminal contract hackers.”

“The PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain,” Blinken said.

U.S. security and intelligence agencies outlined more than 50 techniques and procedures that “China state-sponsored actors” use against U.S. networks, a senior administration official said.

Washington in recent months has focused heavy attention on Russia in accusing Russian hackers of a string of ransomware attacks in the United States.

The senior administration official said U.S. concerns about Chinese cyber activities have been raised with senior Chinese officials. “We’re not ruling out further action to hold the PRC accountable,” the official said.

The United States and China have already been at loggerheads over trade, China’s military buildup, disputes about the South China Sea, a crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

Blinken cited the Justice Department indictments as an example of how the United States will impose consequences.

The defendants and officials in the Hainan State Security Department, a regional state security office, tried to hide the Chinese government’s role in the information theft by using a front company, according to the indictment.

The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries including aviation, defense, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime industries, the Justice Department said.

Victims were in Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“These criminal charges once again highlight that China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in the statement.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

China, U.S. can coexist in peace but challenge is enormous – White House

By David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said on Tuesday that it was possible for China and United States to coexist in peace but the challenge was enormous and Beijing had become increasingly assertive.

At an event hosted by the Asia Society think tank, Campbell said President Joe Biden will host a summit later this year with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan – the so-called “Quad” grouping that Washington see as a means of standing up to China.

Asked when he expected a first meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping and whether this could come at the G20 summit in October, he replied: “My expectation will be that we’ll have some sort of engagement before too long.”

Campbell said the challenge for the United States would be to come up with a strategy that presented China with opportunities, but also a response if it takes steps “antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability”.

There were likely to be “periods of uncertainty, perhaps even periods of occasional raised tensions,” he said.

“Do I think it’s possible that the United States and China can coexist and live in peace? Yes I do. But I do think the challenge is enormously difficult for this generation and the next,” he said.

He said Beijing had been increasingly assertive in recent times, taking on many countries simultaneously, a strategy that contrasted with how it operated in the 1990’s.

​ He criticized China’s approach to U.S. ally Australia.

“I’m not sure they have the strategic thinking to go back to a different kind of diplomacy towards Australia right now. I see a harshness in their approach that appears unyielding”

On Taiwan, the self-ruled U.S.-backed island China sees as part of its territory and wants to reclaim, Campbell maintained a cautious approach.

He said the United States supports having a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan but does not support its independence.

“We fully recognize, understand the sensitivities involved here,” he said. “We do believe that Taiwan has a right to live in peace. We want to see its international role, particularly in areas like vaccines, and issues associated with the pandemic, they should have a role to play here, they should not be shunned in international community.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. CDC eases travel recommendations on 110 countries, territories including Japan

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has eased travel recommendations for more than 110 countries and territories, including Japan just ahead of the Olympics.

The CDC’s new ratings were first reported by Reuters and posted on a CDC website on Monday, include 61 nations that were lowered from its highest “Level 4” rating that discouraged all travel to recommending travel for fully vaccinated individuals, the agency confirmed on Tuesday.

Another 50 countries and territories have been lowered to “Level 2” or “Level 1,” a CDC spokeswoman said. Countries ranked lowest for COVID-19 risks now include Singapore, Israel, South Korea, Iceland, Belize and Albania.

Among those now listed at “Level 3,” are France, Ecuador, Philippines, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Honduras, Hungary, and Italy.

A U.S. State Department official said it was in the process of revising its travel advisory to reflect the CDC changes.

As of early Tuesday, the State Department had lowered its ratings on more than 90 countries and territories, including for Japan.

On May 24, the State Department had urged against travel to Japan, citing a new wave of coronavirus cases before the Tokyo Olympics are set to begin July 23.

The State Department warning raised concerns and prompted the White House to reaffirm its support for Tokyo’s plan to hold the Games this summer and for U.S. athletes competing there despite a new wave of infections and low vaccination rate in the host country.

Foreign spectators have been banned, and organizers are expected to make a decision late this month on domestic spectators.

The CDC said the change comes after it revised its criteria for travel health notices. The CDC said it has also revised its rating for the United States to “Level 3” from “Level 4.”

The agency said the new criteria for a Level 4 “avoid all travel” recommendation has changed from 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 to 500 cases per 100,000.

The agency added that many countries have lower ratings “because of the criteria changes or because their outbreaks are better controlled.” The CDC said it expects more countries to get lower, more favorable travel ratings.

Other countries being lowered to “Level 3” include Honduras, Indonesia, Jordan, Libya, Panama, Poland, Denmark and Malaysia.

Many of the countries that now have lower ratings remain on the U.S. government’s list of countries subject to severe travel restrictions – and most have been subject to the restrictions since early 2020.

The United States bars nearly all non-U.S. citizens who have within the previous 14 days been to China, the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, South Africa, Brazil, Iran and the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls.

Asked why the United States is maintaining the warnings even though some countries now have low infection rates subject to the restrictions, while others with high rates are exempt, CDC Director Rochelle Wallensky said on Tuesday the issue is subject to “an interagency conversation, and we are looking at the data in real time as to how we should move forward with that.”

The United States also has been in discussions with Canada and Mexico – both of which had recommendations eased on Tuesday – on how to eventually lift or revise restrictions at U.S. land borders that bar non-essential travel.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Bill Berkrot)

India demand fears, weak Japan crude imports knock oil prices 2%

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil prices were down 2% on Friday, falling from six-week highs as investors unloaded positions after weak Japanese crude import data and on worries about fuel demand in India, where COVID-19 infections have soared.

U.S. crude and global benchmark Brent were set for their biggest daily drops in about three weeks, but were still on track for monthly gains of about 8% and 6%, respectively. Fuel demand worldwide is mixed but consumption is rising in the United States and China.

Brent crude fell by $1.30, or 1.9%, at $67.26 a barrel by 12:48 p.m. EDT (1648 GMT), the last day of trading for the front-month June contract. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude for June was at $63.67 a barrel, down $1.34, or 2.1%.

“The tug of war between summer demand growth prospects and worsening COVID infections is still in full swing,” JBC Energy analysts wrote on Friday.

India, the world’s third largest oil consumer, is in deep crisis, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed, as the number of COVID-19 cases topped 18 million on Thursday.

Japan’s – another major crude oil importer – imports fell 25% in March from a year earlier to 2.34 million barrels per day, according to government figures. However, the country’s factory activity expanded at the fastest pace since early 2018.

“There are still several major countries struggling mightily with the COVID-19 and of course there is a humanitarian crisis developing in India,” said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital. “These are two big sources of demand that are taking a hit.”

OPEC oil output rose in April due to more supply from Iran, countering the cartel’s pact with allies to reduce supply.

A Reuters survey forecast that Brent would average $64.17 in 2021, up from last month’s consensus of $63.12 per barrel and the $62.3 average for the benchmark so far this year.

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Florence Tan; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and David Gregorio)

China summons Japan ambassador over plans to release contaminated Fukushima water into sea

BEIJING (Reuters) -China on Thursday summoned Japan’s ambassador in protest over Japan’s planned release of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant and said it would assess possible safety threats to food and agricultural products.

According to plans unveiled by Japan on Tuesday, the release of more than a million tonnes of contaminated water into the sea from the plant crippled by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 will start in about two years after filtering it to remove harmful isotopes.

The plan drew immediate opposition from neighbors South Korea, China and Taiwan.

China is seriously concerned about the unilateral decision to discharge wastewater from Fukushima into the sea, Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng said at a regular press conference.

“We will closely follow the development of the situation and assess possible threats posed to the safety of related food and agricultural products and their trade, to ensure the safety of Chinese consumers,” said Gao.

China’s foreign ministry said it had summoned Japan’s ambassador to Beijing, Hideo Tarumi, and lodged “solemn representations” over Tokyo’s move.

“China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, citing Assistant Minister Wu Jianghao as telling Tarumi the decision disregarded the marine environment and the safety of people in neighbouring countries.

The foreign ministry had earlier said China shared a common stance with South Korea opposing Japan’s action.

(Reporting by Xu Jing, Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo; additional reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Toby Chopra, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)