TOKYO/BEIJING – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga referred to Taiwan as a country, immediately drawing fire on Thursday from China, which regards the island as a renegade province.
In his first one-on-one parliamentary debate with opposition leaders Wednesday, Suga, naming Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, said, “Such three countries have been imposing strong restrictions on privacy rights” to curb the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Self-governed Taiwan is usually called a “region” in Japan, with the communist-led Chinese government claiming the island is an “inalienable part” of its territory.
Suga’s reference came as Tokyo and Beijing have already been at odds over several issues, including a territorial dispute in the East China Sea and the crackdown on Hong Kong.
“China expresses strong dissatisfaction with Japan’s erroneous remarks and has lodged a solemn protest against Japan,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.
“There is only one China in the world,” Wang said, urging Japan to become more cautious in words and deeds on Taiwan affairs and to avoid sending wrong signals to the island’s independence forces.
Recently, Suga’s government has been strengthening its commitment to democratic Taiwan, irritating China.
At his summit in Washington in April, Suga confirmed with U.S. President Joe Biden “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” It marked the first time in 52 years that Japanese and U.S. leaders have mentioned Taiwan in a joint statement.
Following the summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned a senior official of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to lodge a protest against the agreement between the United States and its close security ally in Asia.
China has also lambasted Japan for having donated COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan, labeling such a move as a “political performance.”
Taiwan and mainland China have been separately governed since they split in 1949 as a result of a civil war. Their relationship has deteriorated since independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016.
While Tokyo severed diplomatic ties with Taipei and established them with Beijing in 1972, Taiwan and Japan have continued to maintain economic relations.
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Covid outbreak at Chinese port exacerbates global supply chain delays
Weeks of disruption at one of the world’s largest container terminals in southern China have put a huge strain on the already-stretched global shipping industry, worsening supply chain delays for manufacturers and retailers around the world.
Yantian terminal in Shenzhen closed for almost a week in late May after port workers tested positive for Covid-19; weeks later, productivity has only recovered to about 70 per cent of normal levels.
Yantian handles 13m 20-foot shipping containers a year, making it the third-largest terminal in the world. But congestion at the facility, operated by Hong Kong-headquartered Hutchison Ports, has spilled over to other nearby terminals such as Nansha and Shekou. Local authorities in the region blocked roads and closed off some business zones in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.
The situation exposes the vulnerability of global shipping to future delays if even relatively minor outbreaks occur in Chinese port cities. Lars Jensen, chief executive of consultancy Vespucci Maritime, said the incident highlighted the risk of an even more disastrous shutdown if the virus hit bigger ports such as Shanghai.
“The Chinese authorities are attempting to crack down hard on the smallest outbreaks . . . It only takes a few single cases to shut down large areas. We could see much larger impacts,” he said.
At the height of the disruption, Leslie Wang, a clothing factory owner in Guangzhou, told the Financial Times the situation was “like a nightmare”.
Although she tested all her workers for the virus and kept production lines running, “the goods have been piled up at the freight company and cannot be shipped at all”, she said earlier this month.
Ocean shipping has been under immense stress since late last year as pandemic-related controls, such as border restrictions, caused a shortage of empty containers. The situation was worsened by the Suez Canal blockage in March, which resulted in further delays.
Shipping companies are also struggling to keep up with rising demand for their services after the pandemic fuelled a boom in online shopping, and as advanced economies recover from last year’s historic recession.
As a consequence, the cost of sending a 40-ft container on the Asia to North Europe route recently topped $11,000 for the first time, up from about $8,500 in mid-May and $2,000 last October, according to Freightos.
Although Rolf Habben Jansen, chief executive of Hapag-Lloyd, said that “I would like to think that we’ve had the worst behind us”, he warned that “we also didn’t see Yantian coming and there have been other surprises over the last couple of quarters”.
The disruption at Yantian and its impact on shipping costs could add to global inflationary pressures, some economists warned when the outbreak first hit. This added to concerns that surging factory gate prices in China, fuelled by a commodities rally, will raise prices for its exports.
But Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie Group, said that overall, Chinese exports helped keep the rate of price growth down. “The share of China in global exports has reached [a] new high, in response to the pick-up in goods demand globally and the constrained production elsewhere,” he said. “Otherwise, the global inflation pressure could be even higher.”
Peter Sand, chief shipping analyst at Bimco, said he did not think that “freight rates are putting wood on the [inflation] fire”.
In a bid to work around the disruption, shipping companies have been diverting hundreds of vessels to other ports and some ships are skipping southern China to dodge the backlogs. The average waiting time for ships entering the terminal has hit 16 days, according to Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company.
Electrical systems maker Eaton has 25 of its containers held up in southern China, according to Klaus Gaeb, its vice-president of supply chain in Europe. As a result, the company will have to wait an extra two weeks to receive the supplies. That followed a two to three month wait for items in 45 containers that it had to reorder because the original goods got stuck during the Suez Canal blockage.
Shippers have been hunting for alternatives such as air and rail to get goods from Asia to Europe but those options have become increasingly difficult to pursue. Gaeb said prices to haul goods across Eurasia have more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels to $36,000 per truck.
The delays will persist for manufacturers and retailers across the world for the rest of the year, as will limited availability on cargo ships and record-high freight rates, shipping industry figures said.
Otto Schacht, executive vice-president of sea logistics at Kuehne+Nagel, one of the world’s largest freight forwarders, said the timing of the latest disruption was particularly unfortunate because shipping is close to entering peak season when retailers stock up for the return-to-school and end-of-year buying.
“How quickly are we back at pre-Covid supply chain reliability? Probably six to nine months,” he said.
Jensen of Vespucci Maritime said the Yantian backlog “serves to push the point of time further into the future when we revert to normality”.
“There’s a significant risk that we push the point of return into 2022,” he warned.
Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai, Qianer Liu in Shenzhen and Patricia Nilsson in London
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China squeezes bitcoin mining and trading
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China has taken another bite out of bitcoin’s potential, stepping up restrictions on cryptocurrency mining and ordering banks to block crypto-related transactions. The news drove bitcoin’s price 10 per cent lower to a two-week low today.
China’s central bank warned several of its largest state-owned banks and Jack Ma’s Alipay to “investigate and identify” bank accounts facilitating cryptocurrency trading and block all corresponding transactions, reports our Beijing bureau.
It had called in the Agricultural Bank of China, China Construction Bank and ICBC among others to discuss “providing services for cryptocurrency transaction speculation”. The regulator wants the financial groups to identify and block all transfers to accounts held by cryptocurrency exchanges and other offshore middlemen. The central bank is steering citizens towards using its own digital currency, which it has started testing in large-scale pilots.
“Bitcoin trading in China will continue but become less liquid, and spreads will increase,” said Leo Weese, co-founder of the Hong Kong Bitcoin Association. “People will limit themselves to trading with their friends and trusted friends-of-friends.”
Elsewhere, officials in all of China’s hubs for mining operations followed Inner Mongolia and released further measures targeting bitcoin creators. Sichuan, a hydropower-rich province in south-west China, has ordered the 26 largest local mines to stop operating while an investigation is carried out. Sichuan was seen as a last resort location for mining operations pushed out of provinces that rely on coal-fired power plants for electricity.
Meanwhile, the central banker overseeing the European Union’s development of a digital euro has been speaking to the Financial Times about its advantages. Fabio Panetta, an executive board member at the European Central Bank, told us it would boost consumers’ privacy and protect the eurozone from the “threat” of competing cryptocurrencies that could undermine the bloc’s monetary sovereignty.
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. German regulator launches Apple probe
Germany’s antitrust watchdog has launched a probe into whether Apple has established market dominance through its “digital ecosystem”, making it the fourth US tech giant the agency has targeted this year. The Federal Cartel Office said on Monday it would look at whether Apple exerted market dominance through its integration of hardware products with digital services such as the App Store, iCloud, or Apple Music. Meanwhile, Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s head of digital and competition policy, has rejected the idea that its forthcoming Digital Markets Act (DMA) will only target American tech companies.
#techFT brings you news, comment and analysis on the big companies, technologies and issues shaping this fastest moving of sectors from specialists based around the world. Click here to get #techFT in your inbox.
2. Tech investor says UK still in 19th century
A “deep sickness” in UK capital markets has stifled the growth of homegrown tech entrepreneurs and left London’s blue-chip FTSE 100 looking like an index from the 19th century, according to James Anderson, joint manager of Baillie Gifford’s Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust. His early bets on Facebook, Amazon and Tesla have made him one of the world’s most successful investors.
3. Volvo and Northvolt to build gigafactory
Volvo Cars and Northvolt will set up a joint venture to build a new battery gigafactory in Europe and develop energy cells for the Swedish premium carmaker and its electric-only sister brand Polestar. Northvolt, Europe’s great battery hope founded by former Tesla executives, is backed by investors including Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs and valued at about $12bn.
4. Malaysian mobile megamerger
Malaysia’s Axiata and Norway’s Telenor have agreed to merge their mobile operations in the south-east Asian country, creating a $12bn entity that will seek to capture rising demand for digital services. The deal, announced on Monday, comes two years after the pair abandoned plans to merge their regional operations in a deal that would have created the biggest telecoms operator in south-east Asia.
5. Ackman Spac invests in music catalogues
A blank-cheque company backed by hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman is to buy a 10 per cent stake in Universal Music Group, Taylor Swift’s label, for $4bn. The deal is the first of its kind for a special acquisition company and comes as music catalogues soar in value.
Tech week ahead
Monday: Activision Blizzard faces a contentious vote on its chief executive’s $155m pay package after delaying the showdown in what critics say was an effort to avoid an embarrassing rebuke.
Tuesday: Amazon’s two-day Prime Sale ends.
Wednesday: The new UK £50 note enters circulation and features Alan Turing, one of the UK’s greatest scientists, on his birthday. Masayoshi Son, SoftBank chairman and CEO, will address the company’s annual meeting amid rising calls for share buybacks after the company recorded a $45bn net profit for the year to March 31.
Thursday: Microsoft unveils its “next generation of Windows” at an event presented by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and chief product officer Panos Panay.
Friday: Days after an independent investigation found that Toshiba executives colluded with Japan’s trade ministry to pressure shareholders over their votes at last year’s general meeting, investors will gather again to elect a new board of 11 directors.
Tech tools — Angell e-bike
The Angell e-bike has élan, which seems appropriate given its French design and origins. It is sleek, stylish and one of the lightest bikes of its kind, weighing in at 15.9Kg. I was able to test ride it recently and relished the surge from its three power-assisted settings — the battery-saving Fly Eco, a regular Fly Dry mode and a Fly Fast one for maximum assistance. The handlebars have integrated buttons that switch between those power modes and turn the left and right indicators and the front and rear lights on and off. A central cockpit display links to your smartphone using Bluetooth and shows speed, battery life, time, distance, weather conditions, and power settings.
I had some quibbles with the battery, which slides on to a rear rack and sometimes became disconnected when riding, unless I kept the key in it so it was fully locked. If you leave the battery off the back for a few days when charging it, the central cockpit console can lose its own charge and curtail any power-assisted rides. I would also prefer a smartphone mount in the centre rather than have both an Angell app and the console screen. Like other smart e-bikes, the Angell has the ability to send a fall alert via text to a chosen contact, as well as automatic locking, motion sensing and geolocation features. It is another £2,000-plus e-bike, costing £2,600, compared to the new Cowboy 4 at £2,290.
US punts negotiation ball back to North Korea
SEOUL – Echoing a classic Martini advert of the 1970s, the US special envoy to North Korea says American negotiators are ready to meet their North Korean counterparts and talk anytime, anywhere.
“We continue to hope that [North Korea] will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions,” Ambassador Sung Kim said in Seoul on Monday.
His comments came three days after North Korea signaled, via comments from national leader Kim Jong Un, that it was ready to either talk to or confront the United States. Experts told Asia Times then that the implied emphasis was on “talk”, an analysis that appears to be born out by the US response.
The US envoy arrived in South Korea on Saturday for discussions with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. None of the three states are currently engaged in negotiations with North Korea.
Talks between the US and North Korea, and collaterally South Korea and North Korea, have essentially dwindled away to nothing after a high-potential Pyongyang-Washington summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended without a deal in 2019.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has made clear he favors diplomacy with North Korea, but is not as eager for direct talks with the North Korean leader as was his predecessor Donald Trump.
This approach raises the importance of working-level discussions.
Sung Kim was named Washington’s point man on North Korea by Biden during a South Korea-US summit in Washington last month. However, the envoy wears two hats. The Korean-speaking Korean-American, a former US ambassador to Seoul, is also the current ambassador to Indonesia.
That may suggest a dearth of Korea-related talent in the US State Department.
Though Kim is highly regarded within the Pyongyangology community for his expert knowledge of peninsula affairs, some South Koreans close to the Moon Jae-in administration had hoped that a policy-level official – such as John Kerry or Wendy Sherman – would be appointed to the position.
That would have raised the seniority of the role, thereby requiring Pyongyang to assign an equally high-level official as his negotiating counterpart.
One reason Sung Kim made his “anywhere, anytime” public statement may be North Korea’s current non-responsiveness, said Moon Chung-in, who heads the Sejong Institute think tank.
“Right now, North Korea is not answering. That is my understanding.” said Moon, who has advised three South Korean presidents on North Korean policy.
Kim’s statement on Monday essentially punts the ball back in Pyongyang’s court. Though the two countries lack diplomatic relations, they do not lack communication channels.
There exist multiple hotlines across the DMZ; there is a North Korean mission assigned to the United Nations in New York City; a telephone hotline links South Korea’s presidential Blue House and North Korea’s State Affairs Commission (Kim’s executive office); and there is, Asia Times has learned, email contact between related agencies in Pyongyang and Washington.
So if either Kim – the North Korean leader or the US envoy – really wants to talk, what is stopping them?
“That is not a stupid question,” said Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador to both London and Tokyo, who also had experience via the intelligence community of directly engaging with North Korea.
“The only answer to that is that even in interpersonal relations, sometimes we have to go around. There are situations where were cannot engage in direct conversation,” he said.
“This is quite natural. From my experience in dealing with North Korea, there are situations like this where you have to make a detour.”
Moreover, public statements do not necessarily mean that there is zero contact below the radar.
“I am pretty sure they are sending emails and I would think they have conducted some kinds of talks,” said Andrei Lankov, a long-term North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Before you fly out to some place, you have to do some groundwork and that is not widely advertised.”
Still, in public, the diplomatic mating dance continues to play out.
“They need this dance as neither side is under terrible pressure to start talks, so they want the other side to start,” Lankov said. “The thinking is, ‘it is up to the other side – which needs us more than we need them.’”
“When a relationship is friendly or sort of normal, we engage in direct communications,” Rah said. “The predicament is that the relationship is not that friendly now.”
Lankov thinks that talks are either ongoing or will soon be as it is in both sides’ interest to avoid worsening relations.
“Neither side hopes for much in the foreseeable future but neither side wants to deal with a confrontation in the region,” he said. “So they want to start talks for the sake of talks, and to keep the situation under control.”
An alternative explanation is provided by David Tizzard, a professor of Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University.
He suggests that the public statements going back and forth are in fact domestic, not diplomatic messages – the aim being to assure local audiences that their leaderships are doing their utmost to forestall potential confrontation.
“A lot of good diplomacy does take place behind closed doors, so who are the public messages really for?” asked Tizzard, who studies diplomacy toward North Korea. “It could be for their own people, internal and domestic.”
Moon, of the Sejong Institute, warned that if talks get underway, the US side should have something concrete to offer, so that the North Korean officials do not have to return home empty-handed as they did under Trump.
China cracks down on iron ore market
Beijing has launched a review into record prices for key steelmaking ingredient iron ore, opening a new front in its campaign to suppress high commodities prices.
In a statement issued on Monday, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, said it would investigate “malicious speculation” in the iron ore market and “severely punish” any wrongdoing.
The move marks the latest step by Chinese policymakers to cool soaring commodity markets, which have pushed up factory gate prices in China to their highest since the 2008 financial crisis and threatened to squeeze industry profits.
Chinese authorities made a pledge last week to release government stockpiles of industrial metals to tackle concerns over shortages and high prices. China is the world’s biggest consumer of seaborne iron ore, absorbing more than 70 per cent of global production.
“What [this intervention] tells me is they’re very very frustrated, they’re trying to reduce the inflation risk that high commodity prices pose to the economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum.
Iron ore futures tumbled on the news, with the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange down 9 per cent to $173 a tonne.
In the physical market, where miners and steel mills buy and sell, iron ore was down 5 per cent at $206.55, according to a price assessment from S&P Global Platts.
The price of iron ore surged to a record high of more than $230 a tonne in May on strong demand from China and supply disruptions in Australia and Brazil. That delivered a huge windfall to big producers, a group that includes Rio Tinto, BHP Group and Vale.
The NDRC said in a statement it would “closely scrutinise changes to spot prices, swiftly investigate irregular transactions and malicious speculation, and . . . will severely punish and publicly expose acts such as monopolistic behaviour, spreading around information about price increases, driving up prices and hoarding”.
High metals prices and falling consumer growth have squeezed Chinese heavy industry, with the producer price index climbing 9 per cent in May while consumer prices have remained unchanged.
However, commodity prices have suffered a sharp retreat over the past week, hit by the hawkish shift in tone from the US Federal Reserve and China’s interventions to try and curb inflation. Copper hit an all-time high of $10,500 a tonne on the London Metal Exchange last month but has since come back to about $9,000 a tonne.
The Bloomberg Commodity index peaked earlier in June but has since fallen off 5 per cent, with a drop in the gold price also contributing to its decline.
UBS analyst Myles Allsop said the iron ore price was approaching an “inflection point” through China’s tightening of credit and supply.
“Steel demand is also set to moderate in the second half [of the year] with China tightening credit,” he said. “Brazilian supply is lifting with Vale’s shipments up 14 per cent year to date.”
In London, shares in Rio fell as much as 3 per cent on the news before rebounding, as the FTSE 100 index rose as much as 0.7 per cent in morning trading.
Up to 10,000 fans to be allowed in Tokyo Olympics
Up to 10,000 fans will be allowed at Tokyo Olympic events, organizers said Monday, warning competition could move behind closed doors if infections surge.
The decision, only weeks before the opening ceremony, ends months of speculation about whether spectators will be allowed at the pandemic-postponed Games. Overseas fans were banned in March.
“In light of the government’s restrictions on public events, the spectator limit for the Olympic Games will be set at 50% of venue capacity, up to a maximum of 10,000 people in all venues,” organizers said in a statement.
A decision on spectators at the Paralympics will be delayed until July 16, a week before the Olympics open.
And officials left open the possibility of a reversal if the virus rebounds.
“If there should be major dramatic change in the infection situation, we may need to revisit this matter amongst ourselves and we may need to consider the option of having no spectators in the venues,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said.
Senior medical experts, including top advisers to the government, have said that holding the Games behind closed doors would be “ideal” from a health perspective.
They fear crowds of fans could fuel a new surge in infections in a country still racing to vaccinate its residents.
The decision was announced after five-way talks between Tokyo 2020 organizers and officials from Japan’s government, the Tokyo government, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee.
Speaking before the meeting, IOC chief Thomas Bach said he was “absolutely sure that it will be a decision to best protect the Japanese people and all participants.”
Tokyo 2020 had already reportedly scrapped plans to sell more tickets and may now face the prospect of organizing lotteries among existing holders for the right to attend events.
Before the Games was postponed last year, organizers had sold about 4.45 million Olympic tickets and nearly a million Paralympic tickets in Japan.
In December, organizers said they would be refunding 18% of Olympic tickets bought domestically and 21% for the Paralympics.
That is still likely to leave many events with more tickets sold than seats available.
Japan has seen a comparatively small virus outbreak, with nearly 14,500 deaths, despite avoiding the harsh lockdowns seen elsewhere.
But the vaccine rollout has been slower than in many developed countries, only picking up speed in recent days. About 6.5% of the population is now fully vaccinated.
Organizers also face a skeptical public. Polls have regularly shown most Japanese would prefer to see the Games delayed further or canceled altogether.
Recent surveys suggest a softening of opposition, with more in favor of holding the Games than canceling it – if a postponement is not offered as an option.
A survey published Monday found about a third of respondents want the Games to happen, up from 14% last month, though a majority still prefer further delay or cancellation.
Organizers say strict rules will keep both athletes and the public safe, and Bach said Monday that “well over” 80% of people staying in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated.
Athletes will be barred from contact with the public and risk being kicked out of the Games if they violate rules including mask-wearing and daily virus tests.
In a taste of the complexities ahead, a member of Uganda’s Olympic team tested positive on arrival in Japan on Saturday.
The team was reportedly all vaccinated and would have had to test negative before traveling to Japan.
Olympic venues to cap number of spectators at 10,000
Japan will limit spectators at the Olympic Games to 50 per cent of a venue’s capacity capped at 10,000 people, a move that flies in the face of the country’s official medical advice.
The decision to push ahead with spectators at the games, even though most of the Japanese public will not be vaccinated against Covid-19, suggests prime minister Yoshihide Suga is willing to risk some extra infections in order to deliver a successful Olympics.
It marks a rejection of last week’s request by Shigeru Omi, the doctor leading Japan’s Covid-19 response, for organisers to hold the Olympics behind closed doors.
“We have prepared for the last eight years and we would like to make these games successful,” said Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020, in a press conference on Monday.
She said there were many examples of spectators attending sports events during the pandemic, both in Japan and abroad, and insisted the event could be held in safety.
Last week, Omi warned that the televised spectacle of stadiums full of spectators would send a contradictory message to the Japanese public that it was safe to relax their precautions against Covid-19.
If the Olympics were held with spectators, Omi said there should be tighter restrictions than for other sporting events, and they should be limited to Tokyo residents to avoid an increase in people travelling.
But while the organisers appeared to reject Omi’s requests, they said the rules could be changed if the coronavirus situation worsened.
“In the event a state of emergency is implemented at any time after July 12, limitations on spectator numbers will be based on the content of the state of emergency,” said Hashimoto. That could yet mean holding the games behind closed doors.
A state of emergency was lifted in Tokyo and Japan’s other big cities at the weekend with new nationwide Covid cases running at about 1,500 a day. Doctors are worried about a fresh wave of the disease, especially as the Delta variant becomes more prevalent.
The Olympics are due to start on July 23. Japan has so far given a first dose of vaccine to sixteen in every 100 people, with priority going to medical personnel and then the elderly.
Only one in ten Olympic events will be affected by the 10,000 maximum on capacity, said Hashimoto. That will include showpiece athletics finals in the Olympic stadium.
Restricting spectator numbers will mean a financial hit to the organisers. Hashimoto said ticket revenue would be less than half of the budgeted ¥90bn ($820m).
She said the organisers, the city of Tokyo and the Japanese government would discuss how to fill the gap in the budget. However, according to the contracts underpinning the games, the burden is likely to fall on Tokyo taxpayers.
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