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Updated: 27 min 25 sec ago

Experts See Russia Fingerprints on North Korea's New Missile

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 02:16
The three new missiles North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tested over the past week are eerily familiar to military experts: They look just like a controversial and widely copied missile the Russian military has deployed to Syria and has been actively trying to sell abroad for years. Ending a pause in ballistic missile launches that began in late 2017, and alarming North Korea's neighbors, Kim personally supervised the launch of the first missile from the country's east coast on Saturday and two more from the west on Thursday. All splashed down in the Pacific. The missiles were short-range and the launches do not mean Kim has decided to end his self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles that could reach the United States mainland. They do indicate, however, that Kim is methodically expanding the battle readiness of his missile forces and that could have a major impact on the safety of American allies and U.S. forces in the region. The missiles bear a strong resemblance to the Russian-designed Iskander, a short-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile that has been in the Russian arsenal for more than a decade. "There are Russian technology fingerprints all over it," said Marcus Schiller, a leading expert on North Korean missiles who is based in Germany. He added that short of actually procuring the missiles from Russia, the North could have had key parts delivered from somewhere else, perhaps not directly from Russia, while making components such as the outer shell, or airframe, domestically. The Iskander, or something like it, would be of particular interest to North Korea. It's designed to fly at a flattened-out altitude of around 40 kilometers (25 miles) and to make in-flight guidance adjustments. Both capabilities exploit weaknesses in the U.S. and South Korean missile defenses that are now in place, primarily Patriot missile batteries and the THAAD anti-missile defense system. The Iskander is also quicker to launch, and thus harder to destroy on the ground, because of its solid fuel engine and more accurate because of its advanced guidance system. Despite claims by senior members of the Trump administration that the missiles aren't a threat to the United States, in a battle scenario they would likely be used to attack targets well behind the front-lines, such as the U.S. military bases in South Korea. There are roughly 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and tens of thousands more family members and civilian Department of Defense employees. The North first displayed a mock-up of an Iskander-like missile at a military parade in 2018. This week's launches mark its first known flight tests. Michael Elleman, director of the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said further analysis of the missiles' performance will provide clues as to whether it was produced by Russia. "If its flight path and accuracy were marginal or inconsistent with known Iskander trajectories and performance, then I think some form of local development with external technical assistance is more likely," he said. "The key here is that one cannot make a new system without undertaking certain development steps. I have seen no evidence of such activity." Initial reports suggested at least one of the tests did involve an Iskander-like trajectory. The Iskander missile system has been part of the Russian arsenal since 2006. The Iskander-M version used by the Russian military is more than 7 meters (yards) long, can weigh more than 4,000 kilograms (9,000 pounds) and has a range of about 400 to 500 kilometers (250 to 310 miles). Russia first tested the Iskander in combat in 2008, against Georgia. The Iskander missiles have long been a source of tension in Europe and were cited by President Donald Trump as a key reason behind his decision in February to break with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans production, testing and deployment of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,410 miles). Such missiles only take a few minutes to reach their targets, leaving no time for decision-makers and raising the likelihood of a global nuclear conflict over a false launch warning. Moscow claims the Iskander-M's range is just below the operational limit and should not be considered a treaty violation. From the start, Russia has seen the Iskander missile as a potential export. To avoid running afoul of international non-proliferation restrictions, Russia produces a less-formidable version that has a reduced range and is designed to carry a smaller payload for sales abroad. So far, it has sold that missile — called Iskander-E — to Algeria and Armenia. It has reportedly discussed exports to Iran, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. According to Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks the global arms trade, Russia has used the Iskander missile in Syria. He said Syria has expressed interest in buying its own Iskanders, but Russia has declined. Wezeman stressed Russia cannot legally sell Iskanders of any variety to North Korea. A United Nations embargo in place since 2006, when the North conducted its first nuclear test, prohibits supplying the North with major arms, including ground-to-ground missiles, and U.N. sanctions prohibit the transfer of ballistic missiles and related technology. If North Korea is producing an Iskander clone, it would not be the first country to do so. South Korea has what many believe is its own Iskander-inspired missile — the Hyunmoo-2. China also has a similar missile, called the DF-12 or M20 that was also configured with exports in mind. One of its buyers, Qatar, put them on display at a parade in 2017.

A Fixer Pays the Price for Disputed Film

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 01:42
Russia Today’s 2017 documentary - “My Mother Sold Me” - depicted a young Cambodian woman selling her daughter’s virginity. The film went viral – but it wasn’t good news for Cambodian fixer, Rath Rott Mony, who worked for RT. Cambodian authorities labeled it fake news and jailed him for “incitement to discriminate.” Now, Mony’s family says the Russian government, which bankrolls RT, should be working to get him free. VOA Khmer’s Chetra Chap reports.

Malaysia's New Government Survives Tough First Year

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 00:26
One year ago Friday, Mahathir Mohamad took the oath of office as Malaysia's new prime minister and assumed the helm of a government from under the thumb of the Barisan Nasional coalition for the first time since its independence from Britain in 1957. In a historic election the day before, his coalition — Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope — tapped growing disaffection with a ruling elite increasingly mired in corruption allegations to pull off a win that shocked even itself. Hopes for speedy reform were high, bolstered by bold campaign promises Pakatan had made on the back of a sweeping manifesto. Despite some gains, the past year has been more a litany of defeats and backsliding in the face of a cooling economy, resilient political foes and entrenched ethnic fault lines. In November, the government backtracked on a pledge to ratify a U.N. convention against racial discrimination amid backlash from ethnic Malays who feared it could get in the way of their state-mandated privileges. Facing similar pressure, Mahathir announced in April that Malaysia would not be joining the International Criminal Court, to which the previous government had tentatively signed on. It has lifted a moratorium on several draconian laws the previous government had used against its critics, toyed with introducing a lese-majeste law aimed at sparing the sultans from salty talk about them, flip-flopped on a post-election pledge to abolish the death penalty, and had a bill to repeal a fake news law shot down by the opposition-led Senate.  "There's been some progress, but the many U-turns that the government has done over the past year ... have actually impacted negatively some of the initial excitement about some of the reforms that were going to come Malaysia's way," said Shamini Karshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia. Fall from favor Since the election upset it pulled off a year ago, Pakatan has also been punished at the polls, losing three successive local by-elections. The coalition's fall from favor has been borne out in repeated opinion surveys. The latest report from the Merdeka Center, a research firm, shows approval for the new government plunging from 79% just after the general election to 39% by March. "Satisfaction" surveys about Mahathir himself have followed suit, tumbling from 83% to 46% over the same stretch. James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania's Asia Institute, said Pakatan's struggles were part of the natural "learning curve" of any new administration, especially one taking over a bureaucracy that has until now known no other government but Barisan since independence. No newcomer to politics, Mahathir served 22 years as prime minister until resigning in 2003 and later falling out with UMNO, the United Malays National Organization, the party that came to dominate the Barisan coalition. But Chin said more than two-thirds of his ministers now have little or no experience in administration. "You have to remember," he added, "Malaysia was a one-party state for the last 60 years, so in many ways the upper echelons of the civil service were highly politicized. People were appointed because they were personally loyal to UMNO, the former ruling party. So I think the new government had quite a lot of problems with the civil service, especially getting them on side to help them reform the system." Economic factor Polls and pundits also blame much of Pakatan's troubles on an economy that was already on the wane when it took over and has yet to revive. Slumping global commodity prices and the U.S.-China trade dispute have not helped. The World Bank says Malaysia's economic growth fell from 5.9% in 2017 to 4.7% in 2018, and was likely to stay level through 2020. "Many people who voted for the new government expected the government to do something about the economy, especially the cost of living. So essentially after one year the cost of living has not gone down, the economy has not really expanded, so people are not very happy [with] the government in the economic arena," said Chin. Frustrating Pakatan at least as much as the economy is a pair of tenacious political foes. After its election defeat, UMNO allied with the Islamist PAS to mobilize Malaysia's majority Muslim Malay against Pakatan's base among liberals, moderates and ethnic minorities. "The whole game basically, on the opposition side, is to portray the government as betraying the interests of Malay Muslims and Islam and at the same time, by frustrating all reform, demoralizing the minorities and the liberal voters," said Wong Chin Huat, a political analyst at the Penang Institute, a research group. If Pakatan is to have a more prosperous second year, he added, it will need to make some progress bridging that social divide and raising the average Malaysian's living conditions, with some help from the global economy. Given how deep and delicate the divide, Chin said any major reform push in the coming year — or for the rest of Pakatan's five-year term — will be on the economic front. Pakatan victories In that time, it will also have to stage manage a promised transfer of power from Mahathir, who is now 93 years old, to key coalition partner Anwar Ibrahim. Though the handover is due in a year, persistent mistrust between the erstwhile rivals' camps continues to fuel doubts. The new administration, however, has scored some lauded wins. It has launched a raft of criminal corruption cases against former officials — 42 against former prime minister Najib Razak alone — mostly tied to 1MDB, a multibillion-dollar state fund Barisan is accused of using as a private slush fund. The government says it has already clawed back hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of 1MDB-linked assets seized by other countries around the world. The government has also revived two Chinese-funded megaprojects after renegotiating the deals on terms more favorable to Malaysia. Wong also gave the new government plaudits for pulling off a peaceful transition and holding its ground when opponents staged a mass protest rally in December. "For a country that [has] gone through 60 years of one-party rule, then for nearly half-a-century the people have been told that any political change may result in riots, I think one year of peace is an incredible achievement," he said. But Chin, Wong and Karshni Kaliemuthu at Amnesty International agreed that perhaps what Pakatan now has to do most is prioritize and settle on a few core reforms the coalition partners could all agree on. "There has definitely been a fundamental shift in the last election," Karshni Kaliemuthu said. "But at the same time, the current government needs to be able to get its act in order if it wants to remain more than a one-term government."

Trump's Foreign Policy Challenges Mounting Around the World

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 23:02
New North Korea missile tests. A trade standoff with China. Fresh nuclear tensions with Iran. President Donald Trump's foreign policy challenges are mounting around the world, showing the limits of his self-touted ability to make a deal and perhaps the difficulty of focusing primarily on domestic concerns for his “America first” administration. They're also forcing him into some contorted positions, for example, backing regime change in Venezuela without any displays of force and saying he's open to talks with Iran while dispatching an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Middle East. Staring down high-stakes diplomacy around the world, Trump says his efforts are working. “We've made a decisive break from the failed foreign policy establishment that sacrificed our sovereignty, surrendered our jobs and tied us down to endless foreign wars,” he told supporters at a rally in Florida. “In everything we do, we are now putting America first.” Still, Trump has plenty of unfinished business. Since taking office, he has specialized in publicly hectoring friendly partners, embracing foes and resisting too much advice. Critics have labeled him an unreliable force, while allies say he has followed through on a promise to disrupt foreign policy norms. Trump inherited some of his foreign policy problems, such as North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan, but has yet to solve them. And his hands-on approach to North Korea, holding the first meetings between a U.S. president and that country's leader, has not yielded a deal to curtail North Korea's nuclear missile program. On other fronts, Trump has turned up the heat. His trade clash with China remains unresolved as he brandishes additional tariff hikes. With Iran, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had negotiated along with five other world powers, and he recently increased the pressure, designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization and deploying military forces to the Persian Gulf. He said Thursday that he would like to get a call from Iran's leaders to negotiate. Cliff Kupchan, chairman of Eurasia Group, described China and Iran as the two most pressing issues for the U.S. But he noted that Trump's moves are not unexpected. “With China and Iran we're seeing a strategically very predictable president play out his hand,” he said. Still, he said that handling the range of challenges proves that the administration can manage to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Trump rattled through some of the top concerns. He said the U.S. was looking “very seriously right now” at North Korea's recent military tests. On trade talks with China, he said the U.S. would be fine either way, but said Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote him a “beautiful” letter. And amid a rising clash with Iran, he declared, “we have information that you don't want to know about.” Other pressing issues include the economic and political crisis in Venezuela. The United States and other nations have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, but a recent effort to encourage an uprising against President Nicolas Maduro failed. Also on the horizon is a blueprint for Middle East peace from Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Trump, who ran on limiting U.S. engagement abroad, has stressed his interest in domestic policymaking. Michael O'Hanlon, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said a unifying theme of Trump's approach to foreign policy is his unwillingness to commit to more wars. “I think so far we continue to see reluctance on the part of Trump to get involved in new military operations -- which is mostly a good instinct - but a willingness to brandish nonmilitary instruments” of national power, as well as assertive shows of military force with no serious intention of taking pre-emptive military action, O'Hanlon said in an email Thursday. Every administration faces periods of intensified - and often unforeseen - foreign policy problems that can divert its attention, resources and political capital away from domestic issues, such as jobs and the economy, that are more central to a president's re-election hopes. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened in President George W. Bush's first year in office, and his subsequent decisions to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003 consumed his administration for years. Trump also stressed that he was calling the shots. Asked if he lines up with hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, he said “I'm the one who tempers him, which is OK,” and added: “Ultimately I make the decision.” That lines up with a central emphasis of Trump's foreign policy, which is that he always has the final word. His advisers have shifted during his term, and he is now on his second secretary of state and third national security adviser. On Thursday, the White House said Trump will nominate Patrick Shanahan to succeed Jim Mattis as defense secretary, ending an audition period for Shanahan that began in January. In a sign Shanahan remains focused on Trump's top security issue - building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border - Shanahan is scheduled to travel to the border on Saturday, even as he juggles the Iran, Venezuela and North Korea problems.  

Google Says Singapore's Fake News Law Could Hamper Innovation

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 21:37
Google said on Thursday an anti-fake news law passed by Singapore's parliament could stunt innovation, a quality that the city-state wants to nurture under plans to expand its tech industry. Singapore's parliament on Wednesday passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, a law criticized by rights groups, journalists and tech firms over fears it could be used to clamp down on freedom of speech. The passage of the law comes at a time when Singapore, a financial and transport hub, has been making efforts to position itself as regional center for digital innovation. Google said the law could hamper those efforts. "We remain concerned that this law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem," the company said in response to a query from Reuters. "How the law is implemented matters, and we are committed to working with policymakers on this process." The law will require online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators running as high as prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1 million ($735,000). The law minister has said the bill will not affect free speech. Singapore says it is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a global financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and widespread internet access. "We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and to push a government notification to users," said Simon Milner, Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy. Milner said Facebook hoped that the ministry's reassuring statements led to a "proportionate and measured approach in practice". Facebook and Singapore clashed late last year when the company refused to remove a post of an online article about the city-state's banks and Malaysia's scandal-linked 1MDB state fund. The government called the post "false and malicious." A running feud between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his brother and sister over the will of their late father, Singapore's First Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, has also played out over Facebook since it first erupted in public in 2017. The prime minister's siblings have used the social media platform to give their side of a row that disturbed the normally calm politics of a country that has been led by the same party since its independence in 1965. Activists are concerned that the law could give the government power to decide if material posted online is true or false. "Singapore's leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect on Internet freedom throughout Southeast Asia," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "[The law will] likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of 'truth' on the wider world." Asia Internet Coalition, having previously criticized the bill for the new law, said that its members are committed to work with the Singapore government on the law's implementation. The authorities may also issue codes of practice to technology companies requiring them to take actions against inauthentic accounts used for malicious activities, among other measures. The government consulted with tech companies over the law, including through a parliamentary hearing last year. Twitter said that it hoped the "Singapore government will take into account points we raised through our consultation process and that those recommendations can be reflected in the Codes of Practice, particularly the implications for freedom of expression and the potential for regulatory overreach."  

Trump Tweets Out US Plan as Tariffs on Chinese Products Kick In

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 21:26
U.S. President Donald Trump began Friday issuing a series of tweets focusing on trade with China, as the United States increased tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. "We have lost 500 Billion Dollars a year, for many years, on Crazy Trade with China. NO MORE!" Trump went on to tweet that trade talks with China are proceeding in a "congenial manner" and "there is absolutely no need to rush - as Tariffs are NOW being paid to the United States by China of 25% on 250 Billion Dollars worth of goods and products. These massive payments go directly the Treasury of the U.S...." The president noted plans for the U.S. to level tariffs of 25% on the "remaining" $325 billion, pointing out that Washington sells Beijing about $100 billion worth of goods, and with the more than $100 billion in tariffs received, the U.S. will buy the agricultural products from U.S. farmers and send it as humanitarian assistance to nations in need. He also goes on to chide China for trying to "redo" the deal at the last minute after the terms already had been set. China said Friday it "deeply regrets" the increased tariffs and will take the "necessary countermeasures," without giving any details. The increases are going into effect in the midst of talks between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Thursday, U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators ended the first of two days of talks aimed at saving a trade deal even as President Donald Trump said the new "very heavy tariffs” on Chinese products" would go ahead. The White House said late Thursday, "Ambassador Lighthizer and Secretary Mnuchin met with President Trump to discuss the ongoing trade negotiations with China. The Ambassador and Secretary then had a working dinner with Vice Premier Liu He, and agreed to continue discussions tomorrow morning at USTR." Liu He is leading the Chinese negotiating team for the talks which threatened to collapse after the Trump administration accused Beijing of backtracking. “We were getting very close to a deal, then they started to renegotiate the deal,” said Trump earlier in the day at the White House. “It was their idea to come back” and resume discussion ahead of the Friday deadline for additional tariffs, the president said. Trump said he had also received “a beautiful letter” from Xi that expressed a sentiment of “let's work together.” Trump told reporters that he happens “to think tariffs for our country are very powerful,” in line with a view he has been expressing that such increased punitive taxes would be good for America’s economy. Some economists, however, predict such tariffs would cut in half U.S. economic growth seen in the first quarter of this year.   The Trump administration hopes the new tariffs will force changes in China's trade, subsidy and intellectual property practices.   The two sides have been unable to reach a deal due, in part, to differences over the enforcement of an agreement and a timeline for removing the tariffs. Trump says despite being poised to impose the additional tariffs, he is not looking for a trade war with Beijing. “I want to get along with China,” he told reporters Thursday.

A Fixer Pays the Price for Press Freedom

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 20:32
Russia Today’s 2017 documentary - “My Mother Sold Me” - depicted a young Cambodian woman selling her daughter’s virginity. The film went viral – but it wasn’t good news for Cambodian fixer, Rath Rott Mony, who worked for RT. Cambodian authorities labeled it fake news and jailed him for “incitement to discriminate.” Now, Mony’s family says the Russian government, which bankrolls RT, should be working to get him free. VOA Khmer’s Chetra Chap reports.

China Files Formal Charges Against Former Interpol Chief

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 19:30
Chinese prosecutors have filed formal charges of abuse of power and bribery against former Interpol president Meng Hongwei. The prosecutor’s office in the northeastern city of Tianjin made the announcement Friday, saying Meng abused his power when he was previously a deputy minister of public security and head of China's coast guard, and had taken "an extremely large" amount of bribes. Meng's wife, Grace, who lives in France, has dismissed the allegations and maintains his arrest was politically motivated. Meng was expelled from public office and the ruling Communist Party, before being formally arrested last month. Meng was elected president of Interpol in 2016 and disappeared last September while on a visit to his home country from France, where the global law enforcement agency is headquartered.   Interpol was not informed and was forced to make a formal request to China for information about Meng's whereabouts. Beijing later announced he had been detained on allegations of accepting bribes and had resigned from Interpol.   There are suspicions that Meng is one of many Communist Party officials who have fallen out of political favor with Chinese President Xi Jinping, because of perceived disloyalty and corruption.  

Medical Teams Adapt to Prolonged Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 18:37
The flood of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh in late-2017 created a sudden medical emergency; but, it has now turned into a protracted crisis. For VOA News, reporter Dave Grunebaum shows how the health care community is adapting.

China 'Fed Up' With US Criticism of Belt and Road

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 16:53
China has expressed annoyance at U.S. criticism of its Belt and Road Initiative, inspired by the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that connected parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Xi Jinping's administration has promoted the initiative as a development strategy involving investment and infrastructure in more than 150 countries. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that China's opaque financing could trap many countries in unsustainable debt. VOA'S Zlatica Hoke reports.

World’s Top Business Group Joins Critics of Hong Kong Extradition Bill

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 15:45
The International Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business organization, has become the latest group to criticize a proposed change to Hong Kong law that would allow for criminal extradition to mainland China.  In a scathing letter issued to legislators Wednesday, the ICC questioned why Hong Kong is fast-tracking such significant changes to its legal system with a limited public consultation, calling the move “most unbecoming in terms of public governance.”  The ICC’s letter follows similar concerns echoed by the European Union, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Hong Kong Bar Association and US Consul General Kurt Tong.  The bill was introduced in April and is set to be voted on in July by its semi-democratic legislature, in which the majority is held by pro-establishment legislators.  If passed, it would allow the city to extradite to other jurisdictions where it lacks a permanent extradition agreement, including China and Taiwan, on a case by case basis. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has previously said that such changes would close legal “loopholes.” ​It follows a high profile murder case last year in which a Hong Kong man was accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend while on holiday in Taiwan, where the autonomous Chinese city also lacks a long term extradition agreement. The government has said speed is necessary as the murder suspect, who is serving a prison sentence on related money laundering charges, could be released as early as October.  The changes, however, and the speed at which they have been introduced have raised international concern about the future of Hong Kong’s legal system and its global reputation.  Hong Kong, an autonomous special administrative region until 2047, has a dramatically different legal system from the mainland because of its former status as a British colony. Its strong rule of law has led dozens of multinational firms to make the city their Asia headquarters, although the ICC said this could change if the extradition law is put in place.  “Enactment of the amendment bill would mean more people in Hong Kong will be put to risk of losing freedom, property, and even their life in future of being surrendered, than merely passing judgment on the convicted of the Taiwan murder case,” the ICC said, urging lawmakers to take more time on the bill.  Earlier this week, the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission also added its concern to the growing list and said the extradition agreement could “create serious risks for U.S. national security and economic interests in the territory” and “pose increased risks for U.S. citizens and port calls in the territory.”  It also said the new law could impact the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act, which grants the city special trading privileges, different from mainland China.  In late April, an estimated 130,000 Hong Kong residents participated in a protest against the extradition agreement, according to organizers, in the largest demonstration in years. Police estimates put the figure at closer to 23,000. 

New Tariffs on Chinese Products Go into Effect

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 12:40
The United States has increased tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. China on Friday said it “deeply regrets” the increased tariffs and will take the “necessary countermeasures” without giving any details. The increases are going into effect amid talks between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. On Thursday the U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators ended the first of two days of talks aimed at saving a trade deal even as President Donald Trump said the new “very heavy tariffs” on Chinese products would go ahead. The White House said Thursday evening that “Ambassador Lightizer and Secretary Mnuchin met with President Trump to discuss the ongoing trade negotiations with China. The ambassador and secretary then had a working dinner with Vice Premier Liu He and agreed to continue discussions tomorrow morning at USTR.” Talks on Friday Liu He is leading the Chinese negotiating team for the talks, which threatened to collapse after the Trump administration accused Beijing of backtracking. “We were getting very close to a deal, then they started to renegotiate the deal,” said Trump Thursday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “It was their idea to come back” and resume discussion ahead of the Friday deadline for additional tariffs, the president said. Trump said he had also received “a beautiful letter” from Xi that expressed a sentiment of “let’s work together.” Trump told reporters that he happens “to think tariffs for our country are very powerful,” in line with a view he has been expressing that such increased punitive taxes would be good for America’s economy. ​Tariffs and economic growth Some economists, however, predict such tariffs would cut in half the U.S. economic growth seen in the first quarter of this year. Earlier officials in Beijing said they have “made all necessary preparations” if Trump followed through on the pledge to impose the new set of tariffs. Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters in Beijing Thursday that China will not bow to any pressure and warned it has the “determination and ability to defend its own interests.” The ministry issued an earlier statement vowing to take any necessary countermeasures if the tax is implemented. The Trump administration hopes the new tariffs will force changes in China’s trade, subsidy and intellectual property practices. The two sides have been unable to reach a deal thanks, in part, to differences over the enforcement of an agreement and a timeline for removing the tariffs. Trump says despite being poised to impose the additional tariffs, he is not looking for a trade war with Beijing. “I want to get along with China,” he told reporters. 

Japan, Vietnam Teaming up to Resist China Expansion

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 10:22
Japan is helping Vietnam build a defense against the larger, more militarily powerful China as Vietnam says Beijing’s forces are occupying more than their legal share of the South China Sea. Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and his Vietnamese counterpart, Ngo Xuan Lich, met May 3 to “advance cooperation” on maritime security, Tokyo-based NHK television online said.  In October, the ministers met in Tokyo to discuss issues surrounding the South China Sea. They signed a “defense cooperation and exchange” memorandum that prescribed regular vice ministerial-level talks, the Japanese defense ministry website says. Japan has been jousting with China over sovereignty in parts of the East China Sea, including a chain of uninhabited islets coveted by fishing fleets.  “Essentially there is an arc of anxiety stretching from New Delhi to Canberra and Jakarta and Hanoi and Tokyo,” said Jeffrey Kingston, history instructor at Temple University, Japan Campus. “So, I think that perhaps the rhetoric is aimed at signaling that there are collective, shared concerns that are leading towards a collective response.” ​Japan-Vietnam exchanges An agreement between the two countries opened the way for more Japanese ports of call in Vietnam, as well as technical cooperation on defense equipment for Vietnamese maritime surveillance, NHK reported. It’s unclear how much Japan will donate to Vietnam directly, Kingston said. Japan’s public generally doesn’t support a more “assertive strategic” role for their government, he added, though a lot of people feel a “good vibe” toward Vietnam compared to China. Japanese laws also limit arms sales to other countries. Japan could set up military exchanges, hold strategic dialogue and offer “naval defense equipment,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Vietnam is looking to Japan as a hedge as China militarizes the South China Sea, puts more pressure on Vietnam in their areas of dispute and presses Hanoi to abandon oil exploration activities, including on Vietnam’s continental shelf,” Hiebert said. ​Sino-Vietnamese spats Beijing claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, stretching from the island of Borneo north to Hong Kong. China and Vietnam clashed there in 1974 and in 1988. Five years ago, the two sides rammed each other’s boats over the positioning of a Chinese oil rig in waters that Vietnam claims. The incident touched off deadly anti-China rioting in Vietnam. The two countries dispute undersea gas-exploration tracts as well as the Paracel Islands, which China now controls. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim sea tracts that China calls its own. Those governments value the waterway for its fisheries and undersea fuel reserves. China raised alarms around Southeast Asia after 2010 by building up tiny islets for defense installations.  Japan began to step up support of its own interests around Asia. In 2017, an alliance including Japan, the United States, India and Australia began calling for China to leave the sea open for international use and increasing relations in Southeast Asia. “The Japanese want to support the Vietnamese claims, but they don’t want to do it militarily,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo. “What they’d rather do is build capacity, build interoperability and build a coalition of states that will stand by and try to enforce maritime law in the South China Sea.” Evolving friendship Japanese ties with Vietnam started more than two decades ago when investors took advantage of the country’s low wages. Japanese automakers and other investors launched 3,320 projects in Vietnam worth a combined registered capital of $42.5 billion as of 2016. Partly to support its industry and partly to offset Chinese economic influence in Southeast Asia, Japan now funds infrastructure projects in Vietnam.  A Japanese loan built the airport terminal in Hanoi, and Japanese aid funded the subway system being constructed in Ho Chi Minh City. Japanese official development aid to Vietnam had totaled 2.8 trillion yen ($25.5 billion) by 2016. “I think these (military) actions expand the original economic field into the political field,” said Tai Wan-ping, Southeast Asia-specialized international business professor at Cheng Shiu University in Taiwan. “Japan’s military performance in Southeast Asia wasn’t proactive in the past.”

Magnitude 6.3 Quake Hits City in Southwest Japan 

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 07:50
The U.S. Geological Survey says a magnitude 6.3 earthquake was recorded Friday near Miyazaki in southwestern Japan.      The agency said the earthquake struck at 8:48 a.m. Friday and had an epicenter 39 kilometers (24 miles) southeast of Miyazaki, a city of about 400,000. The earthquake had a depth of 23 kilometers (14 miles.)    The Japan Times reported that Kyushu Electric Power Co. said no abnormalities had been reported at the nearby Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima prefecture. The Times also said the nation's weather agency did not issue a tsunami warning. 

Singapore 'Fake News' Law Draws Fire From Google, Facebook

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 03:52
Google said on Thursday an anti-fake news law passed by Singapore's parliament could stunt innovation, a quality that the city-state wants to nurture under plans to expand its tech industry. Singapore's parliament on Wednesday passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, a law criticized by rights groups, journalists and tech firms over fears it could be used to clamp down on freedom of speech. The passage of the law comes at a time when Singapore, a financial and transport hub, has been making efforts to position itself as regional centre for digital innovation. Google said the law could hamper those efforts. "We remain concerned that this law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem," the company said in response to a query from Reuters. "How the law is implemented matters, and we are committed to working with policymakers on this process." The law will require online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators running as high as prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1 million ($735,000). The law minister has said the bill will not affect free speech. Singapore says it is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a global financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and widespread internet access. "We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and to push a government notification to users," said Simon Milner, Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy. Milner said Facebook hoped that the ministry's reassuring statements led to a "proportionate and measured approach in practice". Facebook and Singapore clashed late last year when the company refused to remove a post of an online article about the city-state's banks and Malaysia's scandal-linked 1MDB state fund. The government called the post "false and malicious." A running feud between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his brother and sister over the will of their late father, Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, has also played out over Facebook since it first erupted in public in 2017. The prime minister's siblings have used the social media platform to give their side of a row that disturbed the normally calm politics of a country that has been led by the same party since its independence in 1965. Activists are concerned that the law could give the government power to decide if material posted online is true or false. "Singapore's leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling affect on  Internet freedom throughout Southeast Asia," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "(The law will) likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of 'truth' on the wider world." Asia Internet Coalition, having previously criticized the bill for the new law, said that its members are committed to work with the Singapore government on the law's implementation. The authorities may also issue codes of practice to technology companies requiring them to take actions against inauthentic accounts used for malicious activities, among other measures. The government consulted with tech companies over the law, including through a parliamentary hearing last year. Twitter said that it hoped the "Singapore government will take into account points we raised through our consultation process and that those recommendations can be reflected in the Codes of Practice, particularly the implications for freedom of expression and the potential for regulatory overreach."  

Trump: Paperwork Started for New Tariffs on Chinese Products 

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 02:22
"We're starting that paperwork today" for imposing new "very heavy tariffs" on Chinese products," U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters just hours before trade talks in Washington are to resume between officials of the world's two largest economies.  The United States is set to impose Friday an increase in tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. Vice Premier Liu He is leading the Chinese negotiating team for the talks which threatened to collapse after the Trump administration accused Beijing of backtracking. "We were getting very close to a deal, then they started to renegotiate the deal," Trump said Thursday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.  "It was their idea to come back" and resume discussions ahead of the Friday deadline for additional tariffs, the president said.  Liu He, who is Chinese President Xi Jinping's top economic adviser, is to sit down with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  Trump said he had also received "a beautiful letter" from Xi that expressed a sentiment of "let's work together."  Trump told reporters that he happens "to think tariffs for our country are very powerful," in line with a view he has been expressing that such increased punitive taxes would be good for America's economy. Some economists, however, predict such tariffs would cut in half U.S. economic growth seen in the first quarter of this year.  Officials in Beijing say they have "made all necessary preparations" if Trump follows through on the pledge to impose the new set of tariffs.  Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters in Beijing on Thursday that China will not bow to any pressure, and warned it has the "determination and ability to defend its own interests." The ministry issued an earlier statement vowing to take any necessary countermeasures if the tax is implemented. The Trump administration hopes the new tariffs will force changes in China's trade, subsidy and intellectual property practices. The two sides have been unable to reach a deal due, in part, to differences over the enforcement of an agreement and a timeline for removing the tariffs. Trump says despite being poised to impose the additional tariffs, he is not looking for a trade war with Beijing.  "I want to get along with China," he told reporters. 

US Seizes N. Korean Vessel for Violating Sanctions

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 01:30
U.S. authorities have seized a North Korean cargo vessel for allegedly violating U.S. and U.N. sanctions by transporting coal from the east Asian country. The Justice Department's National Security Division said in a statement Thursday the ship was approaching U.S. territorial waters after it was first confiscated in April 2018 by foreign maritime authorities in Indonesia. "This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers. The ship, known as the "Wise Honest," is one of North Korea's largest bulk carriers, the statement said. The seizure is the first time the U.S. has taken possession of a North Korean cargo vessel for violating sanctions. U.N. sanctions monitors said the vessel was transporting 25,000 tons of coal valued at $3 million when it was detained last year. North Korea also used the ship to deliver heavy machinery.

Thai Vote Results Put Military Proxy on Verge of Victory

Fri, 05/10/2019 - 01:28
Official results for Thailand's first election since a 2014 putsch put a pro-military party within striking distance of forming the next government and returning coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister. A "democracy front" of seven allied parties hoping to block Prayuth's return fell just short of a majority of the 500 seats in the popularly elected House of Representatives and has already vowed to challenge the count in court. The results of the March 24 poll, released over a two-day period this week, give the pro-military Palang Pracharath party 115 seats in the lower house. Along with the 250 seats in the junta-appointed Senate likely to vote its way, the party now has nearly half the combined seats in the upper and lower houses it needs to make Prayuth, its candidate, prime minister. The results give the democracy front a combined 245 seats in the lower house, not enough to frustrate any government the pro-military parties might form, and far from the 376 needed to elect the prime minister. With no clear winner yet to emerge, both camps are scrambling to pull in more seats from smaller parties. But pundits expect Palang Pracharath to have an easier time wooing the smaller of the 26 parties elected to the lower house — a record high for Thailand. While 350 constituency seats went to candidates who won the most votes in their districts, the other 150 were doled out to parties based on their candidates' combined national share of the vote. But the commission's formula for handing out those party seats has faced heavy rebuke. Ahead of the poll, the commission touted a formula that would have kept many of the smaller parties out of parliament. After a strong showing by the democracy front parties on election day, the commission drew up a new formula that brought in the smaller parties. Fourteen parties now have a one party-list seat each. The most prominent party in the democracy front, Pheu Thai, which ran a close second to Palang Pracharath in the popular vote, won no party seats at all because its share of constituency seats exceeded its take of the national vote. Thepparith Senamngern, deputy spokesman for Pheu Thai, said his party was likely to file a complaint over the election commission's formula with the Constitutional Court in a matter of days. On Wednesday, the court ruled that a provision in a law on electing legislators complied with the constitution. The court, however, did not rule on the formula itself, which Pheu Thai claims breached the charter and robbed the democracy front of about 10 seats, enough for a majority in the lower house. "Right now Pheu Thai has, with the legal team, been discussing a lot to actually go to the court to actually say that the calculation that the election commission wished to use is not legitimate, and we're now going to pursue that pathway," Thepparith said. "So I think within a few days we should be able to see our team go to the court." In the meantime, he said the democracy front was in talks with other parties to try to land the six additional seats it needs for a lower house majority, but declined to name them. "The party seniors have been talking to a lot of senior members of other parties, even after [the] elections. Some have been more positive, some have been more neutral, a lot of them have been saying let's wait until the actual number comes out," he said. "I don't think it's the end game yet." Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the front was unlikely to pick up any more seats. He said about 15 parties have declared for Palang Pracharath already and that stragglers were likely to ally with the pro-military party as well, given how close it was to holding enough seats to pick the next prime minister. "I think senators will vote with the Palang Pracharath, so small parties can see this," he said. The democracy front also risks losing some of its current seats. Leaders of the Future Forward Party, a key front member, are facing lawsuits on charges that they deny. If convicted, the party will be stripped of both constituency seats and votes won. Whichever camp prevails, Yutthaporn said the next government will be fragile, based on a coalition of many parties with a slim majority in the lower house, ever vulnerable to defections. "In the future, we [will] have a stability problem with the government and with the parliament," he said. "The next government cannot [be] stable." Calls to a spokesman for Palang Pracharath went unanswered. The election commission did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. The commission has previously denied any bias.

China Mobile's Bid to Offer US Phone Service Rejected

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 23:32
U.S. communications regulators are rejecting a Chinese telecom company's application to provide service in the U.S. due to national-security risks amid an escalation in tensions between the two countries.   The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted unanimously, 5-0 across party lines, to reject China Mobile International USA Inc.'s long-ago filed application. The Commerce Department had recommended that denial last year.   The company, which the FCC says is ultimately owned by the Chinese government, applied in 2011 to provide international phone service in the U.S.   The Trump administration has been pushing against China in several ways. It has been pressuring allies to reject Chinese telecom equipment for their networks, citing security risks from Chinese telecom giant Huawei.   The U.S. and China are also in the middle of high-stakes trade talks.    

China, India Seen as Europe's Last Hope to Save Iran Deal

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 22:34
The European Union will defend the Iran nuclear accord despite Tehran's decision to backtrack on its commitments in response to U.S. sanctions, diplomats believe, but European powers expect it to collapse without a deal to sell Iranian oil to China or India. Britain, France and Germany, which signed the 2015 deal along with the United States, China and Russia, are determined to show they can compensate for last year's U.S. withdrawal from the accord, protect trade and still prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb. But with Iran's economy dependent on crude exports that are traded in U.S. dollars, a promised European trade channel to bypass American sanctions has proved complicated, is not yet operational, and may never be able to handle oil sales. "This situation now risks deteriorating, but it will be step by step and not a collapse all in one go," said a senior European diplomat. A French diplomat talked of a "negative spiral" in which trade in food and medicines was simply not enough, while another European envoy spoke of Iran's "phased exit" from the deal. The Iran accord, one of the West's biggest foreign policy achievements until U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out in May 2018, lifted punishing United Nations' sanctions on Iran in return for Iranian compliance with the deal. Iran has met its terms but Trump withdrew because he believes the accord did not curtail Tehran's ballistic missile program or address Iranian involvement in Syria's civil war, something Europeans argue the 2015 deal was not designed to do. By reimposing punitive sanctions, the United States says it aims to dramatically weaken Iran's clerical rulers and force Tehran to renegotiate a broader arms control deal. The European Union says that can still be done without tearing up the nuclear accord, which put strict limits on Iranian enrichment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on Wednesday that Tehran could resume enrichment at a higher grade if the European powers, China and Russia did not do more to circumvent U.S. sanctions on banking and energy to boost trade. Food, medicine not enough European diplomats and officials reject any ultimatum and some believe they still have time to save the deal. One senior EU official said it is too early to consider European sanctions that can snap back in case of Iranian non-compliance. "Iran's announcements are not a violation or a withdrawal of the nuclear deal," the senior EU official said. "It is for the International Atomic Energy Agency to assess Iran's compliance ... if Iran breaches the agreement, then we would react.” Others are more pessimistic. Once Europe's biggest supplier, Iran has seen its exports gradually cut off from European buyers by sanctions, starting last November and then on May 2, when Washington removed the last waivers to Italy and Greece. China, India and Turkey are also among those who lost their waivers this month. EU officials estimate Iran needs to sell about 1.5 million barrels a day to keep its economy afloat, but sales risk falling below 1 million a day, bringing hardship and potentially economic crisis to Iranians. The EU's special trade channel, known as INSTEX, was proposed by Russia as a barter system for Iranian oil in exchange for European goods, but it may not be operating before the end of June and its capability is limited. "Instex isn't the solution because it will only serve food and medicine needs, not oil," a second European diplomat said. "Anyway, the structure is not completed.” China to the rescue? Led by a German banker, INSTEX relies on Iran to set up a so-called mirror company that must meet international anti-fraud requirements. Officials and diplomats say progress is slow. Draft laws are still pending, while a lack of transparency in Iran's financial system is also a problem. The U.S. decision to sanction Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), which controls part of Iran's economy, is another complication. "As a partner to Iran, those who use INSTEX have to be extremely vigilant that at the other end of the operation it doesn't benefit entities linked to the IRGC," the European diplomat said. Europe's plan B is for China or India to buy Iranian oil. China, which increased imports of Iranian crude in April, says it opposes unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran and will defend the rights of its companies. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Iran deal should be fully and effectively implemented, although it was not clear what China would do to support it. India, Iran’s biggest oil client after China, has by contrast almost halved its Iran oil purchase since November. So far, Indian officials have said they will seek oil from other suppliers. 'Europe's impotence' EU officials say Delhi has expressed interest in joining INSTEX to buy Iran's oil, but discussions have barely begun, and questions remain about whether this is even feasible. "It shows Europe's impotence that they are pushing China and India to do what they can't," said Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow with the Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House. "I'm not sure the Europeans are thinking in a big way about what to do. It's very clear there are no meaningful economic options they can offer Iran," she said. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met Chinese State Counselor Wang Yi on the margins of a China-EU summit in Brussels in April and discussed whether China could buy Iranian oil, three EU officials said. China can still do that but would risk U.S. sanctions. Beijing has also held talks with Washington over the issue, the officials said, but it was not clear how far they had progressed. "The Iranians say the Europeans must do more, but what about the Chinese and the Russians? They have not done much. The Chinese have dragged their feet in several areas because of U.S. sanctions," a third European diplomat said. Vakil said the three European powers should focus on high-level diplomacy to kick-start negotiations between the deal's remaining stakeholders and Washington to preserve the accord. "It will (die) without a mandated effort on behalf of the E3 to keep the deal alive," she said.  

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