Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Year 2010 in Asia

For a country seemingly on the verge of bankruptcy and starvation, North Korea certainly showed how to manipulate the world’s attention in 2010. It started in March with the sinking of the South Korean corvette Choenan, attributed to a North Korean submarine; it culminated with the murderous shelling in November of an offshore island inhabited by South Korean civilians, killing four. Amid all this sound and fury, two other events, which are notable by themselves, happened. The North showed off a surprisingly sophisticated gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant and publicly displayed twenty-something Kim Jong-un, third son of the current dictator Kim Jong- il, as his chosen successor. Other notable events in Asia in 2010:

2. East China Sea Showdown

3. Bloody Crackdown on Thai “Red Shirts”

4. Flight of the Space Craft Hayabusa

5. Labor Strikes in South China

6. Release of Aung San Suu Kyi

7. Natural Disasters

8. Chinese Dissident wins Nobel Peace Prize

9. Botched Hostage Situation in Manila

10. World’s First Mass-Produced Electric Car Unveiled

It was hard to pick the precise moment. Was it China’s declaration that the South China Sea was one of its “core interests”? Was it Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks in Hanoi that a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea was a US national interest? Or, was it the standoff between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea? In either case there was a palpable shift in how the region perceived that China’s “peaceful rise” might not be so benign as they previously had thought.

Weeks of demonstrations by anti-government “red shirts” in the commercial heart of Bangkok during April and May ended when the army moved in with guns blazing. Retreating demonstrators retaliated by setting fires to shopping malls and banks. At year’s end, however, the remarkable thing was how little permanent damage had been done. Tourists returned to Thailand in large numbers, international corporations announced new projects and the economy steamed ahead as if nothing had happened. The damage to the country’s political psyche was harder to asses but may become clearer in elections scheduled for 2011.

An otherwise dreary and depressing year in Japan was relieved by the epic flight of the space vehicle Hayabusa. The space probe returned to earth in June after having travelled millions of kilometers to the asteroid Itokawa and back, the first such round trip to another planetary body since the Apollo moon flights of the 1970s. As an added bonus the probe brought back at least some tiny samples of the asteroid allowing scientists to view debris from another planetary body. Some of the gloss on Japan’s space program was worn off when at year’s end a Venus probe failed to go into orbit.

When workers at the Honda transmission plant went on strike for higher wages and more independent unions, the action rippled through southern China’s manufacturing heartland. Almost as remarkable was the central government’s relaxed attitude toward the strikes. It seems to signal a shift in thinking that such labor disputes were just that and not counter revolutionary acts to be quashed. Beijing is not unhappy seeing wages rise as it helps to narrow the widening income gap that the party sees as a possible threat. That most of the struck factories were foreign-owned didn’t hurt either.

Ecstatic crowds greeted Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi when she was released from house arrest in mid-November where she has been incarcerated for the better part of the last 21 years. Her release (technically non-renewal of a detention order) came only a week after Myanmar conducted its first general election in nearly two decades, in which the party representing the military junta won. After the joy comes what may be a major battle of wills with the generals, with nobody certain that the person everyone calls “The Lady” might not be detained once again.

It’s a rare year when Asia is spared deadly natural disasters and 2010 was no different. The worst flooding in decades hit Thailand over a period of two weeks in October, impacting a wide swath of the country and literally cutting a percentage point off projected GDP growth for the year. That same month super typhoon Megi, one of the most intense tropical cyclones ever recorded, caused havoc the northern Philippines and Taiwan. And Mt. Merapi erupted in Indonesia killing more than 300 people in central Java.

Beijing went ballistic when the Norwegian Nobel Prize committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. Not only did Beijing refuse to allow Liu or any of his family to attend the awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway, but pressured other countries with ambassadors to Norway to boycott the ceremony. About a dozen countries, including incongruously the Philippines, stayed away rather than offend China. Liu was a member of Charter 8 an organization that promoted democracy in the one-party state.

A botched hostage-taking situation in Manila in August caused diplomatic ripples that extended far beyond the Philippines and were still being felt at year’s end. A Manila policeman disgruntled over being passed over for promotion, took over a van filled with about 20 Hong Kong tourists. The long siege, played out on television, ended when police stormed the van resulting in eight dead. Hong Kong went into deep mourning and advised against traveling to the Philippines, an advisory still in effect when the year came to a close.

In late December the Nissan Motor Corp unveiled the Leaf, which it confidently expects will be the first mass-produced all-electric passenger car. A flash in the pan, or the harbinger of things to come? Its modest goal to sell 6,000 cars by March has already been matched by pre-orders. But the company has set a much more ambitious target to sell 250,000 Leafs in Japan, Britain and the USA by 2013, becoming the world’s premier electric car builder. Its main rival in Japan, Toyota, has its own all-electric model but plans to rely mainly on hybrids, of which is it the world leader.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kan He Hold On?

Just as President Barack Obama is nearing the half-way mark of his first term in office, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, recently passed the half-way mark of his premiership, six-months after succeeding ex-premier Yukio Hatoyama.

Okay, that was kind of snarky. Unlike Obama, Kan does not have a fixed term, save that of parliament, itself which has about three more years left to run barring a snap general election. Buts none of his four predecessors as premier lasted more than one year in office.

And it looks increasingly like the old pattern will reassert itself – namely, falling public approval reflected in the polls, intraparty unease and strife, constant newspaper speculation and finally resignation. Will Kan be another Japanese premier who leaves office before anyone outside Japan learned his name?

Kan recently told Hatoyama, that he would not quit, even if his approval rating in the public opinion polls fell to one percent. Unfortunately for him, they are moving in that direction. The public approval rating for his cabinet recently fell to 21 percent, according to an Asahi Shimbun newspaper survey.

For the first time, more respondents – 27 percent – said they would vote for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) than the 23 percent who would vote for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) now in power, although neither figure was exactly a whole-hearted vote of confidence.

Kan got behind the power curve early on, partly through his own mistakes and partly because of circumstances. The first hurdle coming scarcely a month after taking office, was the election to the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament,

His party was not exactly crushed ala the Democrats in America, but the DPJ did lose seats when it needed to win some to maintain a majority. Now with the upper house in the hands of the opposition, Kan must deal with a divided Diet, without having the lower house votes needed to override the upper body’s decisions.

Premier Kan has tried to cultivate new coalition partners among the numerous minor parties in the Diet, but so far without much success. His remaining coalition partner, the People’s New Party, is small, and his predecessor, Hatoyama, kicked the Social Democrats (also a very small party), out of the coalition earlier this year.

The upper house election was scarcely behind him before Kan was fighting for his political life in the party presidential election against political heavy weight Ichiro Ozawa. He won handily in total party primary vote but just barely carried a majority of his parliamentary colleagues.

In the middle of this, of course, came the confrontation with China over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain for ramming Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku islands (called Daioyutai by the Chinese).

At first, the government detained the captain with the aim of bringing charges against him; then it abruptly returned him to a hero’s welcome back in China. Polls indicate by a wide margin that Japanese condemned the government’s handling in the affair. Kan emerged from both contests as damaged goods

The aftermath of the Senkaku affair lingered on into the fall when powerful Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi were censured by the upper house for allowing a coast guard officer to leak videos of the confrontation to the media (even though they pretty plainly showed the Chinese fishing boat ramming the coast guard vessels.)

Meanwhile, after a surprisingly healthy third quarter, most economists are predicting a much smaller growth rate in Japan for the final quarter of the year. “Kan Can’t Seem to Catch a Break” ran the headline in the Nikkei Weekly reporting the possible downturn.

Well, in politics you play the cards you are dealt, and Kan hasn’t had many good cards during his six months in office. And truth be told, he hasn’t played the ones he did get very well either. His vague talk of raising the sales tax in the lead up to the July election, which many observers considered a pretty bizarre election ploy, probably cost him seats.

Kan has always been mainly a domestic policies man – he made his name in the 1990s as Minister of Health in the fusion government of prime minister Tomiichi Murayama exposing a bureaucratic cover up. For a while he was the most popular political figure in Japan. Alas, little of that former popularity seems to stick to him now.

So it has been his misfortune that foreign policy and security issues have dominated the public discussion for the past three months, especially following North Korea’s murderous shelling of an offshore island in November. Kan’s one solid foreign policy achievement was his government’s official apology to South Korea on the 100th anniversary of the Japanese takeover of Korea. That should stand Japan in good stead as it is drawn closer to Korean affairs.

Kan was fortunate that the issue of relocating the American Futenma Marine Corps base on Okinawa was quiescent during his first six months in office, thereby avoiding a debilitating confrontation with Washington and the people on Okinawa. But the issue will raise its head again now that the island’s gubernatorial election has been held.

As the new year approaches, the question is whether Kan can turn his winter of discontent into glorious summer. Many feel he must make some Big Move to rescue his leadership. One idea might be to grab onto some major policy issue, such as joining the Trans Pacific Trade Community, and use it like former premier Junichiro Koizumi used postal privatization to win a popular election.

Or, he might initiate some major political shake up, such as a “grand coalition” with the LDP (once considered from his side during the Fukuda administration) or possibly by calling for a snap general election sometime next year, although it is hard to see how that benefits him, considering the DPJ would probably lose seats.

He has one major source of strength in his party’s huge majority in the House of Representatives gained in last year’s historic general election. There is no possibility of the DPJ losing its majority through a vote of no confidence. Kan’s main problem as he approaches the “second half” of his term is losing the confidence of his own party and the Japanese people.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Why Manila Snubbed Liu Xiaobo

Among the dozen or so nations that heeded Beijing’s call to boycott the ceremony in Oslo, Norway awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo last week was the Philippines.

The Philippines?

Is this not the home of the famous “people power” revolution in 1986 which overthew the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Is the current president, Benigno Aquino III, not the grandson of the martyred democracy icon Benigno Aquino?

What is the Philippines doing in the company of such exemplars of democracy as Cuba, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela? Why is it the only Asian country besides Vietnam and Sri Lanka to snub the awards ceremony for China’s most famous advocate of multi-party democracy and human rights?

The Philippine Foreign Ministry maintained that the country’s ambassador to Norway, Elizabeth Buescuceso, was out of the country attending to “counselor business” and that her absence from the ceremony did not constitute a deliberate boycott. That answer wasn’t very persuasive, especially to human rights organizations, which heaped criticism on the government..

One person close to the presidential palace said that “We did not want to further annoy China.” What would he mean by that? True, Manila is in the doghouse with the Chinese world because of the fallout of a botched hostage taking incident in Manila last August that left eight visitors dead.

A dismissed police officer took over a tour bus filled with more than 20 Hong Kong tourists, holding the tourists hostage for hours demanding to be reinstated. When the police finally attempted to storm the minibus, the hostage taker let loose, killing eight of the Hong Kong passengers.

Hong Kong went into a frenzy of mourning – flags were lowered to half staff, black borders were placed around newspaper headlines, people protested outside of the Philippine consulate-general, some of the thousands of Filipina maids working in the territory were ostracized. The Hong Kong government temporarily banned further visits and ordered those already in the Philippines to return home.

Beijing, being Hong Kong’s protector in matters relating to foreign affairs, felt compelled to enter the fray too. Its foreign minister loudly denounced the Philippines and demanded an investigation. President Aquino ordered the investigation and promised to share the results.

The Chinese were further irritated when at the hostage taker, Ronaldo Mendoza’s funeral, his coffin was draped with the Philippine national flag, as if he were some kind of hero.

However, the hostage incident probably was not the main reason for Manila’s avoiding the Nobel Prize Ceremony. It so happened that Gen. Ricardo David, chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, was in Beijing at this time negotiating a major arms deal, the first such deal between the Philippines and China.

The exact type of weapons and the total value of the sale, assuming there was a price tag, were not immediately known, but it was said to be “very substantial.” The Philippine military chief was thus holding talks with his Chinese counterpart at roughly the same time America’s Admiral Mike Mullen was speaking with his South Korean counterpart.

The Philippine armed forces are poorly equipped and overextended fighting both a longtime communist insurgency on Luzon island and a Muslim separatist insurgency on the big southern island of Mindanao. The country is a formal ally of the United States, but military aid had been skimpy, especially since the Americans withdrew from the Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark air base.

“This will start an influx of logistics coming to us from mainland China,” said a Philippine army spokesman. “The Philippine Armed Forces really lack funds and equipment, and it ready and willing to accept equipment and much needed resources from any donor country. This includes China.”

The irony of the arms sales were not lost on many in the country since the weapons and logistic supplies provided by Communist China will be used partly to fight the Communist New People’s Army. But then China today is into making money not making revolution.

It was, of course just one more example of the quiet struggle between the US and China over influence in Southeast Asia, and shows that even countries like the Philippines, with its close historic ties and formal treaty, are not immune to Beijing’s “soft power” blandishments.