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.


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