Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year in Asia, 2013

The Philippines is famous for typhoons, but there had never been anything so deadly as Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest and most destructive storms in history, that swept into Leyte in November leaving an enormous swath of death and destruction. The storm virtually demolished the sizable city of Tacloban and killed at least 6,000 people. It is the latest in a string of deadly natural disasters to hit Asia in the past decade. They included such the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 and precipitated one of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disasters, and the 2005 tsunami that devastated western Indonesia. Bad as it was, Haiyan did not come near the death toll of Cyclone Nargis that hit the Irrawaddy river delta in Myanmar in 2008, killing an estimated 150,000 people. Other notable events in Asia in 2013:

2. Tensions in East China Sea

3. Terror in North Korea

4. Abenomics

5. 969 Movement in Myanmar

6. Mobs return to Bangkok streets

7. China lands rover on Moon

8. Bo Xilai given life sentence

9. Tokyo wins 2020 Olympics

10. Snowden Flees to Hong Kong

The East China Sea was the location of almost daily confrontations between Japan and China over some uninhabited and essentially useless disputed islands. Chinese fisheries protection vessels entered Japanese-claimed waters around the Senkaku (Daioyu) islands almost daily. In November China announced an air defense identification zone that covered the Senkaku, while the new conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe increased military spending. During his year in office, Abe visited some two dozen countries. But it is a sign of souring relations with neighbors that he did not meet any high-level Chinese or South Koreans.

One might say North Korea opened and closed the year with a bang. Early in 2013 Pyongyang set off its third nuclear bomb test, the first under new leader Kim Jong-un, who threatened rain ICBMs on enemies including the U.S. Then things settled down for several months until the shocking news in late November that Kim had executed his supposedly powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek and some of his associates. That  sent North Korea watchers off on frenzy of speculation as to what is really going on in that most secretive country.

Though they took a hit with the late-year passage of a controversial state secrets act, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings stayed remarkable high during his first full year in office. At a time when previous prime ministers’ ratings had fallen into the teens and the principals were pondering resignation, Abe continued to maintain ratings in the 60s. The main reason was his loose-money economic policies that were dubbed “Abenomics”, which were showing some positive improvements to the country’s lengthy economic doldrums.


Myanmar won international applause for moves to free political prisoners and restore democracy in 2012, but its reputation was tarnished in 2013 by a rapidly expanding mass movement led by Buddhist extremists determined to purge the country of Muslims. The number 969 has special meaning for Buddhists, who make up the vast majority of people of Myanmar, and is increasingly seen on decals attached to entrances of shops and on motorbikes denoting that the bearer is a proper Buddhist. Things took an ominous turn in March with vicious attacks on Muslims and Muslim businesses in the central town of Meikhtila near Mandalay.

On a lighter note, the Chinese landed a rover with the cutesy name of Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, on the moon in December as part of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe. According to Chinese mythology, Chang-e took some magic pills and then was lofted to the moon and became a goddess. She took her pet rabbit Yutu along to keep her company. The Change-3 was the first Chinese attempt to make a soft landing on the moon and the first by anyone in more than 30 years. It demonstrated the seriousness and effectiveness of China’s space program, which has already put six people in orbit on his own space vehicles.

For two years after the deadly demonstrations of 2010, Bangkok was peaceful. That all came to an end late in the year as tens of thousands of demonstrators again took to the streets, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.  What sparked the mobs was an ill-considered amnesty bill, which cleared the lower house of parliament, controlled by Shinawatra’s party, but was killed in the senate. In an effort to defuse the situation Shinawatra dissolved parliament and called for a general election in early 2014.

The saga of Bo Xilai, the biggest political story out of China in decades, ended (presumably) in September with his being sentenced to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Bo was riding high as the popular governor of Chongqing and a member of the Politburo, when his aide sought asylum in the U.S. consulate, setting off cascading allegations and trials. His wife was convicted of the murder of a British businessman over a financial dealing.  

Tokyo surprised doubters by winning the right to host the 2020 Olympics, becoming the first Asian city to host the games twice. Tokyo was the first Asian city to host the games in 1964. Unlike its previous lackluster effort to win the 2016 Games, Tokyo and the national government went all out this year to win the nod. In his personal presentation, Abe downplayed the potential dangers of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster saying “the situation is under control.”

Ever since Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997, not much of what happens there has made much of an impact internationally. But the territory got its week in the limelight, when NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden fled there after turning over a host of secrets to the media. After hiding for about a week, the government, no doubt with quiet help from Beijing, managed to hustle him out of the territory making him Russia’s hot potato. During his brief stay, he attracted considerable local support, which was probably one reason why the two governments were happy to see him go.









Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vietnam Diary

I confess that I was initially a little unenthusiastic when our Vietnamese friends first proposed a trip to Vietnam. Vietnam? I donno. Isn’t it just Thailand without the Grand Palace? Our friends had planned a pretty elaborate tip, flying to Hue near the center of the country and then working our way down south to Nha Trang and then back to Ho Chi Minh City. In the end I decided to go along, and I’m glad I did. Vietnam has more than a few attractions, and it was fascinating to see the new Vietnam after leaving it 40 years ago.

The first thing one encounters in Ho Chi Minh City is the swarms of motorbikes. I’d seen pictures of this, but nothing quite prepares you to spectacle of thousands of the little scooters flowing along the streets and even sidewalks like an endless river of traffic. By some estimates there are five million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, a city of about 8 million, which works out to one for practically every able-bodied adult in the city. I used to ride motorbikes in Thailand but it was nothing like this

You take your life in hand – literally – just crossing the street. According to a magazine I picked up in the hotel, nearly 200 people have died in the past two years after being run over by a motorbike. Cross walks are painted but ignored by riders, as are regulations that driver’s must yield to pedestrians. The basic technique seems to be to wait for a small break in the traffic flow and then boldly step out, trusting that the highly mobile bikers will drive around you. Prayer is advised.

I was also surprised at the Vietnamese currency, known as dong. The exchange rate is 21,000 to the dollar, so even small purchases and run in the hundreds to thousands of dong. These figures are the kind one usually associates with countries undergoing hyperinflation, but I wasn’t aware that Vietnam was suffering from any unusual inflation.

Making a purchase in Danang, I fumble through my dong looking for the right denominations among a dozen or so, while mentally counting the zeros so that I don’t confuse a 20,000 note with a 200,000 note. The sales woman gets impatient and snatches the money out of my hands, deftly extracts the correct amount (I hope) and then returns the wad to me.

To be fair Vietnam isn’t the only country in Asia using currency with large denominations. The dollar exchange rate for Indonesian rupiah is nearly the same as that for the dong. But I can’t help but wonder if it costs a million dong for one night in a three-star hotel, what is the national budget? Anyone know the Vietnamese word for quintillion?

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of communism and global capitalism in Ho Chi Minh. Of course, Vietnam has had its own version of China’s market socialism, known as doi moi for many years. And the city scape is lighted up in the evening with plenty of signs for Sony, Samsung, Lucky Goldstar and so on. It has the requisite luxury shops selling expensive watches and hand bags along fashionable Dong Khoi Street.

Yet posters sporting the likeness of Ho Chi Minh are ubiquitous in the city of his name. Bac Ho’s portrait, as he is generally called, is everywhere, usually surrounded by children, as the Vietnamese like to cultivate an image of him being everybody’s avuncular uncle. Of course, no leader could have led his country successfully against first the French and then the Americans if he wasn’t essentially ruthless. Every public building sports two flags. The national flag with its red field and single yellow star is communistic enough but they also have one with a yellow hammer and cycle. I don’t think they do that even in China.

Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh, the Rex is, I understand owned by the Saigon Tourism Authority, which means it is essentially a state-owned enterprise. Yet the quality of service is certainly higher than what one would expect from such an enterprise. The hotel was famous as the location for the American commands’ daily press briefings derisively labeled the “Five-o’clock Follies by the reporters.

You can buy a Cartier watch or a Salvadore Ferragamo handbag in the hotel’s extensive arcade, but you can’t buy a newspaper, in any language. The same was true of the other hotels we stayed in during the trip. The management does provide its foreign guests with a paper called the Viet Nam News, which has all the the earmarks of a state-run media, namely emphasis on development and trade. Front-page lead story: President Encourages Belarus Business ties.

I happen to know from other sources, that Vietnam was adopting a new constitution while we were in the country. Indeed, the National Assembly approved it the day we were leaving Danang. One might think that was rather news worthy, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Viet Nam News, which, as far as I can remember did not mention the story at all.

I’m not sure whether it was a subject of the national television news. Flicking through the television channels, I linger at televised proceedings of the National Assembly in Hanoi, although I couldn’t understand what the deputies were debating – if in fact they were debating anything and not simply listening to a government minister giving then their marching orders.

I’ve been puzzled by this institution even before coming to Vietnam. This being a communist country, one assumes that the assembly simply rubber-stamps government edicts. Yet, the body showed some amazing independence a couple years ago when it killed as too expensive a high speed train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City that the Japanese were eager to sell. When was the last time China’s National People’s Congress did something like that?

Speaking of selling, the Japanese and Russians are competing to sell Vietnam its first nuclear power station just south of Nha Trang. Judging from the swarms of Russians in that city, one could easily assume that they already own this part of Vietnam. Often on this trip we have been almost the only people at the early morning hotel breakfast buffet. Here every table is taken by Russians, eager, no doubt to get on sampling the city’s beaches, food stalls and markets and other attractions.

For a couple years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Russians had a naval base at nearby Cam Ran Bay, although they closed it as straining the defense budget and having very little strategic value. I’m not sure, whether Russian sailors “discovered” Nha Trang and brought back tales of the exotic east. Of course, there is no reason why Russians might not choose Vietnam as a winter vacation place, especially as Egypt is getting too dangerous. Nobody has to worry about terrorists here, but look out for motorbikes.




Sunday, December 15, 2013

War Games


China’s recent declaration creating an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large portion of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku (Daioyu) islands, has been a feast day in Japan for arm-chair strategists, would-be thriller writers, retired generals and other assorted defense analysts and pundits.

In the weak of China’s declaration, five of Japan’s seven national weekly magazines published articles proposing various scenarios for a new Sino-Japanese War breaking out over the disputed islands. Can a book, or several books on the coming Sino-Japanese War of 2014 be far behind? Besides the weeklies other pundits charged in with various scenarios.

The War is Boring website postulates a swirling, high-tech dogfight over the East China Sea, involving Japanese F-15 Eagles, American F-22 Raptors and Chinese fighters. Several Japanese and one American fighter are shot down, but the Chinese lose several more. Round One goes to the Japanese-American team.

 Shukan Gendai, a weekly tabloid speculates that war would break out after China’s President Xi Jinping orders that a Japanese civilian jetliner be shot down after declining to identify itself while crossing the Chinese ADIZ on a flight to Japan. Currently, civilian airliners are supposed to file flight plans and respond to inflight directions.

The Sunday Mainichi, one of Japan’s national newspapers, ran an article with the ominous headline: “Sino-Japanese War to Break Out in January”. It goes on to postulate that a collapsing Chinese economy might persuade China’s autocrats that war against the despised Japanese might take people’s attention away from their trouble.

Many serious military analysts have been sounding off on strengths and weaknesses of the two- (or three-) sided conflicts. In their collective view, China has the advantage of holding numerous air bases or potential bases relatively close to the prospective battlefield, while Japan has a qualitative edge on his air craft and naval vessels.

The Japanese air force at the moment maintains only one squadron of 20 F-15s at Naha, the capital and largest city of Okinawa, and aircraft and pilots must be getting worn down through the almost daily scrambles to investigate intruders over the Senkaku air space. They will be reinforced next year by a second squadron of 20 aircraft.

Japan can call on aerial reinforcements from other parts of the country, but they would still be constrained by lack of bases near the combat zone. That weakness would, of course, be easily filled by one or more American aircraft carriers, each of which has about 70 aircraft, should the United States be drawn into the conflict.

And it is likely that the U.S. will be drawn in. Washington’s official position is illogical in that it professes to be neutral about who owns the Senkaku, while at the same time asserting that they, like the rest of Japan, would fall under the protection of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that obliges America to defend the country.

It is almost absurd to think that the U.S. could be drawn into a shooting war with a nuclear-armed China over a bunch of uninhabited and essentially useless islands that not one in ten thousand Americans have ever heard of. Yet for 60 years Tokyo has lived up to its side of the bargain, providing bases in Japan for American forces; it might be inclined to call in the chips, demanding the U.S. uphold its side.

While most of these prospective war scenarios are fiction or imaginative, there is plenty of real life fodder to build on, many of them have occurred during the past twelve months. Chinese fisheries protection and coast guard ships now regularly enter Japanese-claimed territorial waters around the Senkaku.

So far these incursions have been made with only quasi warships and answered by the Japanese Coast Guard and not the regular navy, but Chinese intrusions into Japanese-claimed airspace have been met with fighters from the regular air force.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen in China and elsewhere as being unusually hawkish. This year the parliament passed legislation creating a new National Security Council, patterned after the American version, and a new official secrets act to allay Washington’s concerns of leaking secret defense information.

Next year it is likely that parliament will adopt a new interpretation of the Pacifistic constitution to permit collective defense, previously interpreted as offensive military operations. Other indicators this past year:

In January a Chinese frigate’s radar “locked on” a Japanese destroyer. This is usually perceived as an indicator that the frigate will fire its weapons. The Japanese vessel took evasive action.

The Japanese navy launched its largest warship, the Izumo, what the Japanese term a “helicopter destroyer,” and what the rest of the world might call a light aircraft carrier.

About a 1,000 Japanese infantry took part in the Dawn Blitz exercise with U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton training to defend or if necessary retake one or more of the string of islands south of Okinawa.

As part of an exercise, Japan recently placed anti-ship missiles on Miyako island, which stands beside the Miyako Channel, a strategic waterway wide and deep enough to permit warships to pass through and is sometimes used by the Chinese Navy to exercise in the broader Pacific.

The Ministry of Defense said it is studying shooting down any Chinese drones that encroach on Japanese sir space after one reportedly hovered near the disputed islands. It reasons that, unlike regular aircraft, unmanned drones cannot respond to warning shots.

It is not just a Sino-Japanese War that captures the imagination of the arm-chair warriors. Earlier in the year, when North Korea exploded its third atomic bomb and threatened to rain intercontinental missiles on the United States, it spawned a number of war scenarios involving Japan and North Korea (and others)

Tensions with Pyongyang quieted down over most of the rest of the year, although the recent and mysterious execution of supreme leader Kim Jung-un’s uncle and some reports that it might be readying a fourth nuclear weapons test, might breathe new life into the Korean war story sub-genre.