Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Year 2015 in Asia

The news in Asia this year was dominated by the U.S.-China confrontation in the South China Sea. Early in the year it became obvious that Beijing was turning small reefs and atolls it claimed into larger, artificial islands, some with runways capable of supporting high performance aircraft. Washington challenged Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over these islands by sending a U.S. Navy destroyer within a few kilometers of one of them. The year was quieter in the East China Sea where Japan and China dispute ownership of islands there. The calm was deceptive in that Chinese Coast Guard cutters regularly intruded into Japanese-claimed waters about every two weeks. Other news from Asia in 2015:

The mouse that roared  While other countries in Southeast Asia complained about the “nine-dash-line” on official maps that make it seem like China is claiming the entire South China Sea, the Philippines actually did something about it. Manila challenged Beijing’s interpretation before the International Tribunal in The Hague. Near the end of the year, the court ruled that the Philippines did have standing to challenge the action, with a further ruling on the challenge in 2016. Beijing has said it would not abide by any ruling.

Japan’s new military posture.  Street demonstrations not seen in Tokyo in decades, greeted the Japanese government’s new legislation creating the legal framework for permitting Japan to cooperate more fully with allies such as the United States. The groundwork was laid the previous year when the cabinet re-interpreted the country’s pacifistic constitution to permit “collective defense.”  Passage of the “security bills” was a major victory for Prime Minister Abe, who was re-elected head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party unopposed.

Nepal Earthquake.  The deadliest earthquake in 80 years hit Nepal on April 25. The magnitude 7.8 quake’s epicenter was between the capital, Kathmandu, and Mt. Everest. Officially, 8,857 died, including 19 who were trapped by a quake-sparked avalanche on Mt. Everest, making it the deadliest day in the mountain’s recent history. The shaking damaged or destroyed hundreds of century-old buildings, including some designated World Heritage Sites by the United Nations.

Myanmar Election. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Chi, won a smashing election victory on November 8, capturing about 80 percent of the vote for both houses of parliament. Ironically, it was about the same number of seats the NLD won in 1990, in an election annulled by the military government. This time it seems certain that the military will stay neutral (it still has a guaranteed block of seats). The president will be chosen in March by a complicated formula, but will almost certainly go to a senir NLD figure. Aung San is constitutionally barred from being president but will undoubtedly be the real power in Myanmar.

Malaysian scandal.  For much of the year Malaysia was obsessed with a political funding sandal linked to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. The plot thickened when the Wall Street Journal reported that $700 worth of supposed political contributions had found their way into Najib’s personal bank account. Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Kuala Lumpur urging him to resign. The PM sacked his deputy and shuffled his cabinet to remove opponents. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has never liked any of his successors, also called on Najib to quit, say he was turning Malaysia into a “pariah state.”

Disaster-prone.  China’s 2015 was punctuated by two disasters pointing to corners cut in the headlong race for economic growth. On August 12 explosives stored in two warehouses in Tianjin detonated, devastating the port area and killing about 160 people. The head of the port authority was charged with negligence. On Dec. 20 following heavy rains, a huge land slide toppled buildings near Shenzhen that had been built on a mountain of illegally piled up construction waste. Approximately 75 people were killed or are missing. The waste dump manager committed suicide.

Ma-Xi Meeting  While very little substantive came out of the meeting in Singapore Nov. 7 between President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China and President Xi Jinping, it was notable as being the first time the leaders China and Taiwan had met face-to-face since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. It remains to be seen whether the meeting gives a boost to the Kuomintang candidate, Eric Chu in the January, 2016 presidential election. Chairman Tsai-Ing-wen of the opposition Democrtic Progressive Party, is currently leading.

China Devalues Yuan.  Beijing shocked much of the financial world when on Aug 11 it devalued the yuan. Two devaluations coming back-to-back, lowered the value of the yuan against the dollar by about 3.5 per cent. The central bank offered no explanation or advance warning, but it was widely assumed to be a reaction to poor export figures and overall weak economic growth. China has been criticized repeatedly in the past for deliberately keeping its currency under-valued, although that criticism has in recent years abated somewhat as Beijing took steps to strengthen the yuan.

Lee Kuan Yew RIP  All of Singapore mourned as Lee Kuan Yew died March 23 at age 91. Lee was literally the founding father of independent Singapore and its longest-serving prime minister. Though most of those years he ruled without a single opposition voice in parliament. That begun to change slowly as the political opposition began to grow and claim at least a few sets in parliament. Opposition thoughts were temporarily set aside as tens of thousands of Singporeans mourned the death.


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