JAKARTA — The sight of commuters, their faces hidden behind masks, zipping around on the back of motorcycle taxis is common across Asia. The bikes weave through gridlock in cities like Jakarta and Bangkok, getting the passengers to work on time. The masks, sometimes worn by both driver and passenger, hint that the air they breathe might not be the cleanest. Judging from World Health Organization figures released on Wednesday, covering 4,300 cities across 108 countries, the commuters have the right idea. Of an estimated 7 million deaths worldwide per year from air pollution, just over two-thirds take place in Asia, which is home to slightly less than 60% of the global population. Breaking the numbers down further, the 10 countries in the WHO’s “South-east Asia” region account for about a quarter of the world’s population but suffer around 2.4 million, or 34%, of all air pollution deaths.
SINGAPORE — With the U.S. government pledging to resume manned missions to the Moon, and eventually send a mission to Mars, Cold War-style competition over space exploration is re-emerging — between China and the U.S. this time. China hopes to make its first manned lunar landing within 15 years, around six decades after the last American walked on the moon in 1972. But China is not as far behind as those dates suggest. It hopes to make the first-ever landing on the dark side of the Moon by the end of 2018. This feat eluded the U.S. and Soviet Union during the heyday of their Space Race from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Other Asian counties, notably Japan and India, have their own space programs. But China appears to be leading the way.
SINGAPORE — If China and the United States continue their charge into a full-on trade war, few regions will be as vulnerable to the resulting economic turbulence as Southeast Asia. That’s why the 10 governments of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Singapore this week are hashing out ideas about how the region can duck any shrapnel if the world’s two biggest economies keep firing protectionist salvos at each other. “Considering that China and the U.S. are ASEAN’s first and third trading partner respectively, the early exchange of blows between Washington and Beijing would be watched nervously across all ASEAN capitals,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based research organization.
YANGON — China’s media took little notice of the visit of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong this week. As Sturgeon met with Chinese political and business leaders, all parties were careful to avoid uncomfortable issues, such as Scotland’s relationship with post-Brexit U.K., aware that secession is a particularly touchy subject with Beijing. There was just a two line mention on Xinhua news sites regarding Sturgeon’s meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in Beijing on April 9, discussions that Scotland’s leading independence advocate depicted as “very constructive.” The English language version of The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, did not mention the visit.
JAKARTA — While there is no clear threat from the U.S. to loosen its long-standing ties with Australia, some observers say the country may one day face a choice between its main security ally and its biggest trade partner. Graham Allison, author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, said that China’s rise is forcing Asian countries with close ties to the U.S. to reconsider. “Largesse, economic imperialism — call it what you will: The fact is that China’s economic network is spreading across the globe, altering the international balance of power in a way that causes even longtime U.S. allies in Asia to tilt from the U.S. toward China,” Allison said.
JAKARTA — Long before emerging as one of the leading proponents of Brexit, Michael Gove’s role as British education minister took him to Asia, where he declared in 2010 that “places like Shanghai and Singapore put us to shame,” when it comes to quality of schooling. Perhaps Gove should not have been surprised, given that the previous year Shanghai topped the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA science rankings. The Program for International Student Assessment scores are published every three years and rank students in mathematics, science and reading. Eight years on, it is not only well-funded Asian schools such as those in Singapore, which topped PISA’s 2015 rankings, that are outpacing the West, according to a new World Bank report on education in the Asia-Pacific region. “Average performance in Vietnam and in B-S-J-G [Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong] regions in China surpassed OECD member countries,” said the report.
HONG KONG/JAKARTA — Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has criticized the Vatican for being “unfaithful” to its subjects in striking a deal with Beijing on the appointment of Chinese bishops, which he believes would eliminate the very few freedoms enjoyed by unofficially sanctioned “underground” churches in China. Zen’s comments come after reports emerged that Pope Francis has decided to accept the legitimacy of seven Catholic bishops chosen by the Chinese government as part of a rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing after decades of cool relations. Such acquiescence implies that although the pope is the one who appoints the bishops, it was the Chinese government that chose the candidates. “[Beijing] wants the Vatican to [help] get all these birds into the cage,” Zen told media in Hong Kong on Friday, referring to the appointments.
JAKARTA — According to legend, the world’s oldest beverage came about by accident more than 4,000 years ago, when a draft blew some tea leaves into a pot of boiling water being prepared for Shen Nung, the Chinese emperor known as “the divine farmer.” Divine intervention, maybe? Whatever the provenance of that fateful gust, it was not the first farce — or tragedy — to propel the tea industry forward and eventually globalize what was for thousands of years an Asian drink. As recently as the late 16th century, a handful of Japanese Christian pilgrims in Rome prompted much curiosity among their hosts by making tea: Locals assumed at first that the drink was just boiled water, according to “Tea: The Drink That Changed The World,” a 2007 book by John Griffiths. Kakuzo Okakura’s “The Book of Tea,” a 1906 paean to tea culture, suggested that the drink — by then almost as much of a staple in parts of Europe and North American as it had long been in Asia — could be a liquid bridge between East and West. Tea, wrote the Japanese scholar, who was also known as Tenshin Okakura, “has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”
JAKARTA — For the first time, three Asian universities are in the top 30 of the 2018 World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education. The rankings cover more than 1,000 universities worldwide and are arguably the best-known and most prestigious of such league tables. The new list for 2018 places the National University of Singapore as the highest ranked Asian school at 22nd, level with the University of Toronto. The other Asian schools in the top 30 are China’s Peking University at 27th — tied with New York University and the University of Edinburgh — and Tsinghua University, also in China, at 30th.
SINGAPORE — In contrast to the anguish and astonishment expressed in many national capitals, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in November. While the warm response augured well for Phnom Penh’s often troubled relations with Washington, prospects for improved bilateral ties have since faded. In January, the month of Trump’s inauguration, Cambodia pulled out of the “Angkor Sentinel” joint military exercises with the U.S. In early April Phnom Penh followed up that snub to Washington by halting a nine-year-old humanitarian program run by the U.S. military that involved building schools and maternity facilities in rural areas of Cambodia. These affronts were punctuated by testy exchanges between the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government, notably over a political parties law passed in February that will make it easier for the Cambodian courts to suspend or even dissolve opposition parties. “Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia’s political development, and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections,” the embassy said, referring to local elections scheduled for June and a national poll due in 2018. The law has been widely criticized in Cambodia, too. Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, described it as “an affront to the principles of liberal democracy, [which] effectively gives the ruling party a delete button which can be arbitrarily applied to their political opponents at any time.”