SINGAPORE — It was tame enough weighed against his usual invective, but by itself Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling. During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China’s president. “[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte recounted.
SINGAPORE — China has long bristled at the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, which challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed waters. So when Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in the Chinese army, found himself with a chance to complain about them directly to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently, he took it. The U.S. operations are a “violation of the law of the People’s Republic of China, of territorial waters,” Zhao told Mattis during a conference in Singapore on June 2. Mattis defended the naval operations by citing a 2016 international tribunal decision that dismissed China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to much of the sea.
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.
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.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Businesses in Southeast Asia are increasingly counting the cost of land grabs, more than half of which result in delayed projects and nearly three-quarters of which lead to lawsuits, according to a wide-ranging research report. Out of a sample of 51 major land disputes surveyed across the region, all but 6 remain unresolved, meaning that Southeast Asia is the region most prone to land conflict in the world. That is according to research published Tuesday by UK-based consultancy TMP Systems and the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of land rights activists funded in part by the British and Norwegian governments. That 88% of land disputes in Southeast Asia are not resolved puts the region above the 61% global average, according to the research, which covers land disputes dating from 2001.
JAKARTA — Official crackdowns on emigrants in Malaysia and Thailand have cast further doubt on over prospects that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can finalize a long discussed deal on migrant workers’ rights. In June and July around 100,000 mostly Myanmar migrant workers fled Thailand after the military government in Bangkok announced hefty new fines for undocumented workers and their employers. Then, starting July 1, Malaysia made a series of arrests of alleged undocumented migrant workers, affecting more than 3,000 workers and around 60 employers accused of giving work to illegals. These tough actions — though a reprise of previous years’ crackdowns — come as the region’s governments mull proposed enhancements to the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, signed in Cebu in the central Philippines during one of Manila’s past tenures as the group’s chair. Two years after the Cebu declaration, ASEAN countries started moves toward a set of region-wide legal norms, but progress has been slow. With Manila again chairing ASEAN this year, there has been a renewed push to address migrant rights — an important social and political issue in the Philippines.
JAKARTA — Vehicle sales in Southeast Asia are set to outpace all other regions of the world during 2017, according to industry research, highlighting surging economic expansion in some parts of the region. But the growing number of new cars and trucks in urban centers is likely to worsen commerce-stifling traffic jams in major cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila — adding urgency to much needed transport infrastructure upgrades throughout much of the region. BMI Research — part of Fitch Group, a financial information company — has forecast that total vehicle sales in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will grow 8.1% in 2017, a marked increase in the combined 3.1% car sales growth the previous year across the 10 ASEAN countries, and more than double the sales growth rate of 3.7% projected for Asia as a whole in 2017. “Looking at passenger cars specifically, we expect Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam to be the best performing autos markets in the ASEAN region in 2017 with forecast growth of 20.4%, 19.2% and 18.0% in passenger car sales respectively,” BMI said in a recent report on the sector, citing “solid economic growth, strong private consumption and tax reform” as drivers of the car sales spike.
JAKARTA — After the most divisive election campaign in decades, tens of thousands of Americans have protested and rioted against the winner in cities across the country, prompting international concerns about an increasingly divided superpower. During his campaign, Trump called Mexicans “rapists,” appeared to mock a disabled reporter, threatened to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and faced accusations of sexually assaulting women. Clinton was subject to an FBI investigation over her use of a private email account while working as secretary of state, while a foundation run with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was suspected of soliciting cash from foreign governments in return for contacts in the U.S. government. China crowed over the debacle. “The innumerable scandals, rumors, conspiracy theories and obscenities make it impossible for a person to look away,” said state media outlet Xinhua News Agency. Alongside its unrivalled economic and military strength, the U.S. has relied on intangible “soft power” to influence other countries. Joseph Nye, the Harvard University scholar who coined the term, calls it “the ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” But Nye noted that American prestige in Asia has been undermined. “The lack of civility in the presidential debate and the nativist, xenophobic nature of a number of Trump’s statements have already had a negative effect on American soft power in Asia and elsewhere,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
JAKARTA — As Donald Trump spoke to a raucous, cheering crowd of supporters in New York after winning the US presidential election, Asia reacted to his unforeseen triumph over frontrunner Hillary Clinton with a mixture of surprise and optimism. “We just don’t know how a Trump presidency would be with regard to Asia, with regard to security issues such as the South China Sea,” said Richard Heydarian, a Philippine political scientist, referring to the Republican candidate’s perceived isolationism and threats to force U.S. allies in Asia to fend for themselves. Trump pledged again to put “America first,” echoing one of his campaign mantras, but in remarks aimed at “the rest of the world, the president-elect said “we will deal fairly with everyone.” That pledge includes another loud-mouthed septuagenarian president, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly insulted President Barack Obama since taking office in mid-2016. The prospect of the two aging chest thumpers facing off could lead to trouble, Heydarian said. “Obama was very calm and rational in the face of Duterte’s comments [calling the US president “a son of a whore”]. How will Trump react if Duterte says the same?”
JAKARTA — Stalled efforts by the U.S. and European Union to forge a trans-Atlantic trade pact will remain on ice for the foreseeable future — regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, according to the EU’s agriculture commissioner. Failure to finalize the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pact reflects growing protectionist sentiment in both the U.S. and Europe, and mirrors problems besetting its U.S.-Asian counterpart, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Negotiations on the TTIP will not resume until the new U.S. administration — led by Democrat Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival Donald Trump — settles into office, said Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. “These are on hold at the moment until we know what the new policy position of the U.S. will be,” Hogan said on Tuesday in Jakarta, on the final leg of an EU trade mission to Asia. “We have had a lot of political rhetoric from both candidates, probably to a greater extent from Mr. Trump who has expressed himself as anti-trade, Mrs. Clinton has said less than positive things about trade as well.”