PHNOM PENH — The world’s proposed biggest free trade agreement was dealt a blow on Monday when India made a last minute but unsurprising withdrawal from seven-year-old negotiations during a series of weekend meetings of Asian governments in Bangkok. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, would have encompassed all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. It also would have made for the world’s biggest trade deal measured by population and factoring in the combined gross domestic products (GDPs) of the putative signatories, though India’s withdrawal could see it drop below the Canada-Mexico-United States deal formerly known as NAFTA in combined GDP. India would have been the third largest economy in the tariff-reducing trade deal.
KUALA LUMPUR — The spread of online political rumors, false content and hoaxes has fact-checkers working overtime ahead of elections in Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. In February, a video first seen last year resurfaced on social media of Grace Poe, a Philippine politician, allegedly backing the blocking of Facebook in the country, where freedom of speech is ingrained in the constitution and the number of social media users is 76 million, much higher than the 61.8 million people who are registered to vote. But the video, which was posted by an account supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, who defeated Poe and other candidates in 2016 presidential elections, excluded some vital comments by the senator, who will defend her seat in May’s midterm elections. “Can you block a particular company like Facebook from being accessed in the Philippines? I know they do this in China,” Poe was shown saying in the video, which had omitted the preceding comments to the question she posed: “Not that we’re going to do this — I’ll be the first to disagree if they do.” The misleading video was flagged by Vera Files, a fact-checking organization that is part of an elections-focused collaboration called Tsek.ph and which includes some of the Philippines’ main newspapers, television stations and media academics.
JAKARTA — When Mahathir Mohamad’s Alliance of Hope coalition surprised the world — and perhaps even themselves — by winning last May’s parliamentary vote in Malaysia, it was not just the first-ever opposition election win in the country’s history. Some saw it as the result of the first “WhatsApp election,” where the platform’s encrypted private messaging provided a sanctuary for citizens to discuss politics away from the raucous finger-pointing of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp “offered security in that messages would come from ‘trusted’ contacts and thus be more ‘believable'” than open services such as Facebook or Twitter, said Serina Abdul Rahman, whose election research for the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute took her to rural areas in the south and north of Malaysia. Apprehension over commenting publicly was likely heightened by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s anti-fake news law, which was announced ahead of the elections. Some saw the law as a tool for Najib to avoid public discussion of corruption allegations related to the scandal-riddled sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
JAKARTA — Governments across Asia are seeking to bring millions of informal workers into regulated employment, and stem a major economic drag on the world’s fastest-growing region. Bangladesh, Indonesia and China have taken steps this month that could help formalize employment for a vast pool of workers that are struggling on the margins of their economies, many as self-employed merchants or agricultural laborers. The World Bank estimates that informal workers make up 47% of jobs in the East Asia and Pacific region, with the figure rising to between 60% and 80% in lower income countries such as Myanmar and Laos. The government in Dhaka last week signed a $250 million deal with the institution aimed at supporting efforts “to create large-scale, better-paid and inclusive jobs.”
JAKARTA — Wages in Asia grew by an average of 3.5% last year, nearly ten times faster than the 0.4% increase seen among the wealthiest members of the Group of 20 countries, whose leaders will meet in Argentina later this week. Driven largely by Asian economies and China in particular, wages in the G-20’s emerging or developing economies — including Indonesia and India — have tripled overall in the two decades since the Asian financial crisis, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization. The disparity between developed countries such as Japan — where wages declined by 0.4% last year — and less-developed countries in Asia, is partly due to emerging economies growing much faster and enjoying lower inflation than other emerging or developing regions such as Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
DUBAI — The food stalls ringing the interior of Little Manila in Dubai make for a nostalgic evocation of the real thing — and serve as a home away from home for some of the estimated 750,000 Filipinos in the United Arab Emirates. Across Dubai there are dozens of similarly themed restaurants and shops, sometimes even entire streets, catering to expatriate worker communities from India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and several other Asian countries. Much of the talk in these establishments now centers on the thousands of stranded workers who are availing of a temporary amnesty provided by the government to fly home after having any prospective punishments for visa infractions revoked.
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 — The sight of commuters, their faces hidden behind masks while perched on motorcycle taxis, is common across Asia. The bikes weave through gridlock in cities like Jakarta and Bangkok, getting the passengers to work on time. But 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 occur in Asia, which is home to slightly less than 60% of the global population. Breaking the numbers down, 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.
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.”