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.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA – Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a senior United Nations official based in the Philippines, is refusing to leave her homeland despite a legal petition by the government to designate her and about 600 others as terrorists. Tauli-Corpuz, appointed the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in 2014, said in a telephone interview that “of course I am concerned” about the government’s list, which was filed by the justice ministry in court in Manila on February 21, but was adamant that she would not flee overseas.
SINGAPORE — After a saga lasting nearly two decades, Australia will on March 6 sign a boundary treaty with East Timor that will allow the Southeast Asian country to earn much-needed revenue from gas fields under the Timor Sea. “The Parties have reached agreement on a treaty which delimits the maritime boundary between them in the Timor Sea,” read an announcement made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on February 25 after negotiations in Kuala Lumpur. “This marks a new chapter in our relationship with Timor-Leste, bringing us together as neighbours sharing a boundary, and as partners and friend,” said Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop in a March 4 press statement. Australia’s decision should strengthen ties with Southeast Asian countries as it finds itself torn between the interests of the U.S. and China. “Undoubtedly it will help in that way,” said John Blaxland, director of the Southeast Asia Institute at The Australian National University. Australia’s previous reluctance to establish a maritime boundary with the East Timorese prompted criticism from Dili and from campaign groups in Australia. “This treaty will hopefully go someway to restoring its reputation which definitely took a hit due to its bullying of East Timor” said Tom Clarke, spokesman for the Timor Sea Justice Campaign.
JAKARTA — A week after announcing tariffs on washing machine and solar panel imports, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that “the era of [U.S.] economic surrender is totally over” during his maiden state of the union address. But the speech did not go into detail on trade with Asia or about the Trans Pacific Partnership, an American-led Asia-Pacific free trade deal that Trump withdrew from one year ago. During his hour and half address, which came Wednesday in Asia, Trump briefly recycled some of his previous trade rhetoric, saying he expects it to be “fair” and “reciprocal.” Pledging to “fix bad trade deals,” Trump promised to “protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules.” Trump lauded Japanese carmakers Toyota and Mazda for announcing new production plants in the U.S. He also suggested that his recently announced tax cuts could spur inward investment
JAKARTA – Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has a record of freeing detainees held by some of the world’s harshest dictatorships. But in working for the release of detained Reuters journalists in Myanmar, he hit a brick wall. “I had success in freeing prisoners in Sudan, Cuba, North Korea, Mexico,” said Richardson, a former cabinet member under U.S. President Bill Clinton, in a telephone interview from his office in the New Mexico capital of Santa Fe. But Richardson could report no such triumph after interceding last week with Myanmar’s de factor leader, Aung San Suu Kyi — herself a former political prisoner — over the two journalists, who face over a decade in jail for alleged breaches of the country’s state secrets law. According to Richardson’s account of their Jan. 22 meeting, Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and who now holds the official title of state counsellor, bristled when he raised the detention of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, arrested in mid-December. He suggested her reaction was stronger than those of some of the most notorious leaders of other authoritarian regimes he has dealt with.
JAKARTA – East Timor will hold parliamentary elections for the second time in a year after President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres today dissolved the hung parliament that ensued after 2017’s inconclusive vote. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s Fretilin party narrowly won the most seats in last year’s elections, but Fretilin’s attempts at passing legislation and a budget have been stymied by the opposition camp. President Guterres’ announcement comes after Alkatiri alleged that the opposition — led by independence hero Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction — was trying to foment a coup last year. Guterres had the option of inviting Gusmao, himself a former president and prime minister, to try to form a replacement administration. The chance that Guterres, a Fretlin die-hard, would choose this route was always slim. “There is just no way they were ever going to hand over the government on a plate to Gusmao,” said James Scambary of Australian National University. “Lu Olo is Fretilin through and through and very loyal to Alkatiri, so he was not going to let that happen.”
BELCOO, NORTHERN IRELAND — On the short bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo stand two clues that the crossing links not only a pair of towns, but two countries. The road-sign speed limits for Blacklion in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometers per hour. In Belcoo, in Northern Ireland, miles are used. Over the last two decades — particularly since the 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland — Belcoo, population 540, and Blacklion, population 194, have are effectively operated as one town. “There are no barriers, it’s how people want it,” said Eugene McCann, who runs a well-stocked grocery store and post office in Belcoo, his hometown.
KUALA LUMPUR — He remains Malaysia’s longest-ruling prime minister and was one of 20th Century Asia’s most outspoken political leaders. Now Mahathir Mohamad cannot even meet opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former colleague-turned-rival. The two are back on the same side, but prison authorities refused to allow the men to meet as planned on Wednesday, because “there was no official request,” according to Nurul Izzah Anwar, an opposition lawmaker and Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter.
KUALA LUMPUR — Denying Mahathir permission to meet Anwar was another reminder of what the opposition sees as a rigged status quo. “We have been governed by an autocratic and unfair system for many years,” said Nurul Izzah Anwar, who pointed out that Prime Minister Najib Razak was allowed meet her father. During the last elections held in 2013, the opposition coalition — then known as the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) — won 52% of the popular vote but gerrymandered rural constituencies meant they finished with only 40% of seats. If Mahathir does somehow replace Najib, he will be world’s oldest head of government. Although he has no problem speaking at a podium or walking the streets meeting supporters – in age terms it would be like Americans electing George Bush Senior in 2016. It is not just Mahathir’s age that make him a surprise choice. An authoritarian prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he implemented many of the rules that will make it difficult for him to return to office.