Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Lincoln Davidson, Bochen Han, Theresa Lou, and Gabriella Meltzer look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. New Thai constitution passed in referendum. In their first opportunity to vote since the 2014 military coup that toppled Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically-elected government, the Thai people gave a resounding "yes" to the new military-drafted constitution. The results, with over 61 percent voting in favor, may not have been surprising given that the junta did its all to drown out the opposition, arresting and detaining dozens of activists and politicians in the lead-up to the vote. Experts were also quick to point out that approval did not equal widespread endorsement of the junta, as most people had never even seen a draft of the document and merely wanted a return to political normalcy. The military claims that the constitution – the country’s twentieth since absolute monarchy was dismantled in 1932 – will curb political corruption, heal political divisions, and instate national stability. Critics say, however, that the constitution only serves to uphold the power of the military and other unelected institutions, and constrain the populist forces challenging the establishment. Thailand hasn’t had much luck with merging constitutional and political change. Experts say that the 1997 “People’s Constitution,” proposed in the name of enhancing Thai democracy and featuring a nonpartisan, elected senate, actually created the conditions for the subsequent military coup and ensuing instability. For now, the goal of a stable Thailand remains uncertain, with new legislation, party realignments, and a national election on the horizon.
2. Violent protests shutter Chinese nuclear project. The municipal government of Lianyungang, a city in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, announced this week that it would halt work on a planned nuclear waste treatment plant, after days of protests by local residents. Thousands of locals demonstrated in the city center over the weekend, in response to reports that Lianyungang, which houses one of China’s largest nuclear power plants, might be selected for the waste facility. The protests turned violent on Monday evening, when riot police responded to demonstrators throwing water bottles by beating protesters and dispersing the crowd. Videos of the police attack posted online were removed by censors, and state media claimed there had been no conflict between police and demonstrators. While the Chinese government has announced plans to aggressively increase the country’s reliance on nuclear power, many Chinese have grown increasingly apprehensive about nuclear as an energy source since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
3. Satellite photos suggest Chinese militarization of disputed reefs. Recent satellite images show significant construction on Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross reefs in the South China Sea despite previous Chinese pledges not to militarize disputed reefs. In the images, functional runways, hangers, and other air support infrastructure are clearly visible. While Beijing may state that these structures are for nonmilitary use, the size and evidence of structural strengthening within the buildings have led analysts to believe they were built to accommodate Chinese military aircraft. This news comes during an escalation of military and diplomatic activity following an international tribunal’s ruling against Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Notably, after the ruling China announced the commencement of routine air patrols over the South China Sea, which has in turn instigated some attempts to mitigate this perceived increase of Chinese A2/AD capabilities. In the wake of the tribunal’s decision, the diplomatic tone in Asia is ostensibly restrained, as evidenced by conciliatory remarks at the recent ASEAN summit in Laos. However, incidents like the recent protest lodged by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in response to the exponential increase in Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing ships around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, China’s suspected hacking of organizations involved in the South China Sea legal dispute, and Vietnamese rocket launcher fortification, indicate that this may not remain the case for long.
4. Modi denounces radical cow protection groups. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has ended his long silence on violence committed by a number of right-wing Hindu cow protection groups. In traditional Hinduism, it is customary to venerate the cow, as it symbolizes all other creatures and the Earth as an everlasting provider. Since Modi’s rise to power in 2014, vigilante groups have committed violent acts against Muslims and low-caste Hindus on the basis that they were slaughtering cows and consuming beef. Modi accused members of the movement of being hypocritical, claiming that 70 to 80 percent “will turn out to be people who are involved in anti-social activities and masquerade as cow protectors to save themselves.” He then proceeded to request that state governments prepare “dossiers” of those involved, but did not encourage any legal action. As Modi himself is a member of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, many have pegged him as being biased against minority groups. Experts are concerned that religious and social instability brought about by this radical behavior will undermine Modi’s reform efforts to promote economic development.
5. South Korea calls Chinese criticisms over THAAD “out of place.” Diplomatic tensions between China and South Korea rose after South Korea called Chinese criticisms of Seoul’s decision to host a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery “out of place.” The U.S.-ROK joint decision to deploy the anti-missile system has drawn Beijing’s ire. Despite assurances to China that THAAD is purely a defensive measure, China has reiterated that the decision “severely undermines China’s strategic security interests.” Seoul, on the other hand, argues that Beijing should be taking stronger measures to curb North Korea’s provocations instead of blaming South Korea for taking steps to defend itself. South Korea seems to already be feeling the economic consequences of its chilled relations with China. South Korea’s sales to China, its largest trading partner, dipped by about 9 percent in July. Korean pop concerts and popular television shows—both of which are huge in China—have also been cancelled.
Bonus: Chinese tourist becomes accidental German refugee. The plight of a Chinese tourist who ended up in a German refugee reception center after trying to file a claim for his lost wallet sparked fascination from Europe to Asia. The tourist, identified as Mr. L., ultimately spent twelve days at the center before the mistake was resolved. German authorities were tipped off that his case might be a little different because he was well-dressed, repeatedly asked for his passport back, and was one of only a few Chinese asylum seekers. Eventually a man from the German Red Cross used a translation app and Chinese restaurant employee to help translate since Mr. L spoke only Chinese. Some on Chinese social media called Mr. L a “brave man” for his independent travel, while others speculated that he had more nefarious purposes. One netizen said “Was it on purpose? A shortcut to immigration?” Others even suggested that he should have appreciated the free services. Unsurprisingly, an official of the German Red Cross reported that for Mr. L.,“Europe was not what he had expected.” Still, he planned to continue with the rest of his trip and while the latter legs may not include free meals and accommodation, hopefully they will be a bit less eventful.