Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Bochen Han, Theresa Lou, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. Asia reacts to the South China Sea decision. The ruling of the arbitral tribunal in the Philippines’ case against China regarding the South China Sea sent ripples across the region. The Chinese government responded with an unequivocal rejection and state media irately critiqued the tribunal’s award, which included a ruling that China was not entitled to historic rights in the waters and that the Spratly Islands—alone or individually—do not generate any exclusive economic zones. Taiwan also said that they “absolutely will not accept” the ruling since Taiwan was not allowed to take part in the case and the tribunal judges included Itu Aba, a feature in the Spratlys claimed by Taiwan, to the scope even though it was not included in the Philippines’ initial filing. Others welcomed the decision. It was met with joy on Philippine social media and the Philippine foreign affairs secretary called it a “milestone decision.” Vietnam, another nation that has tense maritime relations with China and could bring a case of its own, said that it supports resolving the disputes through peaceful legal and diplomatic mechanisms and reasserted its sovereignty claims. Other members of the Association of Southeast Asian States advocated implementing the 2002 Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea and called for progress to be made toward a Code of Conduct. Observers were also closely watching Japan’s reaction, given the ongoing dispute in the East China Sea. The Japanese foreign minister encouraged the relevant parties to adhere to the ruling since the decision is “final and legally binding.” China, however, clearly does not agree, which means situation in the South China Sea could become rockier than ever.
2. Cambodia loses voice of the people. Political battles are raging in Cambodia in the aftermath of the death of Kem Ley, a prominent Cambodian media commentator and government critic who was fatally shot at a convenience store in the capital on Sunday. Kem Ley’s death reverberated across the country, with Cambodians outraged at having lost a sympathetic voice who “spoke the language of the people”, and opposition leaders denouncing it as an assassination by the ruling regime. The killing comes at a time of renewed tensions between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition, led by the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which accuses Hun Sen of unleashing a fresh crackdown upon it ahead of the 2018 general election. With fingers pointing at him across the country, the prime minister, in the midst of a thirty-one-year reign marked by alleged corruption, electoral fraud, and rights abuses, promised a “vigorous investigation” and called for an end to the politicization of the shooting. Ultimately, however, regardless of whether the killing was a matter of debt settlement, as the shooter in custody claims, or a bona fide “act of state terrorism”, Kem Ley’s death will continue to serve as political fodder for interest groups across the country.
3. Pyongyang cuts diplomatic communication with Washington. North Korea has severed its only official channel of diplomatic communications with the U.S. government. Pyongyang’s decision came as a response to U.S. sanctions on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, for the regime’s human rights abuses. The U.S. Treasury Department also targeted fourteen other North Korean senior officials and eight agencies that are accused of violating human rights. Though North Korea has repeatedly denied the existence of political prison camps, the State Department recently released a report indicating that an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners are detained in such camps and are subject to forced labor and torture. The heightened pressure on North Korea is perceived as efforts to intensify consequences for Pyongyang’s provocative behavior and to push the North to rejoin the negotiation table. North Korea is particularly sensitive of international criticisms of its leader, and the state’s news agency has called the sanctions a “declaration of war.” Such events raise concerns over the fate of two U.S. citizens detained by North Korea, which stated that it will be conducting all issues pertaining to the United States under the state’s wartime law.
4. Kerala imposes a “fat tax.” The fourth round of India’s National Family Health Survey showed the state of Kerala has the second-highest obesity rate in India, prompting its recently-elected Communist government to instate a 14.5 percent tax on burgers, pizzas, doughnuts, sandwiches, pasta, and tacos served at global fast food chains. While government officials claim that these preventive measures will only target the societal elite and address the state’s 3–4 percent obesity rate, critics of the tax argue that much of the local food served by small cafés is also unhealthy and this will ultimately hurt their businesses. Many believe that this is also an attempt by the Kerala government to increase tax revenue, which has fallen by roughly 4 percent over the past five years due to a struggling agricultural sector and stagnating purchasing power.
5. China faces WTO troubles. China hopes to be named a “market economy” by the World Trade Organization (WTO), a designation that would make it more difficult for other countries to bring trade disputes against it, but is encountering pushback from Europe and the United States. This week, the U.S. government opened a case against China at the WTO, accusing it of failing to eliminate export tariffs that raise the global cost of a number of raw materials ranging from cobalt to tantalum. The European Union is hesitating on granting China market economy status, as European steel manufacturers have expressed concerns about dumping from China, which produces approximately 50 percent of the world’s steel. On Wednesday, China and the EU agreed to create a “platform” for monitoring Chinese policies that may favor domestic steel producers. Should the platform find no issues with Chinese steel exports, EU leaders have signaled they would be willing to move forward on China’s market economy status.
Bonus: Can’t catch ’em in China. While Pokémon Go has taken some of the digital world by storm, becoming the most popular mobile game ever in the United States since its release last week, the app is still not technically available in China. Even when desperate fans find ways to download the game, Niantic Labs, the game’s developer, has essentially blocked off most of Asia from accessing its servers over concerns about overloading them. Nevertheless, demand is seething: some Chinese users have been using VPNs to access the game, and many others have settled for a similar domestically made game, “City Sprites GO,” which was the most downloaded free app in the Chinese Apple store this week. Needless to say, if and when Niantic Labs releases the game in China, it would be a win-win for both the company and Pokémon fans, since China has a $7 billion mobile gaming market with one billion users.