Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. U.S. admiral proposes reviving naval coalition with Australia, India, and Japan. On Wednesday, Admiral Harry B. Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, proposed reviving an informal strategic coalition between the U.S., Australian, Indian, and Japanese navies. Although Harris did not specifically name China in the proposal, and instead mentioned powerful nations seeking to “bully smaller nations,” the alliance would likely serve as a military tool to balance China’s maritime expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. While some analysts are skeptical of India’s willingness to get involved in the South China Sea dispute, India has increased its naval cooperation with the United States in the past few years as China has furthered its plans for a “maritime silk road” through ports in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. One expert called India’s increasing involvement a “tit-for-tat” response to perceived growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. Asked about joint naval exercises between U.S., Indian, and Japanese vessels to be held later this year, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hong Lei stated, “We hope the cooperation of relevant countries will benefit regional peace and security, and not harm the interests of third parties.”
2. Jailed Afghan women subjected to virginity tests. The Independent Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan reported that officials often require imprisoned females to undergo invasive virginity tests. Such tests are intended to provide evidence in adultery cases, although the World Health Organization has proclaimed the procedure inaccurate and in violation of women’s rights. The commission found that over 90 percent of the fifty-three women interviewed in twelve provinces had received the test. While there have been significant gains in women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban, considerable challenges remain. Human Rights Watch reported in 2013 that approximately six hundred Afghan females were jailed for “moral crimes,” including adultery and running away from home. Today the number of Afghan women imprisoned for all crimes is approximately 750. In Afghan women’s prisons those jailed for moral crimes are often mixed in with those imprisoned for other more violent crimes, which can lead to an unstable and dangerous environment. Afghanistan’s Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was passed in 2009 by executive order but without the support of the country’s parliament. Concerns about the protection of women’s rights and sustained funding for development programs will likely intensify following the eventual withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan.
3. North Korea readies warheads after new UN sanctions. Earlier this week, after the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions on North Korea, which greatly broaden the scope of previous measures, the country’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has raised the stakes. According to North Korean state media, during a missile drill on Friday, Kim urged the military to have its nuclear warheads deployed and ready at all times for national self-defense. The same day, it also released a statement that called the new UN resolution a “heinous provocation.” While there is no consensus on whether North Korea actually has nuclear-tipped missiles, it is estimated that it possesses around a dozen small nuclear explosives. Furthermore, in the past North Korea has increased its threatening rhetoric before annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, which it views as aimed at overthrowing the North Korean government. This year’s drills, set to take place next month, will be the largest ever and will involve 15,000 U.S. troops, twice as many as last year.
4. TEPCO execs indicted over nuclear disaster. Three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were charged this week with negligence related to their role in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident. Nuclear reactors at the power plant suffered a meltdown after being struck by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The executives—a former TEPCO chairman and the former directors of the company’s nuclear division—have been accused of contributing to the deaths of forty-four people who died as a result of a government-ordered evacuation of the area twenty kilometers around the plant. Prosecutors earlier declined to charge the executives, citing the difficulty of proving they were criminally negligent by not protecting the nuclear plant from a tsunami, but two citizen committees overturned that decision, and the executives will now face charges in court. Meanwhile, the 160,000 people who evacuated the area around Fukushima Daiichi are still unable to return to their homes five years after the fact.
5. Indonesia’s budget in question. Indonesia’s finance minister announced this week that the nation planned to reduce spending as the fall in global oil prices slams the Indonesian economy. Already the drop in oil prices is projected to reduce government revenues by approximately $6 billion. The reduced revenues come in the midst of strife within the Indonesian parliament over a proposed tax amnesty bill. While the government argues that the new revenue generated under the bill is needed for the budget, some lawmakers have attempted to connect its passage to another law limiting the power of Indonesia’s anticorruption agency. Currently out of Indonesia’s 250 million citizens, only 900,000 pay the full amount of income taxes owed. The tax amnesty bill would let citizens declare assets inside Indonesia and abroad and then pay low taxes on those assets. The Indonesian finance minister has declared the share of tax revenue to GDP must rise from 11 percent to 13–14 percent. In the absence of strong oil revenues, greater tax revenue could help pay for new infrastructure projects, a priority of President Joko Widodo’s platform for the presidency in 2014.
Bonus: Chinese government cracks down on selfie sticks. This coming week, when thousands of delegates convene in Beijing for the Chinese government’s most significant two meetings of the year, called the lianghui, one thing will be missing: selfie sticks. Last year, the devices were a favorite among meeting delegates eager to snap pictures of themselves at the important event, but this year both delegates and journalists have been banned from using them in the Great Hall of the People. The ruling comes during a tense start to the meetings, because of China’s recent uneasy political climate for members of the Communist Party and the Chinese media. Luckily, even without the handy sticks, attendees’ enthusiasm for taking selfies appeared happily undiminished.