from Asia Unbound

Friday Asia Update: Five Stories From the Week of May 27, 2016

May 27, 2016

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Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Theresa Lou, Gabriella Meltzer, Pei-Yu Wei, and James West look at five stories from Asia this week.

1. Obama offers subtle criticisms in Vietnam. Much of the coverage of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Vietnam this week centered around the lifting of the lethal weapons ban and tensions in the South China Sea. However, Obama also used his visit to address concerns surrounding human rights violations and autocratic governance in Vietnam. During remarks on Tuesday shown on Vietnamese television, Obama stressed the need to protect human rights as well as the importance of freedom of expression for innovation and economic development. He also met with a group of six civil society leaders. The following day, at a town hall meeting for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, Obama responded to a question on brain drain by emphasizing the need to reward talent and that the best way to do so “is to have strong rule of law.” He also highlighted the importance of reducing corruption, strengthening education, and improving air quality to keep skilled individuals at home. Some read this list as an implicit critique of current conditions in Vietnam, where cities are highly polluted and bribes for business projects can run as steep as 20 to 50 percent of total cost. Strategy will likely continue to supersede ideals in U.S.-Vietnam relations, but these recent remarks suggest there is some room for the two to coexist.

2. Taliban leader killed in U.S. drone strike. Less than a year after assuming leadership of the Taliban insurgency, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed last Saturday by a targeted air strike inside Pakistan. Mansour, a longtime deputy to reclusive founder and former leader Mullah Omar, was chosen as the group’s leader in July 2015 after it was revealed Omar had been dead since 2013. The Taliban confirmed his death on Wednesday, and announced that the leadership shura had chosen Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada to succeed him. Mawlawi Haibatullah, previously one of Mansour’s two deputies, is a “respected religious cleric . . . and formerly a leading member of the Taliban judiciary.” Given Haibatullah’s credentials, his selection is seen as a move to reunite the insurgency, which has fragmented somewhat over the past year. However, he is also considered a hard-liner unlikely to reopen negotiations with the government in Kabul over reaching a political reconciliation. The location of the attack that killed Mansour is also particularly important, as it marks the first U.S. strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, and may signal a shift in U.S. strategy toward dealing with the insurgency.

3. South Korea seeks assistance from Pyongyang’s African partners. After visiting Iran in April, South Korean President Park Geun-hye traveled to Uganda this week as part of a twelve-day African tour to enhance Seoul’s relations with the continent. In addition to discussing measures for future cooperation, Park aimed to weaken military links between North Korea and countries such as Uganda, which have known military ties to Pyongyang. Since Kampala established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 1963, its forces have received training from North Korean military personnel. Uganda is also one of the “resilient nations” that imports arms from North Korea despite UN Security Council sanctions. Park hopes that she can enlist countries such as Uganda—as well as Kenya and Ethiopia, both of which also have historical military ties to North Korea and are on Park’s list of destinations—to help starve North Korea of the financial resources that the regime’s weapons program requires.

4. Indonesian child laborers suffer from nicotine poisoning. A report released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday reveals that thousands of children working in tobacco fields in Indonesia have nicotine poisoning, are being exposed to toxic pesticides, and perform dangerous physical labor. Children as young as eight years old, primarily on the country’s main island of Java, suffer from “green tobacco sickness,” whose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness as a result of nicotine seeping through skin from wet tobacco plants. In addition, pesticide exposure is associated with respiratory issues, cancer, depression, neurological disorders, and reproductive health problems. The vast majority of Indonesia’s over 500,000 tobacco farms are family-owned enterprises based on 2.5 acres of land or less, and the product is sold on the open market—conditions that make it virtually impossible to source an ethical supply chain. Indonesia is the fifth-largest tobacco producer, and the International Labor Organization estimates that over 1.5 million Indonesian children ages ten through seventeen work on farms in similarly hazardous conditions.

5. Chinese official criticizes Tsai for being “emotional” because she is single. A Chinese official at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Sciences has blasted Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen as unfit to lead because she had never married. Tsai, who was sworn in as president last Saturday, is Taiwan’s first female politician to hold the office. The International Herald Leader, a newspaper affiliated with the state-run Xinhua News Agency, published an opinion piece on Tuesday written by Wang Weixing, who is also a board member of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS). The article noted that Tsai’s political style and decisions “tend to be emotional, personal, and extreme” because “from a humanist perspective, as a single female politician, [Tsai] doesn’t bear the burdens of emotional love, family constraints, or child rearing.” The editorial also observed that Tsai had only a “simple” history of relationships, with just one known boyfriend. These factors supposedly contribute to her aggressive political style and support for Taiwanese independence. The article has since been removed from all Chinese news portals that carried the story amidst an outcry from both Chinese and Taiwanese citizens. Tsai’s rise has been regarded with wariness by Chinese authorities.

Bonus: China’s five thousand years of (beer) history. When most think of Chinese beer, the first name that usually comes to mind is Tsingtao, a mildly hoppy pilsner brewed in Shandong since the early 1900s. Its history is complicated, however, by the fact that it was founded by a group of German and English industrialists who had rushed into China’s treaty ports as the Qing dynasty slowly crumbled. Despite an abortive attempt in the 1950s to promote local breweries, the beverage never caught on in China to the same extent as in Western markets, and per capita consumption is still less than half of that in the United States. But new evidence suggests that beer was first brewed in China not a century ago, but five thousand years ago. Pottery unearthed by archaeologists was recently found to contain traces of grains and tubers used in fermenting beer. Another glorious invention of Chinese civilization!