from Asia Unbound

Friday Asia Update: Five Stories From the Week of September 23, 2016

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Last updated November 1, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Lincoln Davidson, Samir Kumar, Gabriella Meltzer, and David O’Connor look at five stories from Asia this week.

1. Deadly forest fires exact major toll on Southeast Asia. A study published this week in Environmental Research Letters by public health and atmospheric modeling experts at Harvard University and Columbia University reveals the severe public-health ramifications of forest fires that engulfed Indonesia in 2015. The researchers estimated that fires deliberately set to clear land for agricultural purposes caused the premature deaths of 91,600 people in Indonesia, and 6,500 and 2,200 deaths in Malaysia and Singapore, respectively. These figures exclude damage done to children and infants or miscarriages caused by the toxic haze. Fatalities resulted from exposure to fine particulate matter, commonly referred to as PM2.5, which can result in health problems including asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. The fires, exacerbated by severely dry El Niño conditions, destroyed 10,000 acres of land and resulted in $30 billion worth of economic losses for the country. The annual fires have strained relations between Indonesia and its neighbors, and the government’s response is a greater crackdown on private companies and individuals who ignited the fires for commercial gain.

2. Eighteen Indian soldiers killed by militants in Kashmir. Early Monday morning, four militants crossed the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir, and attacked an Indian army outpost in the remote village of Uri, killing eighteen soldiers. India attributed the attack to Jaish-e-Mohammed, an anti-India terrorist group with ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service most notable for their 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh dubbed Pakistan a “terrorist state” in a tweet, while General Raheel Sharif, the chief of the Pakistan army, condemned a “hostile narrative propagated by India.” An outspoken senior member of India’s ruling party called for aggressive action against Pakistan, remarking, “for one tooth, the complete jaw,” but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his advisors appear settled on a policy of aggressive diplomacy to isolate Pakistan in multilateral fora. Reaction to the attack from major countries like Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, was uniform in referencing, implicitly or explicitly, the role that Pakistan may have played in support of terrorist groups.

3. Greenpeace finds chemical accidents occur nearly daily in China. A report released by Greenpeace on Wednesday reveals that China experienced 232 chemical accidents in the first eight months of 2016—nearly one a day—causing 199 deaths and 400 injuries. The report comes little more than a year after a mismanaged chemical storage facility in Tianjin exploded, leaving 173 people dead and hundreds more wounded. Using government-provided data, Greenpeace found that more than half of chemical accidents occur during transportation, while 27 percent occur during production. Leaks caused 43 percent of accidents, while fire and explosions accounted for 27 and 16 percent, respectively. The report notes that the true number of accidents is likely higher than official statistics indicate. Furthermore, these accidents often result in casualties due to the close proximity of chemical plants to densely populated areas. The most recent such accident occurred on Tuesday, when an explosion at a chemical plant in Yantai caused four deaths.

4. Record numbers of Burmese refugees settle in the United States. Recently, the number of Burmese refugees resettling in the United States has exceeded that of Syrian refugees doing the same. Even as the civil war in Syria worsens and the debate surrounding resettlement of Muslim refugees becomes increasingly fervent, a growing number of Burmese nationals, many Muslim, have quietly settled in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of State, from October 2015 to mid-September 2016, 11,902 Burmese refugees and 11,598 Syrian refugees were resettled in America. An increasing number of those from Myanmar are Rohingyas, a self-identified Muslim ethnic minority group that has suffered persistent persecution in Myanmar by the Buddhist majority. The surge in refugees was exacerbated by long-standing and increasingly severe discriminatory practices against the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state, causing thousands of Rohingya refugees to flee Myanmar. Figures from the Refugee Processing Center show that Rohingya arrivals from Myanmar jumped from just over 650 in the 2014 fiscal year to 2,573 last year. The majority of Rohingya Muslims end up in the United States after spending years in refugee camps in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

5. Write-downs increase on Chinese non-performing loans. Chinese banks have undertaken further efforts to get non-performing loans (NPLs) off their balance sheets. In the first half of 2016, the number of NPLs written off by the four largest Chinese banks rose by 44 percent, and in the year’s first three months China experienced the slowest growth of NPLs in three years. Some of China’s largest banks–such as China Construction Bank, China Merchants Bank, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China–have announced plans to sell $600 million worth of securities backed by NPLs. In addition to write-downs, bad loans have also been bought up by state-controlled asset management companies and addressed through other government initiatives. Concerns about credit growth and the stress bad loans place on China’s banking system have been mounting. However, estimates of the ratio of NPLs to all corporate loans in China vary considerably between institutions depending on the types of loans included: the IMF places it at 15 percent, but the Chinese government says it is just 1.7 percent.

Bonus: North Korea, cyber superpower. North Korea, isolated economically and diplomatically, is also largely cut off from the global internet, but it does have a small web presence. How small? The country has a total of twenty-eight websites on its top-level domain, .kp. A slip-up by an administrator at a North Korean nameserver this week resulted in the list of all the country’s websites that face the internet being visible to anyone who requested them. The websites include an airline, sites showing off the country’s culture and cuisine, the website of Kim Il-sung University, and several state news outlets. You can find a full list here. Oddly, twenty-eight seems to be something of a magic number in North Korea: Kim Jong-un, the country’s dictator, was appointed head of the Korean Workers’ Party when he was twenty-eight and the country has twenty-eight approved haircuts.

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