Ashlyn Anderson, Lauren Dickey, Darcie Draudt, William Piekos, and Ariella Rotenberg look at the top stories in Asia today.
1. U.S. Secretary of Defense wraps up inaugural visit to Northeast Asia. Recently confirmed Secretary of Defense Ash Carter arrived in East Asia this week, reinforcing the importance of the rebalance policy under his watch at the Pentagon. On his way to the region from Washington, Carter spoke at the McCain Institute at Arizona State University on Monday, where he underscored the importance of U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific through both military strength and economic growth. Carter made specific and thorough reference to the role of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as “good strategic sense” and a potential boon to U.S. exports of goods and services. At his three-day stop in Tokyo, Carter met with Defense Minister Gen Nakatani as part of the process to revise U.S.-Japan bilateral cooperation guidelines; Carter also warned against use of threat or force to change unilaterally the status quo of territories in the East China Sea. Other issues of note in the Japan visit included hearing requests from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to reduce U.S. presence in Okinawa and meeting with Prime Minister Abe to discuss defense guidelines. Carter then headed to Korea on Thursday for a two-day visit where he and President Park Geun-hye reaffirmed their hard stance on North Korea’s provocative behaviors. Notably, prior to Carter’s arrival to the region, which is currently the site of annual joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, North Korea fired a series of short-range missile tests. On Friday, following talks with President Park Geun-hye and Defense Minister Han Min-koo, Carter told reporters that the United States is not ready to discuss the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system with South Korea.
2. Five feminist leaders remain in custody in China. Five women remain in the custody of Chinese authorities on charges of public disorder after being detained in the leadup to International Women’s Day on March 8. In China, authorities are permitted to hold detainees for thirty days without charge plus at additional seven days after filing the charge. On April 13, the case of these five women will reach the legal limit in China at which point the government must either release the protesters or “formally arrest” them—signaling a likely conviction for their crimes. These five women are core members of China’s feminist movement and have been known to stage dramatic and provocative protests. In one such demonstration, two of these prominent activists, Li Tingting and Wei Tingting, called attention to domestic violence by putting on white wedding gowns, splashing them with red paint, and marching through one of the most popular districts. The case of these five women has garnered international attention, including from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has denounced the detention of these female activists as “inexcusable.” Chinese authorities have responded to the international opposition insisting that they are “handling the case in accordance with the law.”
3. Malaysian parliament passes Prevention of Terrorism Act. By a vote of seventy-nine to sixty—largely split between the ruling coalition and the opposition—the Malaysian government passed an anti-terrorism bill that it claims is needed to prevent Islamic extremists in particular militants aligned with the Islamic State, from gaining a foothold in Malaysia. Under the new legislation, which was approved only hours after the detention of seventeen suspected militants thought to be planning an attack on Kuala Lumpur, suspects can be held without trial for up to two years with indefinite extensions; in addition, decisions on detention will be made by a terrorism board, rather than the judiciary. The country’s sedition law, which prohibits government criticism and Najib had also pledged to repeal, remains in effect. Critics fear that the new legislation will limit freedom of expression and represent a significant backslide for human rights in Malaysia. In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak repealed the Internal Security Act, under which indefinite detention was originally codified.
4. India takes a stand on its pollution problem with a new transparency initiative. At a conference on the environment this week, Prime Minister Modi announced a national air quality index to monitor the air in ten of India’s major cities. India’s capital, New Delhi, recently surpassed Beijing as the most polluted city in the world. Furthermore, thirteen of the world’s top twenty most polluted cities are in India, according to the World Health Organization. Although citizens of India acknowledge the poor air quality in many places, the new index will create a color-coded warning system to help residents understand the full health impact of the pollution. Collecting and disseminating the air quality index data will hopefully help set the stage for pollution mitigation policies, such as limiting the driving of personal cars or incentivizing public transportation on days of high pollution.
5. China unveils plans for South China Sea. Over the last few weeks, satellite photographs have captured Chinese vessels dredging sand to transform Mischief Reef into an island in the South China Sea. In light of these developments, China sketched out plans for the disputed islands at a news conference in Beijing this week, saying the islands would be used for military defense as well as to provide civilian services to benefit other countries. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha [or Spratly] Islands and adjacent waters,” and that any developments in the disputed waters adhere to China’s path of peaceful development while supporting a “national defense policy that is defensive in nature.” Cautious that Chinese land reclamation and construction in disputed waters fuels regional anxiety, President Barack Obama has warned China not to “elbow aside” its Asian neighbors, a comment perceived by official Chinese press as a meddlesome United States “stirring up the waters and fishing for trouble.”
Bonus: Indian monkeys snack on fiber-optic cables. Macaque monkeys have become an unlikely challenge to internet development in the holy city of Varanasi as they eat their way through fiber-optic cables across town. India is in the middle of launching an $18 billion plan to upgrade the country’s internet, a plan now threatened by hordes of presumably hungry monkeys living in temples across Varanasi. Considered sacred by locals and tourists, neither scaring away the monkeys nor relocating the temples is feasible; instead, perhaps engineers should stop making such delicious cables.