Rachel Brown, Ariella Rotenberg, Ayumi Teraoka, and Gabriel Walker look at the top stories in Asia this week.
1. Chinese and Taiwanese leaders meet for the first time in decades. Tomorrow, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will hold a historic summit in Singapore, the first meeting of its kind since the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949. The leaders will exchange views on “some important issues” under delicate circumstances, referring to each other as “mister” to avoid the issue of Taiwanese sovereignty and splitting the dinner bill to avoid the appearance that one country is hosting the other. Many believe that the meeting is scheduled to give Ma’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which supports closer ties with China, leverage in the upcoming presidential election against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose candidate has been dominating opinion polls in recent months. Ma, however, stated that the meeting had “nothing to do” with boosting his party’s position. And some argue that the meeting will actually cause a backlash against the KMT, promoting even more Taiwanese voters to support the DPP in the January vote.
2. The Maldives declares a state of emergency. On Wednesday, the government of the Maldives declared a state of emergency, suspending basic civil liberties and giving the government broad arrest powers for the next thirty days. Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen imposed the state of emergency after weeks of political turmoil and intrigue. Vice President Ahmed Adeeb has been imprisoned for allegedly planning an attempted assassination of the president after an explosion took place on a speedboat carrying the president. President Yameen was unharmed, but his wife and two others were hurt. The United States, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations have criticized the state of emergency and urged the Maldivian government to restore full rights to its citizens.
3. Vietnam agrees to new labor provisions. Among the notable aspects of the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, released on Thursday, were the compromises the Vietnamese government made on labor rights in a supplementary bilateral agreement with the United States. These include the right for workers to strike and establish independent labor unions. The bilateral agreement supplements the provisions in the labor chapter of TPP on topics such as discrimination, forced labor, and child labor. While Vietnam’s constitution nominally protects the right to protest, this has not been enshrined in other laws and wildcat strikes were tolerated just to allow workers to vent their concerns. The new rules are seen as a major concession on the part of the Vietnamese government. Vietnam is expected to gain significantly from the TPP, perhaps adding 8 percent of gross domestic product by 2030. However, the new labor provisions may add to manufacturing costs in Vietnam, which are already three times higher than a decade ago. In addition to the bilateral deal with Vietnam, the United States also signed bilateral deals with Brunei and Malaysia. The deal with Malaysia focuses specifically on addressing human trafficking.
4. Japan recognizes same-sex couples. On Thursday, the two Tokyo districts of Shibuya and Setagaya issued Japan’s first certificates recognizing same-sex couples. The certificate provides a same-sex couple with recognition equivalent to that of a married couple, lifting everyday barriers that same-sex couples in Japan used to face such as renting an apartment together, visiting each other in the hospital, and benefiting from family discounts for insurance or cell phone plans. This is a significant step for a country where being openly gay still remains largely taboo. Although public awareness for gay rights is still nascent, there have been initiatives at both the local and central government levels on this issue. In March 2015, a bipartisan caucus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues was established in the Diet, and a public survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun also indicated that 44 percent of the Japanese public support same-sex marriages, while 39 percent do not. Education Minister Hiroshi Hase also vowed in an interview to promote LGBT rights ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
5. Kerry tours Central Asia. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to five Central Asian nations this week to shore up ties as the United States slowly withdraws from Afghanistan and tensions worsen between the United States and Russia. Kerry presented the United States as a partner to Central Asia at a point when many regional leaders worry about both the return of the Taliban and the rise of the group known as the Islamic State. During his trip, Kerry met jointly with five Central Asian foreign ministers in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Many of the nations Kerry visited are notorious for human rights violations such as the suppression of opposition political parties, imprisonment of dissidents, and forced labor in the cotton industry. Thus, during the trip Kerry had to balance between pressing leaders on human rights considerations and pursuing economic and security issues. American ties to Central Asia are often overshadowed by the active involvement of China and Russia in the region. Indeed, the circuit to the five nations has become popular among Asian presidents over the past few years, with the presidents of China, India, and Japan all making trips similar to Kerry’s.
Bonus: Scientists attempt to explain mass Saiga die-off in Central Asia. At a meeting in Uzbekistan last week, scientists gathered to discuss a mysterious die-off of over 200,000 saigas, a critically endangered type of antelope, throughout Central Asia this summer. The deaths occurring this May amounted to 88 percent of the largest population of saigas in Kazakhstan, and comprised more than half of the total remaining population of the species. The strangely nosed animal once had a widespread range throughout the steppes of Central Asia and numbered more than one million in the early 1990s, but since then poachers and hunters have decimated the species for horns, used in traditional Chinese medicine, and meat. A number of scientists believe that rough weather indirectly caused the die-off by weakening the saigas’ immune systems and enabling normally harmless bacteria to cause devastating infections. After last week’s meeting, government and conservation group representatives from Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan agreed on a five-year plan to protect the saigas, hopefully boosting populations so future die-offs cannot send the species into extinction.