Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Sungtae “Jacky” Park, Ayumi Teraoka, and Gabriel Walker look at the top stories in Asia this week.
1. Raging flames in Indonesia. Intense forest fires have been burning for the past few months on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, blanketing vast areas of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and southern Thailand with smoke. Annual but illegal slash-and-burn agricultural practices that spiraled out of control caused the blazes, now amounting to more than 1,000 fire clusters on the islands. Until this Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo refused international assistance with battling the flames, but this week six countries offered aid in the form of firefighting aircraft. The fires will result in immense financial, climate, and health costs throughout the region: In 1997, another severe blaze cost the Indonesian government more than $20 billion; carbon emissions from the fires may surpass those from the entire United Kingdom this year; and 110,000 per year may die from respiratory and other illnesses caused by the fires.
2. Pacific trade deal reached. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a wide-ranging trade agreement between twelve nations that comprise nearly 40 percent of the global economy, was completed this week. The deal will eliminate 18,000 tariffs for American export firms and provide similar benefits to other nations. The most notable achievements of the deal include provisions to address agricultural trade barriers, to require all parties to adhere to basic standards of the International Labour Organization, and to address the illegal wildlife trade. The final negotiations also involved an intense debate over legal protections for manufacturers of biologic drugs. Whether the deal will be passed by Congress remains in question, and recently presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came out against the agreement. The deal will also face political opposition in a number of other nations including Canada and Japan, where agricultural provisions may cause controversy, and Malaysia, where the required reforms to the state-owned enterprise sector may provoke resistance.
3. Chaos in the KMT. Taiwan’s ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), announced Thursday that it would be holding an impromptu party congress to remove Hung Hsiu-chu as the party’s presidential candidate and nominate party chairman Eric Chu instead. Discontent with Hung has grown as her numbers in the polls have slipped; things came to a head this week after Hung said that the constitution of the Republic of China—the de facto government of Taiwan—calls for unification with mainland China (which the majority of Taiwan’s citizens oppose). In response, KMT members expressed concerns that Hung’s presence on the ballot would hurt their chances in legislative elections, which will be held at the same time as the presidential election in January 2016. Hung has said that she will continue to seek the presidency even if it causes her “death on the battlefield,” and some of her supporters have rallied to her call, protesting outside KMT headquarters. The internecine fight does not bode well for the KMT, which is up against second-time Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen.
4. Abe reshuffles cabinet and adds demography minister. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reshuffled his cabinet for the third time since reassuming office in December 2012. This time, Abe retained nine and added ten new ministers, including Katsunobu Kato, who was previously the deputy chief cabinet secretary. Kato was appointed to a newly created ministerial post in charge of demography that Abe hopes will create “a society in which all one hundred million people can play an active role.” By creating this ministerial position, Abe seeks to prevent Japan’s current population of one hundred and twenty-seven million from sliding below one hundred million over the next half-century. Recent polls showed that the new cabinet maintains a forty to forty-five percent approval rating, slightly higher than the forty percent approval that the second cabinet reshuffle last September garnered.
5. Tu Youyou wins Nobel. This Monday, eighty-four-year-old Tu Youyou became the first Chinese citizen to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences for her discovery of artemisinin, a major antimalarial drug that has saved millions of lives. Besides her distinction as the first winner in the sciences, an honor that China has sought for years, Tu is unusual in other ways. Her prize-winning research, for example, took place under a secret military project established by Mao Zedong in 1967, and drew upon an ancient Chinese medical text written over 1,500 years ago. Tu also lacks the three characteristics—a doctorate, foreign experience, and a position in the Chinese Academy of Sciences—with which many accomplished Chinese scientists distinguish themselves, so is in many ways an outlier of China’s scientific and technological system. Tu stated that she was “a little bit surprised, but not very surprised” at receiving the prize.
Bonus: Indigenous South Americans consider adopting Korean alphabet. The Aymara people of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, are considering the use of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul (or Hangul), as their primary writing system. Korean researchers have already created a system for transcribing the Aymaran language into Hangeul, and the Aymaran and Korean languages reportedly share similarities in terms of word order and grammar. If the Aymaras adopt Hangeul, they would be the second to use the writing system after a town in Indonesia adopted the script in 2009 to preserve its spoken language, Cia-Cia. Hangeul was created in 1443 CE by the Korean royal court under the instruction and supervision of King Sejong, who wanted to create a simple script to spread literacy among ordinary Koreans who, unlike the upper classes, did not have the time or resources to learn complex Chinese characters.