Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Larry Hong, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. At last, Myanmar–China pipeline opens for business. This Tuesday, the first drops of crude oil began their slow northward crawl through a new pipeline connecting the Burmese coast to the southern Chinese city of Kunming. After nearly three years of remaining empty, the 480-mile-long, $1.5-billion pipeline will carry up to 260,000 barrels’ worth of crude a day to a refinery owned by the state-owned PetroChina, China’s largest oil producer. The pipeline will also help China address its “Malacca dilemma,” the fact that the country’s oil imports come primarily through the Malacca Strait and disputed South China Sea. The new Myanmar pipeline has the capacity to supply nearly 6 percent of China’s daily crude, and should allow PetroChina to boost exports of refined products over the coming years. One analyst argues that while the benefits Myanmar enjoys from the project will likely be minimal in the short term—mostly revenues from tariff fees—the experience of building and operating a large-scale energy project with China could help develop Myanmar’s domestic capacity for similar infrastructure development in the future. Local residents, on the other hand, are less thrilled with the project: activists in both Kunming and Myanmar have challenged the refinery and pipeline, respectively.
2. Disappearances disturb in Malaysia. Widely circulated CCTV footage of what appears to be the abduction of a Malaysian pastor, Raymond Koh, as well as subsequent revelations of other disappearances in the country, is unnerving many citizens and rights groups. Mr. Koh, who runs a nongovernmental organization called Harapan Komuniti, or “Hope Community,” in Kuala Lumpur, has been missing since the morning of February 13. Unlike a normal abduction, however, no ransom amount or information was offered, even though the Mr. Koh’s family offered a RM100,000 (around $23,000) reward. This unusual incident led the pastor’s son to fear the worst: that his father had been murdered. Following the highly publicized disappearance of pastor Koh, several other cases of disappearances surfaced. They include social activist and former Petaling Jaya City Councillor Peter Chong, Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, and social activist and the founder of a nongovernmental organization Amri Che Mat. In the absence of a clear rationale for what some called “unprecedented” disappearances and the apparent lack of official efforts in locating these missing individuals, the Malaysian Bar says that there are “alarming doubts on the adequacy of the safety and security measures of the country” and even speculates that these missing cases might be “forced disappearances,” a politically charged term used to describe the disappearance of individuals by or with the acquiescence of state officials. In response to the allegations, Malaysia’s police force has denied any connections between these five individuals and cautioned the public against “unverified rumors.”
3. Japan’s population poised to take a steep dive. The Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR), which updates its country-wide figures every five years, has reported this week that Japan’s population is expected to fall from over 127 million today to merely 88 million people by 2065, and 51 million by 2115. This potentially drastic drop-off is based on decades of declining birth rates dating back to the 1960s. However, the population decline is not as rapid as previously anticipated, as a growing number of women in their thirties are choosing to have children. That said, this particular demographic bump will not bring about a substantial change, as NIPSSR argues that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will need to implement better national policies to enhance child care, improve work-life balance, and integrate the elderly into the economy, as well as those to promote mass immigration. As of right now, immigrants are primarily short-term students and guest workers. Japan is struggling with an aging demographic in which adults aged sixty-five and over currently comprise roughly 30 percent of the population, reducing the country’s workforce and creating a heavy demand for pension funds.
4. Duterte walks back assertive Spratly statements. On April 6, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stated his intent to order troops to occupy and fortify islands and reefs within the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea, along with his intent to personally visit Pagasa island to plant a Philippine flag on June 12, Philippine independence day. The comments, made during a press briefing after a military camp visit in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the province on the front lines of the maritime dispute with China, appeared to be directed at Chinese encroachment in the Philippine Pacific coast. The Philippines and China possess competing claims to islands and features within the South China Sea; Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have claims within the South China Sea. On April 10, Duterte sought to allay concerns over his remarks by clarifying that he had “ordered the occupation of the ten or nine islands that are just near our shores” and also stating that no offensive weapons would be placed on those islands. Additionally, on an April 13 speech in Saudi Arabia, he retracted his vow to personally raise a Philippine flag on Pagasa “because of our friendship with China.” Mr. Duterte’s initial statements perplexed many, as he has generally sought to bring the Philippines closer to Beijing in contrast to the approach of previous Philippine administrations.
5. New data transfer rules proposed in China. The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet regulator, put forth Measures for the Security Assessment of Outbound Transmission of Personal Information and Critical Data this week. The measures stipulate that foreign companies operating online networks in China will need to apply for permission and undergo a security assessment before exporting data that either relates to more than 500,000 individuals, is tied to key national scientific projects or infrastructure, or exceeds one terabyte in size. The Chinese government will then decide whether to allow the transfer based on potential harm to the country’s economic development, political system, or national security. These regulations are consistent with previous restrictions on the Chinese internet including the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, but are notable for expanding the application of data localization rules beyond companies in “critical infrastructure” to encompass all operators. While some have hailed the new regulations as a means to counter security threats and protect digital rights, most observers are more skeptical and see them as further step in the government’s promotion of “internet sovereignty” and efforts to restrict foreign technology companies. The draft regulation remains open for public comment through May 11, 2017. In the past, some Chinese cybersecurity regulations have been watered down in response to criticism during this public comment period. Internet service providers and technology companies will no doubt be waiting anxiously to see if that pattern will repeat this time.
Bonus: Indonesian artist sneaks political message into X-Men. The creators behind X-Men: Gold, a 2017 reboot of Marvel’s well-known comic series, were touted as an “all-star creative team.” But the illustrator of the series’ first issue, Reddit users revealed this week, had more in mind than crafting action-packed panels. Ardian Syaf, a freelance Indonesian artist for Marvel, inserted at least two politically and religiously charged cryptic messages into the comic: one that referenced a Quran passage that hardline Indonesian Islamists use to defend their views of non-Muslims, and another that referenced a protest in Jakarta against the city’s Christian governor. After becoming aware of the hidden messaging, Marvel confirmed that the references would be erased in future editions of the comic and immediately terminated Syaf’s contract. Though Syaf denied any anti-Christian or anti-Semitic sentiment on Facebook, photos of him meeting with the leader of a controversial hardline Islamist group also surfaced online. Another illustrator, who has worked on Marvel artwork before, stated that sneaking political opinions into comics was nothing new, but “this episode definitely did not fit into Marvel’s storytelling.”