Asian Insider, July 3: Xi’s Belt and Road hits a Pakistani bump

Hi all,

In today’s bulletin: Singapore’s election, Xi’s Belt and Road, Hong Kong adjusts to new realities, and fresh virus fears in Japan and South Korea.

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BARE KNUCKLES, KID GLOVES

With Singapore’s general election to fill a new Parliament exactly a week away, people are getting a closer look at candidates and the issues involved. In today’s Editor’s Take, which plays to our multimedia strengths, ST Editor Warren Fernandez explains how the gloves have come off between the ruling People’s Action Party and the opposition.

Meanwhile, Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong says the live debates featuring ministers and opposition leaders have proved remarkably civil. Also, she says, unlike in the 1990s, the PAP is no longer playing its incumbency to partisan advantage.

News Editor Zakir Hussain weighs in separately on a hot-button issue – voters’ fear of an influx of foreigners that could raise the island’s resident population to 10 million.

BELT AND ROAD BLOCK

Pakistanis and Chinese have always held that their relationship is as “close as lips to teeth”. That tight friendship is poised to be tested as the Imran Khan government tells Beijing that it needs to renegotiate the terms of several key infrastructure elements of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$62 billion (S$86 billion) programme of power plants, roads and special economic zones that Beijing sees as a pilot project of its Belt and Road Initiative. As I argue here, BRI’s reputation will live and die on how Beijing tackles these concerns, which come on the heels of China-friendly Asian nations such as Malaysia also cancelling or negotiating the terms of some of their own BRI-linked projects.

For additional reading on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected BRI projects see here.

SUZIE WONG’S UPTURNED WORLD

Reverberations from Beijing’s stringent new legislation to contain civil unrest in Hong Kong, which has sparked widespread outrage in the West, continue to roll on. On Friday (July 3), Hong Kongers were scrubbing their social media accounts, deleting chat histories and mugging up on cyber privacy as China’s newly imposed security law blankets the traditionally outspoken city in fear and self-censorship.

Beijing has appointed an official who became prominent during a 2011 clampdown on protesters in China as director of its new national security office in Hong Kong, Xinhua news agency reported. Mr Zheng Yanxiong, 57, most recently served as the secretary-general of the Communist Party committee of the southern province of Guangdong.

The United States has now stripped the territory, immortalised in the Hollywood romantic classic World Of Suzie Wong, of the “special status” it accords it. But what exactly does that mean? Here is a primer.

OVER AT GINZA…

Japan will not reintroduce a state of emergency to tackle the coronavirus, a government spokesman said on Friday (July 3), as cases in Tokyo rose to a two-month high driven by the spread of the virus in the capital’s nightspots. Tokyo reported 124 new cases on Friday, up from 107 the day before, partly due to increased testing among nightlife workers in the Shinjuku and Ikebukuro districts. But, despite the spike, the number of serious cases was declining and there was no need to reinstate the state of emergency that was lifted on May 25, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. Tokyo is on amber alert – the third most severe in a four rank scale – with its medical facilities ranked at the lesser yellow level, indicating they are not in immediate risk of being overwhelmed.

Across the Sea of Japan or East Sea, South Korea, which was thought to have effectively contained the coronavirus, reported 63 new cases, most from domestic infections outside Seoul, triggering the return of tighter social distancing curbs in Gwangju city as the spectre of a second wave of the disease loomed. The tally marked the highest in two weeks and infections outside the Seoul metropolitan area showed a sustained increase, Yonhap reported. Gwangju recorded more than 50 cases the past few days, prompting the suspension of operations at public facilities such as public libraries and museums.

WHY MUHYIDDIN’S SMILING

As Malaysia braced itself for a widely expected mid-term election, the photograph of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on the steps of the Prime Minister’s official residence and surrounded by the top leaders of Perikatan Nasional coalition was one that spoke a thousand words. The group of 14 leaders, said veteran Malaysian journalist Joceline Tan, basically signalled that the Prime Minister had the numbers ahead of the July 13 Parliament sitting. 

The group photo has been widely read as a show of strength and unity amid the ongoing numbers game between Perikatan, in which Muhyiddin’s is the smaller party compared with big boys Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia, and the opposing coalition, Pakatan Harapan. Muhyiddin has plenty going for him in other ways, chiefly the deep division within the opposition bench, which has been split over who should be their prime minister candidate. 

IN OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who led working-level negotiations with North Korea, is due to visit South Korea next week as it pushes for a resumption of talks with the North despite few signs of any progress. The talks are slated for next Tuesday (July 7), a government official told Reuters. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should meet again before the US election in November.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew into the northern Himalayan region of Ladakh on Friday, weeks after Indian and Chinese troops clashed at their disputed border there, escalating tension between the Asian giants. Officials said Modi was accompanied by the chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and the chief of the army, General Manoj Naravane.

Retail sales in shoppers’ paradise Singapore suffered its biggest year-on-year fall in May since record-keeping began in 1986 amid a second month of circuit breaker measures, but the worst may be over for retailers, with the economy’s phased reopening. Takings at the till plunged by 52 per cent year on year, after sinking a then-record 40.3 per cent in May, according to data released by the Department of Statistics on Friday.

Google and Singapore wealth fund Temasek Holdings are in negotiations to join a funding round of between US$500 million and US$1 billion for Indonesia’s largest online marketplace PT Tokopedia, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg. Tokopedia, backed by SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund, has also held talks with US Internet giants, including Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.com.

That’s it for today, folks. Track us on The Straits Times over the weekend. We have a buffet of great stories lined up. Insider will resume on Monday.

Meanwhile, seize the day!

Ravi

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