VIF News Digest: ASEAN, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Japan & China (Vol 1 Issue III)

November 16-30, 2017



Mahathir Mohammad in the Cross Hairs after Inquiry into Central Bank Losses

On November 30, an inquiry into huge losses by Malaysia’s central bank recommended Mahathir Mohammad face a criminal investigation, ahead of polls at which the former premier wants to oust the current government. The final report by the official Royal Commission of Inquiry into the scandal at Bank Negara Malaysia in the 1990’s during Mahathir’s tenure also recommended Anwar Ibrahim – finance minister at the time and now a leading opposition figure languishing in jail – face a criminal probe. “There is evidence from documents and testimonies of witnesses to prove that [the central bank] had undertaken voluminous speculative trading activities for profit,” said the inquiry’s report, according to state-run news agency Bernama.

Mahathir, who led Malaysia for 22 years and has come out of retirement to take on scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak, previously denounced the investigation into multibillion-dollar foreign exchange losses as a “vindictive” attempt to target him and deflect attention from the government’s problems. Najib is battling allegations that billions of dollars were looted from crisis-hit sovereign wealth fund of Malaysia Development Fund (MDB) at a time when he must call elections by August and while political tensions are rising, Mahathir has emerged as a potent danger after joining up with a fractured opposition coalition that includes Anwar, his one-time foe and a political veteran imprisoned following a controversial 2015 sodomy conviction.


Cambodian PM looks to China for more Aid amidst international criticism

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, facing Western donor pressure over a crackdown on critics before 2018 elections, will seek more aid and investment from China during a visit this week, his aide said on November 29. China is already Cambodia’s biggest donor and its support has bolstered Hun Sen in the face of criticism of what his opponents say amounts to the destruction of democracy. The aide, Sry Thamrong, said Hun Sen would attend a special summit from November 30 to December 3 held by the ruling Communist Party on a theme espoused by President Xi Jinping on changing the world for the better and without interference. The aim of Hun Sen’s meetings to discuss aid and investment with Xi and Chinese investors is to create more jobs in Cambodia, he said.

The Supreme Court this month banned the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at the government’s request. That followed the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for plotting to take power with American help. The United States has stopped election funding ahead of next year’s general election and threatened further concrete steps. The European Union has raised a potential threat to Cambodia’s duty free access. Washington is working on a review of its ties with Cambodia after the dissolution of the CNRP, William Heidt, the US ambassador to Cambodia said.

Korean Peninsula

North Korea

Longest ICBM Test

North Korea launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) early on November 29 that reached an altitude of about 4,500 kilometers and traveled 960 kilometers before falling into the East Sea inside Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone. The missile launch, which broke a 75-day lull in the North's provocations, drew strong condemnation from South Korea as well as the international community. The provocation is likely to escalate tension on the Korean Peninsula further and dash hopes for a negotiated solution to the North's nuclear and missile development programs. Hours after the launch, the North issued a statement, saying a test of the new ‘Hwasong-15’ ICBM was successfully carried out. According to the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who observed the test, declared that the North has "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power".

North Korea had launched Hwasong-14s twice earlier - July 4 and 28. Defense analysts stated that the North's latest test appeared to be its longest yet, noting that if the missile had been fired on a standard trajectory, rather than a lofted one, it could have flown more than 10,000 kilometers, which is, in theory, enough to reach the US mainland. But it still remains uncertain whether the North has secured re-entry technology, according to defense analysts. Doubts remained on how heavy a payload the missile carried, but given the increase in range many analysts concluded that it likely a very light mock warhead.

South Korea

South Korea after North’s ICBM Test

A Blue House Statement mentioned that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump agreed to continue strong pressure and sanctions against North Korea to bring the regime back to negotiations as they held their second phone talks in two days after Pyongyang's latest long-range missile test. "The two leaders agreed on the need to maintain their basic stance of putting strong sanctions and pressure on the North until North Korea voluntarily gives up developing nukes and missiles and comes out for dialogue," Blue House said. Moon said it was not clear whether the communist nation has in fact built nuclear weapons, let alone perfected its missile technology. "The missile launched yesterday certainly was the most advanced one so far in all aspects, but the reentry technology has not yet been proven, and it is also uncertain whether the North has secured the technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads," he told the US president, according to Blue House spokesman Park Soo-hyun.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon mentioned that the Moon Jae-in government thinks it is unrealistic to hold talks with North Korea at a debate session hosted by the Kwanhun Club, an association of senior journalists. It is more likely to impose additional unilateral sanctions against the reclusive state, he said. The comments came after the North fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew almost 1,000 kilometers before falling into the East Sea earlier in the day. "The prospect of dialogue with the North is getting slimmer. It is unrealistic to do so while the country is accelerating its missile development," Lee said. During the session held after a National Security Council meeting, high attention was paid to the background of Moon's comment on a possible "preemptive attack" by the US. Moon rarely mentioned it during the meeting with his security aides, saying, "We should prevent a situation where the US considers a preemptive attack against North Korea." Lee interpreted this to mean Moon was "sending a warning" to the Kim Jong-un regime about it advancing its missile capabilities. But he dismissed the feasibility of military options by the US, saying, "It is a clear fact that it is one of many options but the US has considerations to make before it commits itself to action."

VIGILANT ACE: Largest Concentration of Fifth-Generation Fighter Jets

On December 2, six US Air Force F-22 Raptors, Washington's top-of-the-line stealth fighters, arrived in South Korea to participate in the VIGILANT ACE (air combat exercise), an annual US-South Korea drill, less than a week after the North fired a new ICBM and declared the completion of its nuclear force. The annual training has drawn keen media attention although it was scheduled before the provocation. This time sees the largest-ever combined air force drill between the allies, involving the largest concentration of fifth-generation fighter jets ever in South Korea with more than 230 warplanes and around 12,000 personnel. The current exercise includes six F-22 Raptors and six F-35As, which have been deployed temporarily to Korea for the practice. A dozen F-35Bs operated by the US Marine Corps will also take part in the training, flying from their base in Japan. Other assets include two B-1B Lancer bombers, six EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets, and dozens of F-15C and F-16 fighter jets. South Korea has fielded F-15K, KF-16, FA-50 and F-5 fighters, as well as other planes.

"It's aimed at enhancing the all-weather, day and night combined air power operation capabilities of South Korea and the US," South Korea's defense ministry said. The allies will conduct the drills under various wartime scenarios, including simulated precision strikes on mock North Korean nuclear and missile targets, it added. The US Seventh Air Force said, "The realistic air combat exercise is designed to enhance interoperability between US and Republic of Korea forces, and increase the combat effectiveness of both nations."


Japan to Work with US to increase Pressure on North Korea

The Japanese government has reaffirmed its policy to maximize its pressure on North Korea in collaboration with the US in the wake of Pyongyang's latest missile launch on November 29. "We will maximize our pressure (on North Korea) without giving in to any provocative acts," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on after the North's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) early on November 29 morning. The missile flew at an altitude of well over 4,000 kilometers and subsequently fell within Japan's exclusive economic zone about 250 kilometers west of Aomori Prefecture some 53 minutes later. Behind the government's move to beef up pressure on the North Korea lies speculation that the export restrictions on petroleum products to North Korea and other sanctions based on a UN Security Council resolution in September may "produce results" during the winter, according to a Japanese government source. The government therefore intends to seek a breakthrough for possible negotiations with North Korea while taking a wait-and-see stance over the efficacy of the sanctions over the next few months.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on same day that as North Korea has been developing ICBM-level missiles, "we had presumed the launch." He said the government had detected signs of an imminent launch over the past several days. According to a source close to the Japanese government, Prime Minister Abe and President Trump discussed new measures to step up pressure on North Korea during a telephone conversation. The two leaders reaffirmed that China needs to play a greater role and are poised to ask for further cooperation from Beijing, which holds the key to securing the viability of sanctions against North Korea.

Emperor Akihito to Abdicate on April 30, 2019

The Imperial House Council has reached an agreement for Emperor Akihito to abdicate on April 30, 2019, marking the first time in about two centuries for an emperor to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne. The timing of the Emperor's abdication was discussed at a meeting of the council, called by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Imperial Household Agency's building in Tokyo on December 1. Under the proposed schedule, the Emperor's eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend the throne on May 1, 2019, the same day a new era name will be adopted. The government is considering announcing the era name at an earlier date to promote public awareness. Following the council meeting, Abe reported the conclusion of the 10-member body to Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace. Reporters at the prime minister's office were then informed that members had agreed on an abdication date of April 30, 2019.

Fukushima 'Ice Wall' Linchpin not living up to high Hopes

According to Asahi Shimbun, 34.5 billion yen ($309 million) in taxpayer money funded ‘ice wall’ to keep out groundwater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant site may not be meeting hopes and expectations. In particular, the wall has been vulnerable to heavy rains brought by typhoons. Reducing the volume of radiation-contaminated water is vital to proceeding with the removal of melted fuel from the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant so it can be decommissioned. Heavy rain appears to pose a major problem because the ice wall has so far proved incapable of stopping groundwater when typhoons have passed near the plant.

In theory, the ice wall was built to serve as a dam to prevent groundwater from the mountainside of the plant from flowing into the reactor buildings. The total length of the wall is about 1,500 meters, and the wall surrounds the reactor and turbine buildings of four reactors at the No. 1 plant. Pipes have been buried about 30 meters deep at one-meter intervals. Liquid at temperatures of minus 30 degrees have been poured into the pipes to freeze the surrounding ground. Freezing of the final section of the wall began on August 22, but officials on November 22 still stopped short of offering an assessment of whether the ice wall was actually working as planned. The estimated volume of groundwater that has leaked into the reactor and other buildings was 190 tons a day at the start of 2016, but it had decreased to 110 tons a day by early October. However, the situation changed dramatically when two typhoons passed by in late October.


Taiwan out of United Nations Convention on Climate Change

The United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Bonn from 6th to 17th November. The Taiwanese environment minister was prevented from attending the meeting even with credentials as a non-governmental participant due to pressure from China. Notably, Taiwan had sent a 20 member delegation to the conference to hold side events. This year, Taiwan was also not allowed to attend the World Health Assembly meeting.

Taiwanese Activist Lee Ming-che Sentenced for Five Years in Prison

China sentenced Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese democracy activist and Non-profit Government Organisation (NGO) worker, to five years in prison. He was charged with holding online political lectures and helping the families of jailed dissidents in conviction. Last year, China passed a law tightening control over foreign NGOs. Lee Ming-che’s case is the first case under this law.

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