Asian Insider Jan 28, 2019: China's slow-motion crisis

China's slow-motion crisis

Let China sleep, Napoleon is said to have advised, for when she wakes she will shake the world. After four decades of rapid expansion, during which more than half a billion Chinese were lifted out of poverty, today’s worry for the world is what happens should the world’s No. 2 economy go into a slumber. Trade tensions with the US are exacerbating the slowdown.

This week, Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He will meet US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Washington for two days of talks starting on Wednesday that will build on discussions that have focused on everything from American commodities exports to China and the subsidies Beijing gives its state-owned companies.

Asian markets are hoping to see some sort of a resolution, even as they sense the economy is “weaker than than normal, weaker than seasonal” as the head of a major semiconductor firm that sells into China said earlier this month. Caterpillar Inc. and 3M Co., industrial bellwethers that get about a tenth of their sales in China, are set to report their latest earnings on Monday and Tuesday after saying in October that they were concerned about China’s slowing economy.

For an informed examination of China’s economy, including the gorging on debt that led to the current situation, take a look at Associate Editor Vikram Khanna’s absorbing analysis.

More analysis: Slowdown in China may get worse before tapering off

Out of Afghanistan

Afghans, who’ve known periods of foreign occupation in their history, have lived by the dictum that while the intruders had the watches, they owned the time. In other words, it was a matter of sitting things out and tiring out the occupier. With US President Donald Trump adding Afghanistan to a list of countries, starting with Syria, from where he wanted to pull American troops, that belief is once again poised to turn into reality.

This past weekend, after six days of talks in Qatar, US and Taleban negotiators have emerged optimistic about an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 terror strikes on America. The Wall Street Journal, citing a person briefed by a Taleban participant, reported that US negotiators agreed on a full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, and the former student outfit pledged that Afghan soil wouldn’t be used for attacks against the US or other countries.

Two weeks ago, we asked Prof C. Raja Mohan, Director of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, to give us the big picture on Afghanistan and the potential scenarios that could emerge after a US withdrawal. Read his analysis here.

North Korea-China act in concert

With the sands shifting on the Korean Peninsula, there is much diplomatic footsie on show.

Days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un travelled to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of another summit with US President Donald Trump, Mr Xi attended a rare concert by a North Korean state art troupe and met the delegation’s chief, China’s Xinhua news service reported on Monday.

Mr Xi and his singer-wife, Peng Liyuan, met Mr Ri Su Yong, vice-chairman of the North Korean ruling party’s Central Committee, on Sunday and watched the performance by the North Korean artists. It was the first performance in China by a North Korean art troupe since 2015, when the North’s Moranbong Band called off a planned performance in Beijing at the last minute in 2015.

Meanwhile, even as Seoul-Pyongyang ties improve, tensions are stirring on the South Korea-Japan front. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said Rear Admiral  Kim Myung-soo was slated to visit the Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Maizuru District in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, in February under a bilateral exchange programme. “It is our turn to send our navy officer to Japan,” a military official was quoted on Sunday as saying on condition of anonymity. “But we have notified Japan of our decision not to send any this year.”
The accusations follow a spat between the two sides over whether a South Korean Navy destroyer locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft in the Sea of Japan last month.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to improve ties with China, strained since 2012, “to a new stage” and have his own face-to-face with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.

Seventh heaven

This year’s Australian Open tennis championships, the season-opener for the four tourneys that make up the Grand Slam of the sport, concluded on an absorbing note on Sunday night with World No. 1 Novak Djokovic powdering the challenge of No. 2 Rafael Nadal. It was Novak’s seventh title win at Melbourne and he now leads his encounters with Nadal 28-25 across surfaces.

As he always does at this time of year, Assistant Sports Editor Rohit Brijnath winged his way to his hometown Melbourne, Australia to cover the tournament.  Brijnath describes the Djokovic game as akin to ‘target shooting while balancing on a high wire’ with the Serbian so on target that he could “hit a ten-cent coin on the  baseline on the dead run if you challenged him’.

While you are here, also stop to read his tribute to women’s champion Naomi Osaka for her Saturday night performance.

Boy band blues

South Korean boy bands like BTS have become a significant part of the edifice that makes up the Korean Hallyu, or Korean Wave, which is the loose description for the growing, global popularity of its cultural economy.

Forgotten sometimes in the excitement over Korean figures like Psy is that next-door Japan has its own cultural economy as well. One boy band that lends strength to Japanese soft power is Arashi. Now, shocking its fans, Arashi said on Sunday that it will take a ‘break’ starting at the end of 2020.

“Around the middle of June 2017, I told other members that I wanted to end the activities as Arashi for now and that I wanted to live freely,” Satoshi Ono, the leader of the five-member idol group, said in a hastily arranged news conference in Tokyo. “I’ve discussed this many times with other members and decided that the date will be the end of 2020.” Ono said he was doing this to “experience a normal life”. Arashi’s decision follows in the wake of the disbandment, in end-2016, of SMAP, another popular boy band.

Girl bands seem less fortunate. Here is a look at the ‘seven-year curse’ that’s said to afflict some of them.

Get used to the idea, folks. Asian pop culture is  now a living, throbbing force. What attracts people to Korean and Japanese culture? Here is something we published a while ago that could offer a clue.

Other developments:

- Singapore bids farewell to a favourite son. Corporal First Class Aloysius Pang's ashes were immersed in the sea, following the reservist soldier's death last week in a training accident. The rising television actor's tragic death in New Zealand was also a reminder of how seriously Singapore takes military training.

- India plans an election-eve budget that is bound to please voters as Prime Minister Narendra Modi fights to retain office. Polls have to be held by May.

- Islamic State may be on the ropes in the Middle East, their territorial space having shrunk significantly over these past two years. That's providing them more reasons to strike elsewhere, if nothing else to show the world they haven't been successfully defanged.

That’s it, for the moment. We will be back tomorrow with the next update. Stay tuned.

Ravi Velloor

“It is better to be blind than to see things from only one point of view.” - Asian proverb