Asian Insider, Aug 20: US-China trade talks are on again, Bersatu’s problems ahead of party polls, and Australia to let foreign students return

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents and commentators.


In today’s bulletin: US-China trade talks are on again even as ties worsen, Australia to let foreign students return, Muhyiddin’s Bersatu faces problems ahead of party polls, and more.

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China said on Thursday (Aug 20) that it will soon hold a trade call with the United States, after reports that planned high-level talks on the phase one Sino-US trade deal had been postponed. Separately, it announced that Hong Kong would suspend some legal cooperation with the US, in a tit-for-tat response to Washington’s ending of some pacts with the city hours earlier. The Hong Kong government said the US decision showed disrespect for bilateralism and that it was meant to create trouble for China, using the city as a pawn

Relations between the two powers have deteriorated to their worst level in decades, as the US gears up towards its presidential election in November and President Donald Trump increasingly deals out rhetoric against China. Beijing has “no intention nor interest” to influence US domestic politics, Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said in a recent webinar on Sino-US ties. "I just hope that they (the US) will free themselves from the panic and paranoia, which is costing them common sense in such a shocking way,” he said. 

Elsewhere, China’s worsening ties with Australia is also affecting its businesses. Australia may block China’s Mengniu dairy company from buying some of its best-known milk brands, with sources citing “diplomatic issues” behind the move. The news comes amid increasing tensions between the two countries after Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus that was first reported in China. 

Delve deeper: In US-China tech war, investors bet on China's localisation push 

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Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's party is holding its first internal election on Saturday as it faces major challenges. Internally, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) is reeling from a wave of defections by supporters of its ex-chairman and former premier Mahathir Mohamad. Externally, the four-year-old party is also struggling to be accepted as an equal partner with its alliance members, Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia. 

Seventeen candidates are vying for three vice-president posts in the party, which is also in intense negotiations for seats in an overrun Malay field with Umno and PAS. Faced with an urgency to strengthen its pillars and close ranks after its defections amid speculation that snap general elections could be called within months, Bersatu is caught between a rock and a hard place, Malaysia correspondent Hazlin Hassan writes

Malaysia correspondent Nadirah H. Rodzi: Mahathir's new party Pejuang submits application to Registrar of Societies 


Australia plans to allow entry to returning foreign students early next month in an effort to revive its lucrative international education sector, Jonathan Pearlman reports. The first batch of students will be brought to the state of South Australia, which has effectively curbed its coronavirus outbreak, not having had a locally transmitted case in about two weeks. 

The trial run, designed to test if students can be brought safely into the country to enable more enrolments for the next academic year, is set to see 300 university students largely from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore fly into Adelaide from Singapore and undergo 14 days of hotel quarantine paid for by their universities. 

Read also: Australia’s big businesses chafe at coronavirus border closures 


What would it mean for Southeast Asia’s balancing act between China and the US if Mr Donald Trump wins a second presidential term? In our latest edition of the ST Asian Insider video, authors Murray Hiebert and Sebastian Strangio speak with US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh about their research in a region in the middle of a new great power contest.

If Mr Trump wins, Mr Hiebert says, it would be more of the same, with trade tensions with China continuing. If Democrat Joe Biden wins instead, his approach would lean more towards engagement with multilateral bodies like the Asean, Apec and Nato, but returning to some pre-Trump deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership is out of the question. 

Competition will remain the keynote of America’s relationship with China, Mr Strangio says. But if Mr Biden is elected, there will probably be a more sophisticated balance with Washington engaging Beijing in mutually beneficial areas. “There will be more continuity than change but we’ll see a certain level headedness and coherence,” he said. 

US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh: How the pandemic and Trump's art of unpredictability have changed China's calculations 


Singapore’s flagship carrier has already burned through half of the S$8.8 billion cash it had raised through share sales in June, showing how airlines continue racking up expenses even as the coronavirus pandemic keeps planes grounded. The S$4.4 billion that the Singapore Airlines spent in the past two months went towards operating costs, maturing fuel-hedging trades, ticket refunds from cancelled flights and a bridge loan facility, among other things. To curb costs, the company, which is operating at less than 10 per cent of its capacity, has slashed salaries and put staff on unpaid leave. 

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A Singapore start-up’s app has become a key mode of payment in an up-and-coming Myanmar border city touted as a future blockchain hub, Indochina bureau chief Tan Hui Yee reports. The financial app Fincy was co-founded last year by Singapore entrepreneur Douglas Gan, who is also behind a blockchain venture that helped Yatai New City in Myanmar’s Kayin state acquire "smart" features like auto-updated water and power meters. 

But the city is now under government investigation over the legality of its operations, with recent reports raising concerns about the project being a front for large-scale gambling targeted at Chinese nationals. Yatai’s promotional material says casinos are a top source of its revenue, though the government has not issued a licence for any in Kayin state. A US report last month said Fincy was being used to facilitate payments at entertainment venues already operating in the city. Yatai has denied that it is running illegal casinos.


DEATH OF A CONGRESS SPOKESMAN ON TV SPARKS TALK ON TOXIC DEBATES: Discussions on Indian television news shows never cease to shock viewers. The newest low comes with the accusation that its abrasive nature may have caused the death of a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, Mr Rajiv Tyagi, who died of a cardiac arrest on Aug 12 shortly after appearing on a debate on Aaj Tak television. 

JAPAN OPPOSITION PARTIES TO MERGE TO CHALLENGE WEAKENED ABE: Japan’s two biggest opposition parties are set to merge to present a more credible alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party ahead of elections that must be held by next year. The deal could bring together about 150 lawmakers across both houses of parliament, compared with the LDP's almost 400. 

ONE IN FOUR INDIANS COULD HAVE BEEN INFECTED BY COVID-19: At least one in four people in India may have been infected with the coronavirus - a much higher number than official government figures suggest, the head of a leading private laboratory says. Dr A. Velumani said an analysis of 270,000 antibody tests conducted by his company, Thyrocare, across India showed the presence of antibodies in an average of 26 per cent of the people. 


That’s it for today. Thank you for staying with us and check back for more good stories tomorrow.