Asian Insider, Jan 5: Scramble for vaccines; Iran seizes South Korean tanker; where is Jack Ma?

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

Hi all,

In today's bulletin: The rush to secure vaccines; South Korean tanker seized by Iran; Saudi Arabia to open borders, airspace to Qatar; Indonesia's top start-ups Gojek and Tokopedia discuss merger; speculation rife over the whereabouts of billionaire Ant co-founder Jack Ma, and more.

Reading this on the web or know someone who might enjoy receiving Asian Insider? Our sign-up page is here.

The growing scramble for vaccines

A scramble for coronavirus vaccines continues around the world encouraging manufacturers to increase production, even as anxieties prevailed over incomplete clinical trials.

Brazil, which is grappling with the world's second-deadliest outbreak, made a diplomatic push to pick up shipments of British drugmaker AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine in India, as word spread that New Delhi might curb the export of vaccines.

Alongside, private clinics in Brazil struck a deal with the maker of an alternative injection made by India's Bharat Biotech, even though questions have been raised about its results from late-stage clinical trials. The company's Covaxin vaccine was given emergency approval on Jan 3 even as health experts complained that there was no data in public domain to support the company's claims.

China, meanwhile, was racing to inoculate millions before the high-risk Lunar New Year period and the country's jab makers insisted their vaccines were effective against virus mutations as well. In Indonesia, preparations were on for vaccinations to begin on Jan 14, with President Joko Widodo due to take a shot at a televised event a day earlier.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, said Canberra would not rush with approvals. The country's regulatory bodies are expected to rule on vaccine candidates after a month and vaccinations might start only around March.

Seoul dispatches team to secure release of tanker seized by Iran

Seoul was set to dispatch a team to Teheran to seek the release of a South Korean-flagged tanker and its crew, seized a day earlier by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp, for polluting Gulf waters.

Iran's move comes amid rising tensions between Teheran and Seoul over Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks due to US sanctions. It also signals Teheran's bid to make its presence felt days before US President-elect Joe Biden is due to be sworn in later this month. On Monday, Iran announced it had resumed 20 per cent uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear facility.

The seized vessel was carrying a cargo of more than 7,000 tonnes of ethanol when it was seized on Monday. Besides South Korea, the vessel's crew members hailed from Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Saudi Arabia to open airspace, borders to Qatar

Saudi Arabia has shown willingness to reopen its borders and airspace to Qatar, in a significant move that signals a possible end to the three-and-half year diplomatic rift between the two countries in West Asia.

The announcement was made by Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah on Monday, who said on state TV that "it was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar, starting from this evening."

It came on the eve of a six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit in the northwestern Saudi Arabian city of Al-Ula, where the dispute was top of the agenda. Earlier, Qatar confirmed it would join the meeting after keeping away these past years.

The rift saw Riyadh leading a coalition of countries in the Gulf and beyond that cut ties with Doha in June 2017. A signing ceremony is due to be held.

Gojek in talks with Tokopedia for $23.7 billion merger

Indonesia's ride-hailing and payments giant Gojek is in the advanced stages of a merger with local e-commerce giant PT Tokopedia, ahead of a planned initial public offering, reports said.

The merged entity would create an Indonesian Internet powerhouse with a combined valuation of more than US$18 billion (S$23.7 billion). The deal, if it goes through, would be a "blockbuster deal," according to financial and tech experts.

Indonesia's two successful start-ups have been in discussion about a possible merger since 2018 but talks reportedly gained momentum after Gojek's negotiations with rival ride-hailing giant Grab didn't make headway.

Also read:

Unicorn marriage of Gojek and Tokopedia is brilliant but risky

Where is Jack Ma?

Billionaire Ant Group co-founder Jack Ma's whereabouts is puzzling many after he skipped a recent taping of an African TV programme he created. It has also led to questions about an ongoing probe into the operations of his companies.

Mr Ma has not been seen in public since Chinese regulators torpedoed Ant's US$35 billion (S$46.1 billion) initial public offering in November.

Also read:

China's Alibaba to shut down Xiami music app

In other news...

China sentences former Huarong chairman to death: Lai Xiaomin, former chairman of China Huarong Asset Management Co, was sentenced to death for taking bribes, corruption and bigamy, in one of the nation's biggest financial crime cases. Tianjin local courts found him guilty of receiving a total of 1.79 billion yuan (S$365 million) in bribes between 2008 and 2018.

World Economic Forum participants in Singapore to undergo rigorous testing: Delegates attending the World Economic Forum meet in Singapore in May will have to follow strict health requirements that will include rigorous Covid-19 testing before departure and on-arrival. Several other safe management measures will also be in place.

Supreme court allows India to build a new Parliament: India's Supreme Court allowed the federal government to build a new Parliament in a win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The court said the project did not violate the environment or land use norms.

Thanks for reading The Straits Times and this newsletter. We will be back tomorrow.

Shefali

Want more insights into fast-changing Asia from our network of correspondents? Get this article in your inbox by signing up here.