Asian Insider July 31: US-China rivalry at Asean meet, Shanghai talks, S. Korean cult leader jailed

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

In today’s bulletin: US and China dealings with Asean in the spotlight, Shanghai trade talks between Washington and Beijing end with a promise to meet in September, Hong Kong civil servants are now complaining about the handling of protesters, the Indian business coffee tycoon who went missing is found dead and a South Korean cult leader is jailed for holding 400 of her followers captive.  

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US-CHINA RIVALRY AT ASEAN

Asean foreign ministers are gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, for their 52nd meeting and observers are keenly watching the moves of US and China. Today, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shared his optimism about the progress made on an eventual Code of Conduct with Asean countries on the South China Sea issue. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to reiterate America's emphasis on the Indo-Pacific when he meets the regional foreign ministers. 

Why this matters: The Asean meetings come at a time of continued uncertainty over the future direction of ties between the US and China, which has taken a turn for the worse over trade tariffs and which is  already having a bearing on regional growth. It would be interesting to see how the two leading powers engage Asean, which strives to maintain its centrality in regional groupings.

SHANGHAI TALKS: ONE STEP FORWARD

US and China held their first face-to-face talks after declaring a truce on the trade front in June, in Shanghai over two days. But the meeting ended with an agreement to meet again in September. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and China's Vice-Premier Liu He met behind closed doors for the discussions. 

Key discussion: The latest round of discussions apparently focuses on Chinese purchases of American farm products, something that US President Donald Trump has been demanding to advance the negotiations. But it's not clear what was agreed on. And even as the American officials arrived in Shanghai for the talks, there was a fresh outburst from Mr Trump, who accused China of continuing to "rip-off" the US. 

OUTRAGED HONG KONG CIVIL SERVANTS VOICE RARE DISSENT

Here's another twist in Hong Kong's never-ending saga of protests. Now the city's conservative and publicity-shy bureaucrats have started an online dissent campaign against Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leaders, over their manner of handling the protests. Multiple open letters have been signed by hundreds of anonymous officials. Reports say they might even hold a rally on Friday (Aug 2), something that's not happened before. 

Meanwhile, the 44 people - 28 men and 16 women - who were arrested earlier for their role in last weekend's protests, have become the first to be charged for their role in the rioting that took place. Rioting carries a term of up to 10 years.

INDIAN COFFEE TYCOON'S BODY FOUND

The body of India's business tycoon who founded the country's biggest coffee chain, Cafe Coffee Day, before Starbucks entered the country, has been found near a river on the outskirts of Mangaluru, a port city in Karnataka state. Suicide is suspected but this has not been confirmed by officials. Reports, however, mention a letter written by the entrepreneur V. G. Siddhartha, in which he blames himself for the failure to create a profitable empire.

Did competition have a part to play? Read the story here: 

Body of missing Indian coffee tycoon Siddhartha found: Police

SOUTH KOREAN CULT LEADER JAILED

Doomsday cult leader Shin Ok-ju, who held 400 of her followers captive in Fiji, has been jailed for six years, for subjecting them to violence and barbaric  rituals. "The victims suffered helplessly from collective beatings and experienced not only physical torture but also severe fear and considerable mental shock," the court order noted. 

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

PYONGYANG'S MISSILES: North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles earlier today, just days after it launched two similar missiles, reportedly to pressure South Korea and United States to stop upcoming military drills. 

CHINA HALTS TAIWAN TOURISM PERMITS: China stepped up pressure on Taiwan as it announced the suspension of individual travel permits to Taiwan apparently because of tensions in current cross-strait relations. A programme had allowed Chinese citizens in 47 mainland cities to apply for permits to visit Taiwan on their own instead of visiting on group tours.  

INDIA OUTLAWS MUSLIM 'INSTANT DIVORCE': India's Parliament passed a law against the controversial Muslim practice of "instant divorce", making it a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison. 

That's the wrap for today. We'll be back tomorrow with more on happenings in Asia, and the world. 

Shefali