Asian Insider March 15: New Zealand’s darkest day

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

CHRISTCHURCH MOSQUE CRISIS

Bucolic New Zealand -- famously ribbed as the nation where sheep are said to outnumber humans -- has never seen anything like this.  

“This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after many were feared killed in shootings at at least two mosques in central Christchurch on Friday. “Clearly what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.”

Police said there have been multiple fatalities at two mosques and warned worshippers not to visit mosques "anywhere in New Zealand".  At a televised press conference, Ms Ardern said one suspect is in custody while police search to see if more people were involved.

Witnesses told media that a man dressed in a military-style, camouflage outfit, and carrying an automatic rifle had started randomly shooting people in the Al Noor mosque.

The NZ Herald reported that a man who claimed to be the shooter livestreamed the shooting for 17 minutes. The man identified himself as "Brenton Tarrant" - a white, 28-year-old Australia-born man. ESPN Cricinfo reporter Mohammed Isam said members of the Bangladesh cricket team, who are due to play a Test match in Christchurch on Saturday, escaped from Al Noor Mosque.

PYONGYANG ON A ROLL

Last June’s summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was considered a landmark, given that the two had traded insults and dire threats just the previous year. But now, a UN panel of experts says the black Mercedes limos used in last year's Trump-Kim summit in Singapore may have been obtained illegally by North Korea,

A report released last week by the panel on its investigations into North Korea's breach of UN sanctions also claimed that "there may have been a sanction violation" by Singapore for allowing North Korea officials to come on a study trip of its port facilities.

The 378-page document also contained details on how North Korea continues to defy UN Security Council resolutions through illegal transfers of petroleum products and coal, and supplying small arms and military equipment to places such as Yemen, Libya and Sudan.The UN has placed sanctions on North Korea since 2006, making it illegal to sell, among other things, luxury items to the country.  

Singapore's Foreign Ministry said it had received a general exemption from UN sanctions on North Korea for activities during the Trump-Kim Summit.

ASIA-INDO-PACIFIC?

It was no surprise that in last October's Schriever Wargame, the 12th in a series of US Air Force Space Command wargames, US civilian and military experts from 27 US agencies were joined by experts from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France and Canada. Increasingly, the West and its allies are seeing China as an ‘enemy state’ and the IndoPacific region, the likely theatre of their conflict.

I argue that no Asean state relishes the idea of being asked to choose sides in this emerging tussle. South-east Asian societies have too many linkages with China to want to side with what essentially is a geopolitical construct over a close and key neighbour.

Some might even feel that there is a mild dialling back of the very concept of Indo-Pacific itself, now that the Quad nations (US-Japan-Australia-India) seem to be in no urgency to formalise their ties, and Japan has adroitly changed its Indo-Pacific "strategy" into the milder Indo-Pacific "vision".

Nevertheless, it is wise to be prepared for all eventualities. It also is not a bad thing at all that Indonesia, Asean's largest nation and one whose borders touch both oceans, should show some initiative on the matter. This it is doing by hosting next week a meeting of top officials from the ‘IndoPacific’ region. On the agenda: Should Asean call its version the AsiaIndoPacific, IndoAsiaPacific or just accept the name gaining currency: IndoPacific.

TOUCHY ABOUT TAIWAN

Among China’s various sensitivities none touches as raw a nerve as talk of Taiwan, which it calls an inalienable part of its territory. Since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing has feared "collusion between 'separatist forces' in Taiwan and Hong Kong."

Reuters reports that as Beijing grows wary of pro-independence groups seeking to forge closer ties in Hong Kong and Taiwan, activists say they are coming under increased surveillance and harassment from pro-China media outlets and unofficial "operatives."

Visits to Taiwan in January by several Hong Kong activists including Tony Chung generated heavy coverage by two pro-China newspapers, including detailed reports of their movements and meetings. The coverage prompted Taiwan to investigate the activities of the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao newspapers on"national security" grounds. Officials said journalists from those papers would be banned from travelling to Taiwan for up to three years if the media outlets did not provide a "reasonable explanation" for their activities there.

INDIANS LOVE LIKE

On Thursday, Insider took note of New Delhi’s criticism of China for its vote in the UN Security Council delaying a bid to blacklist the leader of a Pakistan-based militant group that claimed a massive suicide bombing in Kashmir last month. 

Whatever distress Indians feel about this move by Beijing, it hasn’t stopped some of China’s quirkiest social-media firms signing up hundreds of millions of consumers in India, tech’s biggest untapped market, looking to capture users who aren’t already locked into Facebook , Twitter or other American apps.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese content-sharing apps such as Bigo Inc.’s Like and Bigo Live, along with Bytedance Ltd.’s Helo and TikTok, are taking off in the country of 1.3 billion, where most people are getting online for the first time using low-cost smartphones and dirt-cheap data plans. These apps, with ad-supported models, feature hours and hours of mostly wacky and often titillating content: brief videos of slapstick gags, girls blowing kisses, patriotic songs, teens twerking to the latest Bollywood hits and more.

The Journal spoke to Asha Limbu, a 31-year-old from northeastern India who works as a housekeeper in New Delhi. Ms. Limbu spends three hours a day on Like, scrolling through hundreds of tiny videos in a sitting and connecting with friends and strangers along the way. “Facebook is boring,” she said.

IN OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Tycoon Robert Kuok, whose properties include the classy Shangri La hotel chain, retained his No. 1 spot on the 2019 Forbes Malaysia Rich List, with a net worth of US$12.8 billion, despite a fall in his wealth by US$2 billion. Meanwhile, Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan of Hong Leong (Malaysia) added US$2.2 billion to his wealth and remains at No. 2, with a net worth of US$9.4 billion.

The toxic chemical incident that sickened 2,700 people in Malaysia’s Pasir Gudang district in southeast Johor is "under control", Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said, as he visited the southern state. Seven people were still in critical condition. The alarm caused by the incident led the Malaysian Parliament to debate whether the federal government should declare an emergency for the area.

Indonesia will hasten the release of its report on the October crash of a Boeing 737 jet operated by Lion Air, the head of the nation's transport safety committee said on Friday.

The crash, which killed all 189 people on board, was the first worldwide of Boeing Co's new 737 Max jet. Mr Soerjanto Tjahjono, the head of safety agency KNKT, told Reuters the investigation into the Lion Air crash would be sped up and the report will be released in July-August, earlier than its original timeline of August-September.

And that’s it for today, folks. Asian Insider will be back on Monday. Meanwhile, keep checking www.straitstimes.com over the weekend for the latest on Asia, and the world.
Ravi Velloor