Asian Insider March 8: China backs Huawei’s legal pushback against the US and an ‘artificial quake’ in North Korea sets off fears

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

CHINA BACKS HUAWEI’S REFUSAL TO BE A 'SILENT LAMB'

China's complex relationship with the United States, its biggest trading partner and geopolitical rival, was in focus as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared at a news conference on the sidelines of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing.

In one breath, Mr Wang said China supports its tech champ Huawei's lawsuit against the US and backs it for refusing to be a "silent lamb", reports ST's China Bureau Chief Tan Dawn Wei. This, a day after Huawei filed a suit against the US government, alleging that a law that barred federal agencies and their contractors from using its equipment and services was unconstitutional.

But in the next breath, Mr Wang was advocating greater co-operation with the US. The two nations are "already inseparable," he said, vowing: "Our two countries should not, and will not, descend into confrontation." He went on to criticise "some individuals" who have called for a strategic decoupling of the US and Chinese economies. He named no one. But hardliners in the Trump Administration - Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is said to be one - are believed to be wary that the White House will cede too much when US and Chinese leaders meet to sign a trade deal, reportedly in Washington later this month.

A key message from Mr Wang was for South-east Asia, where countries are working with China to develop a code of conduct to prevent any territorial disputes from escalating. He said an increasing number of Asean nations have agreed with China's proposal to speed up negotiations, reports China Correspondent Danson Cheong. And, again, naming no names, he called on other nations to keep their noses out. "We welcome well-intentioned advice but do not accept political smears or interference." But, as is no secret, the US consistently criticises Beijing for militarising the South China Sea and sends its warships there on what it calls "freedom of navigation operations".

TREMORS IN NORTH KOREA RAISE EYEBROWS

A low-magnitude earthquake has prompted some speculation that Pyongyang could be returning to its old games even as the Trump Administration maintains that "final, fully verified denuclearisation" of North Korea is possible by the end of President Donald Trump's first term in 2021.

There is no evidence to suggest the 2.1-magnitude earthquake in North Korea's mining town of Pyonggang at around noon on Thursday was caused by tests. But the Korean Meteorological Administration says that the tremor was the result of an explosion, that is to say, man-made. Recent reports, issued variously by South Korea's spy agency as well as Washington thinktanks and the UN nuclear watchdog, point to some developments that are causing eyebrows to be raised. North Korea is said to be rebuilding a part of a dismantled long-range missile test site in Sohae; is continuing to enrich uranium at Yongbyon; and missile-related vehicle movements have been spotted at its ICBM factory.

INDONESIA BEEFS UP BORDER WITH THE PHILIPPINES

As the peace process unfolds across its northern border, Indonesia is putting its guards up.

Jakarta has stepped up surveillance across its vast and porous sea border with southern Philippines as Manila grants Muslims in Mindanao more autonomy for renouncing separatist goals, reports Indonesia Correspondent Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja. Indonesian officials worry that the deal, which involved the decommissioning of arms by the Muslim fighters, may lead to "leaks". Some of the guns and other weapons will be sold and smuggled into Indonesia. How many? Well, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has given the assurance that at least 12,000 weapons out of 30,000 weapons in their possession will be immediately decommissioned. Decommissioning the rest will depend on how successful the peace deal is.

Indonesia is right to be worried. The regional Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, which was behind the deadly 2002 Bali bombings, used the same porous border to bring in weapons. More recently, the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, which gained prominence when it mounted a suicide attack in Jakarta in January 2016, was also reported to be using weapons obtained from southern Philippines.

The scenario that followed the Afghan war and the Vietnam war - the spike in gun-running across the border - cannot be allowed to happen here.

THE WEED AND THE THAI ELECTION

Large posters of marijuana are hardly what you'd expect to see at Bangkok's street corners in the lead-up to elections on March 24.

After becoming the first in South-east Asian nation to legalise medical marijuana last December, Thailand is currently enforcing a 90-day amnesty for those who still possess the drug. For Bhumjaithai, a medium-sized party led by top businessman Anutin Charnvirakul, the timing could not have been more perfect, reports our Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee. It has hung up posters arguing that marijuana should be turned into Thailand's newest and possibly most lucrative cash crop. It pledges to change the law to allow each household to grow six marijuana plants each - a venture which it says will earn them US$13,000 (S$18,000) per year.

A pipe dream? A viable vote getter? In the last election in 2011, Bhumjaithai was a distant third after the giant Pheu Thai and Democrat parties. But this time, it is expected to join any ruling coalition that emerges. And one thing has been firmly stated by the party leader - the acceptance of its marijuana policy is a non-negotiable condition for it to join any coalition.

We will report back on how well that electoral strategy paid off. But meanwhile, we invite you to read our reports and analyses of the Thai election here.

INDONESIA’S WOMEN MAKE A SPLASH

And finally, something to pause over today, the International Women’s Day. As Indonesia heads towards elections next month, more women than ever before are leading political parties and running for office. Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri remains the only woman to have contested the Indonesian presidential polls since direct elections were introduced in 2004 but there are a handful poised for a future bid. Here's a look at the most influential female politicians in Indonesia. Some famous surnames show up, of course, but also a ‘commoner’ who is asking uncomfortable questions about Indonesia’s norms and customs. Follow our in-depth coverage of Indonesia elections.

And that’s it for today. We will be back with a new slate of stories next week.

Bhagya

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