Asian Insider May 16: US blacklists Huawei as trade talks teeter on the brink

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


Today, trade talks face another setback as US bans Huawei, Malaysia probes a vote-rigging scheme involving military camps, North Korea faces a humanitarian crisis and more.

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The Trump administration took abrupt steps to shut down Huawei’s ability to do business in the US, placing it on a list of entities that prevents the company from buying components and technology from American firms without government approval. The move came hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring US companies from US telecommunications equipment made by firms deemed a national security risk.

Why it matters:  The abrupt, seemingly targeted attempt at crippling one of China’s largest companies is an escalation of tensions at a time when everyone was just starting to regain hope that the US and China might still be able to reach a trade deal. The heated rhetoric from both sides were appearing to cool in recent days until the fresh shots across the bow. All eyes are on if and how China will retaliate. Beyond the trade war, the US restrictions on Huawei will intensify the dilemma faced by countries trying to build out 5G infrastructure without taking sides in the fight between the two powers.

Huawei’s response:  Huawei, whose operations worldwide could be hit by its inability to buy US components, called the new restrictions “unreasonable” and said the move infringes on the company’s rights. Its chairman separately said the company is willing to sign no-spy agreements with governments.

Go deeper:

US blacklists China’s Huawei and bars US companies from using foreign telecoms posing security risk

Huawei willing to ink no-spy telecoms equipment pacts

US found evidence against Huawei via secret surveillance: Prosecutors


The Malaysian government is investigating land swop deals done by the Ministry of Defence under the previous administration amid allegations that some military camps were built specifically to boost votes in specific constituencies.

The details: There appear to be two elements to the scheme. The first allegation is straight up corruption. Land worth about RM5 billion (US$1.2 billion) was sold at discounts to underqualified firms. The Ministry of Defence reported lost RM500 million in total. The second allegation  is purely political. Because military regulars are a dependable vote bank for the then-BN government, several camps were deliberately built to move voters to constituencies helmed by senior members of the administration.

The big picture:  While the monetary value of this particular scandal pales in comparison to the numbers involved in the 1MDB saga, the scheme gives a sense of the lengths the previous administration went to try and shore up its position before its shocking ouster. The scheme involves constituencies held by then Deputy Premier and current Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, then Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, as well as then Rural Development Minister and now acting Umno deputy president Ismail Sabri Yaacob.

Read the full report from Malaysia Bureau Chief Shannon Teoh: Ousted BN govt's land swop deals draw scrutiny


There is growing concern that a record drought in North Korea could seriously disrupt already strained food supplies in the impoverished regime. And even as South Korea looks to send food aid, it is being hampered the souring of the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang since the failed summit in Vietnam. Reports today say that though the US has been half-hearted in its promise to ease hurdles for humanitarian aid, especially in light of recent weapons tests by thee regime.

The big picture:  Reliable information coming out of the secretive regime is hard to come by but the official KCNA  has said this week that the country is seeing the lowest rainfall it has had since 1982. That raises the spectre of a large scale humanitarian crisis. The UN World Food Programme says that more than 10 million North Koreans are in urgent need. A famine in the 1990s killed up to a million North Koreans.

Further reading:

Weapons tests, stalled talks complicate South Korea's push for food aid to North

'Extreme drought' in North Korea: KCNA


Malaysia is looking to review its laws governing social media after a teenage girl reportedly took her life because a poll she ran on Instagram encouraged her to do so. The case has sparked a strong reaction both in Malaysia and around the world and Malaysian Communications Minister Gobind Singh Deo said the country’s laws need to be amended to prevent future incidents.

What would the laws address? He did not provide details but discussions in the aftermath of the incident have focused on whether Instagram could have blocked the poll and whether it is possible to prosecute netizens who voted for her to end her life.

Full report: Malaysian minister looking to amend law to fight cyber bullying after teen's suicide


Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks on the “stupid” clash of civilisations may have made all the headlines yesterday, but a different part of his speech also raised some eyebrows online. While talking about preserving cultural heritage, he rattled of a list of five sites as examples of the diversity of civilisations. The five: the ancient city of Samarkhand in Uzbekistan, Luxor temple in Egypt, Wat Phra Kaew in Thailand, Acropolis in Greece and Sentosa in Singapore.

What caught attention was the mention of Sentosa - the site of the first Trump-Kim summit but otherwise a resort island with limited cultural heritage - in the same breath of some the world’s most prominent ancient landmarks.

One wonders how long before Sentosa includes this in its marketing material.

Other developments:

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres raised concerns that a concrete dome built last century to contain waste from atomic bomb tests is leaking radioactive material into the Pacific.

Mr Bob Hawke, one of Australia's longest serving prime ministers, died today just days ahead of a federal election, the opposition Labor party said. Mr Hawke, 89, served from 1983 to 1991 and counted floating the Australian dollar among his crowning achievements. A shiny stainless steel sculpture created by Jeff Koons in 1986, inspired by a child’s inflatable toy, sold at Christie’s for US$91.1 million (S$125 million) with fees. It beat the record at auction for a work by a living artist, set just last November by David Hockney.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading and see you tomorrow.

- Jeremy