Asian Insider, May 19: Is a new trade war a-brewing, horse-trading in Malaysia, and how Philippines’ decades-old policy has put its people’s lives on the line

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

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In today’s bulletin: China waves trade threat at Australia, horse-trading is under way in Malaysia, a Thailand mall’s Covid-19 innovation, and how Philippines’ decades-old policy has put its people’s lives on the line.

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ON THE BRINK OF A NEW TRADE WAR?

China hit Australia with barley tariffs totalling more than 80 per cent on Tuesday (May 19), and has drawn up plans to boycott more Australian goods in the wake of Canberra’s calls for an inquiry into the coronavirus’ origins. Tuesday’s tariffs upend a billion-dollar trade between the two countries: Australia sells some A$2 billion (S$1.8 billion) worth of barley to China each year, accounting for more than half of its exports of the agricultural produce. 

China had only last week suspended some Australian beef imports, and now, the country’s exports of wine, seafood, oatmeal, fruit and dairy are also at risk, according to people familiar with the matter. Beijing does not intend to publicly acknowledge that its sanctions on Australian trade are politically motivated, the sources said. Canberra might seek the World Trade Organisation’s help to overturn the barley tariffs, Australian officials said even as they played down fears of a trade war and promised there would be no “tit-for-tat” response. 

China’s latest moves worsen already deteriorating ties with Australia and add to global unease over Beijing’s flexing of its military, economic and diplomatic power around the world. 

Delve deeper: 

China says Australia's claim of World Health Assembly vindication is 'a joke' 

Read also: 

Breaking up is hard to do - why China is a key node in supply chains: East Asia editor Goh Sui Noi

MALAYSIAN POLITICS HEATS UP

Horse-trading is under way in Malaysia as Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance sets its sights on wresting control of three of the four remaining states under opposition rule, after winning over his rival Mahathir Mohamad’s home state Kedah last week, Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh writes. 

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim says it is "very unlikely" the country’s current government will last until the next election and that it is “fearful” that a no-confidence vote against it will be successful. “The issue of the legitimacy of the government is in question now,” Mr Anwar said, even as his own Pakatan Harapan coalition lacks a simple majority in Parliament. 

Malaysia this week avoided a challenge to Mr Muhyiddin in the first parliamentary sitting since he took power, scheduling only a single day to accommodate a formal speech from the King and leaving no time for the opposition to start a motion of no confidence against Mr Muhyiddin, who rose to power in March after a week-long political crisis.

THE LATEST IN THE RACE FOR A CURE

Singapore researchers are partnering scientists abroad to develop treatments to counter the deadly coronavirus. Among them, homegrown Esco Aster has teamed up with US biotech firm Vivaldi Biosciences to create a vaccine that can tackle virus mutations as well. 

In China, Peking University scientists are working on a drug that may stop the pandemic even without a vaccine. The drug, which uses neutralising antibodies to shorten patients’ recovery time and even offer short-term immunity from the virus, has seen success at the animal testing stage. 

The United States is set to announce a US$354 million (S$502 million) deal with a new US-based firm to make generic drugs and pharmaceutical ingredients needed to treat the coronavirus but that are now manufactured overseas, mostly in India and China. The contract meshes US President Donald Trump’s “America First” economic promises with concerns that essential Covid-19 medicines be made in the US. 

Other coronavirus-related scientific studies: 

Summer unlikely to curb pandemic growth, immunity more important factor: Princeton study 

Covid-19 patients testing positive after recovery aren't infectious: South Korean study 

NASDAQ TO CURB CHINA’S IPO HOPEFULS

Nasdaq is set to reveal new rules on initial public offerings that will make it harder for some Chinese firms to list on its stock exchange, according to people familiar with the matter. While the US bourse operator will not pinpoint Chinese firms specifically, the curbs are driven by concerns over some Chinese IPO hopefuls’ lack of accounting transparency and close ties to powerful insiders, the sources said. The move represents the latest flashpoint amid escalating tensions between the world’s two biggest economies over trade, technology and the spread of the coronavirus.

FILIPINO NURSES PAY PAINFUL PRICE OF NATIONAL POLICY

As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the globe, Filipino immigrant nurses around the world are paying the heavy price of Philippines’ decades-old immigration policy that turned the nation into the world’s biggest exporter of nurses. Raul Dancel, our correspondent in Manila, tells of the workplace horrors a Filipino nurse in Britain has encountered. 

In Britain, at least 29 Filipino nurses have been killed from Covid-19 so far. In the US, at least 30 Filipino health workers have died in the New York-New Jersey region alone - the epicentre of the US outbreak - since the end of March. Taking on nursing jobs abroad - seen as a path to a better life for poor and middle class Filipinos and an escape route from the country’s political instability and crushing poverty - is now haunting the nation’s people. 

IN OTHER NEWS

THAILAND’S FOOT-OPERATED LIFTS: A shopping mall in Bangkok has won praise for its measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including installing foot-operated control panels in its lifts. The panels allow users to select the floor and operate the lift doors by pressing on the pedals with their feet, so as to avoid touching anything.

HEAVY SMOKERS, BEWARE: Public health experts have drawn a link between Indonesia’s high coronavirus death rate and its large population of heavy smokers. "Many of the fatalities from this coronavirus disease were contributed by the poor health of the patients' lungs, which were mostly because they are smokers," said Dr Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia. 

CHINA OFFERS CASH TO CURB WILDLIFE TRADE: Chinese farmers are being offered cash to quit breeding exotic animals as pressure grows to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade that has been blamed for the coronavirus outbreak. The authorities have for the first time pledged to buy out breeders in an attempt to curb the practice.

That’s it for today. Thank you for staying with us, and we’ll be back with more insightful reads for you tomorrow. 

Magdalene