Asian Insider June 7: East Asia stares at a slowdown; Australia and Singapore deepen ties

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

East Asia stares at a slowdown

Even before the International Monetary Fund released its estimates, and after, the numbers have been trickling in on the economic front and have not been comforting. East Asia was looking at a marginal improvement in growth in the coming months but with US-China trade tensions showing no signs of a resolution, and because of other reasons, the region seems to be staring at a slowdown. Take a look:

- Latest data released in Japan shows that household spending rose less than expected in April, while real wages declined, which bodes ill for an economy already hurting from a slump in exports to China. Data for the country's revised GDP for January-March is due on Monday.

- IMF has lowered China's growth forecast for this year to 6.2 per cent from 6.3 per cent, just two months after upgrading it. "The near-term outlook remains particularly uncertain, " IMF deputy managing director David Lipton said. This though, he says, the policy stimulus announced by Chinese authorities so far would be sufficient to stabilise growth in 2019 and 2020.

- Meanwhile, South Korea's economy unexpectedly shrank in the first quarter, reports say. This was the economy's worst performance since the global financial crisis with government spending far from adequate and companies cutting down on investments.

What's the outlook?: It seems unpredictable at the moment. Here are some reports:

Quick US-China trade deal unlikely, says former Chinese commerce minister Chen Deming

Trump to decide on US$300 billion China tariffs after G-20 meeting 

Australia and Singapore deepen relationship

Australian PM Scott Morrison opted to make his first overseas visit to Singapore. And both countries are exploring deeper collaboration in areas such as cyber security, food security and the digital economy, our political correspondent Adrian Lim reports.

More on the relationship: Bilateral trade between Singapore and Australia grew by 25 per cent year on year in 2018 and is expected to grow further, with an upgraded free trade agreement in force since 2017. Tourism has grown substantially and the two countries are due to sign a defence treaty this year to finalise an arrangement to jointly develop military training areas in Queensland.

Why this matters: The Australian PM's visit comes at a time of growing global uncertainty and continuing efforts by both countries to manage their relationships with the United States and China.

Go deeper:

US-China trade war does not represent 'binary choice' for rest of world: Australian PM Scott Morrison

Are the superpowers heading for a collision, or can they be frenemies?

What does the US-China trade war mean for Asia and Singapore: 10 must-reads

Appointment of Malaysia's new anti-graft chief causes a stir

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's appointment of a new anti-graft chief is causing a stir. In fact, when her name was first announced earlier this week, some thought it was a hoax. The 46-year-old lawyer and activist, Latheefa Beebi Koya, is known to be fearless and outspoken. But that's not the only reason.

What's going on?: It's hard to say. Mahathir's making it evidently clear that at 93, he is in control and is keeping his cards close to his chest. The thinking has been that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition he leads will let Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim succeed him as PM. But the wait continues. Anwar has asked Mahathir to clarify his decision. Latheefa, has been a member of PKR's central committee and has represented several PKR leaders in court, although she has quit the party now. 

Fighting corruption in Malaysia: The appointment comes at a sensitive time and follows the sudden resignation of Malaysia's former anti-graft chief Mohd Shukri Abdull, earlier this week. Shukri was due to complete his tenure at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in May, 2020. Brought back by Mahathir, he is credited with sewing up several corruption investigations involving the previous administration and its then Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who is now on trial for his role in cases tied to IMalaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

Go deeper: Latheefa must climb the proverbial mountain to bring change to system

Political patronage continues under Pakatan Harapan

A flutter in Vietnam and Cambodia over Singapore PM's remarks

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Facebook post on a Vietnam-Cambodia issue tied to developments in 1978, seems to have sparked anger in both countries.

What did he say? PM wrote on his Facebook page that he had written to Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to express his condolences on the death of former Thai premier and Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda on May 26. In praising Gen Prem's capabilities as a leader, Mr Lee said the former leader's premiership coincided with the then-five Asean members - Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore - coming together to oppose "Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge".

What is the objection? Vietnam's Foreign Ministry has said the remarks did not "objectively reflect the historical truth" and the Cambodian Defence Minister General Tea Banh said the comments don't reflect history. The post has received over 26,000 comments. But views vary.   

Read more online: Vietnam's objections to PM Lee Hsien Loong's post don't detract from Singapore being a 'good friend'

Unsuspecting Pakistani brides bound for China

Relations between China and Pakistan could be on an upswing, but a disturbing trend is also taking shape. In the past several months, reports have emerged of Pakistani women being married off to Chinese men and getting sold into prostitution once they are in China. 

Other developments:

Russia has welcomed Huawei's role in helping to develop the next-generation wireless technology in the country. Moscow's role comes as the US is trying to convince allies that the Chinese company poses a security risk.

A flare-up seems to be building between the US and Russia, in the Philippine Sea, after the US Navy said a Russian destroyer almost collided with one of its guided missile cruisers. Russia has said the US ship had acted dangerously.  

Almost 3,000 lawyers, dressed in black, gathered at the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong for a silent protest on Thursday, to urge the Hong Kong government to drop a proposed legislation that will allow the city to hand over fugitives to various jurisdictions, such as Taiwan and, more importantly, mainland China. The government is due to table the extradition Bill at a full Legislative Council meeting on June 12.  

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Those are the key headlines for today. Thanks for reading and we’ll catch you again, after the weekend. Have a good one.

Shefali