Asian Insider May 6: Trade-talks endgame? Trump threatens more tariffs

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

WITH TRADE TALKS ON THE LINE, TRUMP RETURNS TO A FAVOURITE THREAT

Days before trade negotiators from the US and China are scheduled to meet for the umpteenth time, US President Donald Trump fires off a series of bombshell tweets threatening to new tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods.

Why is Trump doing this?  Experts say they expect the threats are an Art Of The Deal-type tactic to put pressure on the Chinese to move on some of the bigger stumbling blocks in trade talks. According to recent reports, China wants the new deal to come with tariffs being lifted immediately, while the US wants to keep them in place for awhile.

How China will react?  There has been no official response from Beijing, though most do not expect China will take kindly to such a gambit. It is entirely possible that China would call Trump’s bluff and withdraw its negotiator from this week’s trade talks. Fresh shots fired in the trade war could prove potentially chaotic for the global economy and if Trump goes through on his promise, it would mean there would be tariffs on nearly everything China sells to the US.

The full story from our Washington bureau: Trump threatens to hike tariffs on $272 billion of China goods, escalating tension in trade talks

Market reax: Singapore shares sink 3% amid Asia rout after Trump escalates on China tariffs

MALAYSIA’S FIRST FEMALE CHIEF JUSTICE TAKES OATH OF OFFICE

Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat today officially became the first woman to be named chief justice in Malaysia as she took her oath of office before the King in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Why it matters: First there is the symbolism. All 15 of Malaysia’s former chief justices have been men and all other chief justices across South-east Asia right now are men. Second, there is the timing. She ascends to the top of the judiciary at a time when Malaysia’s courts are dealing with its highest profile case. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently on trial for corruption related to the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia, turning much attention in the country and the region on he often criticised justice system there.

The latest: Malaysia's first woman Chief Justice Tengku Maimun takes oath of office before Kin

AFTER THE QUICK COUNT IN INDONESIA, A SLOW COUNT

It’s been over two weeks since pollsters declared incumbent President Joko Widodo as the winner of the April 17 Indonesian election, and the Election commission is now only beginning to indicate that the so-called quick count projections were correct. As of today, the latest count from the elections commissions gives Jokowi a 13 point lead with nearly 70 per cent of the vote counted.

The big picture: For the past two weeks, Jokowi’s challenger Prabowo Subianto has insisted that he had won the election, saying the projections from pollsters were incorrect. The lull between Polling Day and the release of official results has led to an uneasy tension in Indonesia. The seemingly decisive official margin undercuts a lot of Prabowo’s claims but military and police remain on alert for protests.

Report from ST’s bureau in Jakarta: Jokowi's lead at presidential race widens as elections commission completes 68 per cent of vote coun

BRUNEI WON’T ENFORCE DEATH PENALTY FOR GAY SEX, SAYS SULTAN

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, in a speech to mark the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, has broken his silence on the controversial laws adopted by the state that last month sparked a high-profile global backlash. It announced in April that it was rolling out laws that included punishing sodomy, adultery and rape with death, including by stoning.

The big picture: The sultan had largely remained silent in the fierce criticism, even as his government officials sought to play down the portrayal of Brunei as a fundamental Muslim state. His comments also gel with sentiments from ordinary Bruneians who had told The Straits Times they were amused by the fierce reaction to the proposed laws.

The latestSultan Hassanal Bolkiah says Brunei won't enforce gay death penalty amid backlash

Background reading: Bruneians not fussed about the implementation of syariah law

ST EXCLUSIVE: REPORTS FROM INDIA’S HEARTLAND

For the past two weeks, The Straits Times associate editor Ravi Velloor has been travelling in the Indian heartland, entering the homes of the poorest in the countryside as well as people in urban areas, sometimes braving 43 deg C heat in the plains. In the second of his three reports, he tracks the Gandhis and the Congress Party to Wayanad in the south as it tries to bounce back from its crippling defeat during the Modi wave of 2014.

Eye on India: Congress seeks southern comfort

AND FINALLY, PUTTING A CAT AMONG THE CHICKENS

This is for those who have some interested in the finer details of Thai royal protocol. Thailand is currently holding three days of coronation events for King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was officially crowned on Saturday. It is tradition at coronations to present a cat as part of the ceremony. However, a photo of the royal feline offering has caused a stir on Thai social media, with many questioning if the cat on offer was a doll instead of a live cat. Adding to the intrigue is the seeming insistence by officials to not provide the answer. Said one palace official to Reuters: “It should not be the focus whether the animals were real or not, but instead the ritual itself is important."

For non-cat coverage of the coronation, Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee joined thousands on the streets of Bangkok for the festivities.

Other developments

Malaysia has quietly handed over former Goldman Sachs investment banker Roger Ng to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) following secret negotiations that began early this year.

Malaysian sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional is set to monetise its stake in telco giant Axiata in a deal with Norway's Telenor, with a major tie-up of their Asian operations.

That’s it for today, thanks for reading and see you tomorrow

-Jeremy