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Japan-China Relations: The Power of Gyoza March 20, 2008

Posted by genchan in Asian, China, Food, Health, Japan, Politics.
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Who would have thought that gyozas can become an issue affecting high level bilateral ties between two nations. Then again, nothing seems too surprising when it comes to Sino-Japanese relationship. For those who are fully aware of the icy thin political relations between the two Asian giants, one can’t help but ponder what next.

The gyoza saga is receiving high level attention simply because proper mechanisms are not in place to handle such incidents at the lower level. Certainly, more of such issues would crop up in the not-so-distant future considering the fact that bilateral trade is on the rise and the demand for cheaper food products is there in Japan.

However, cheaper foods can also mean improper food preparation to cut cost. This is where the gap lies – the stringent requirements of food preparation by the Japanese and the lack of legislation to ensure food safety by the Chinese. Unless the gap can be substantially reduced through mechanisms of understanding and enforcement, incidents such as the gyoza issue will continue to prevent healthy recovery of bilateral ties.

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Tainted ‘gyoza’ poisoning bilateral ties

By Frank Ching (The Japan Times, Monday, March 17, 2008)

HONG KONG — The tainted “gyoza” dumpling scare in Japan has caused the delay of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Tokyo and, if not properly handled, could result in the unraveling of the dramatic improvement in bilateral relations achieved since October 2006, when Shinzo Abe broke the ice by visiting Beijing shortly after he became prime minister, followed by Premier Wen Jiabao’s “ice melting” trip to Japan last spring.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda added to the momentum when he visited Beijing and other cities in China last December and invited President Hu Jintao to visit Japan in the spring, “when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.”

Much hinges on this pending visit, which will be the first Chinese presidential visit to Japan in a decade and will fall on the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty in 1978.

In the dumpling incident, 10 people were taken ill after eating imported Chinese dumplings tainted with an organo-phosphate insecticide called methamidophos. The subsequent media frenzy resulted in thousands of others reporting that they, too, felt sick after eating imported Chinese dumplings.

Consumption of Chinese food plummeted from 57.9 percent before the incident to 21.6 percent afterward. Kyodo News conducted a telephone survey and found that 75.9 percent of respondents said that they “will not use Chinese food from now on.”

China is Japan’s second-largest source of food imports after the United States and accounts for over half its imported frozen products, so the economic impact can be huge. But even more important is the potential damage to the political relationship between the two countries, which has only started to mend recently.

Although both countries agreed to cooperate in investigations into the dumpling incident, their respective investigative agencies ended up arguing over the origin of the toxins found in the dumplings.

Chinese officials have cleared Tianyang Food, in Shijiazhuang, in Hebei province, which made the dumplings, saying its strict quality-control measures make it almost impossible to introduce toxic substances. Chinese police have said there was little chance the dumplings were contaminated in China, directly contradicting the position taken by Japanese police.

Japanese investigators have noted that methamidophos is banned in Japan and so it is unlikely that the contamination took place in Japan.

China is saying that this is not a case of food safety, but rather of sabotage by someone who wants to harm Japan-China relations.

Well, if that is the case, the saboteur has been incredibly successful, as China and Japan are trading accusations. And now, the Hu visit, originally planned for late March or April, has been pushed back to the middle of May.

Moreover, the two sides have still not reached agreement on the dispute over gas exploration in the East China Sea, where there are overlapping territorial claims. They have agreed on the principle of joint development but, so far, there has been no agreement on the exact location where drilling will take place.

However, China has reportedly agreed to recognize a Japanese-drawn median line in the East China Sea. Even if this median line is acknowledged simply for the purposes of joint exploration and not territorial sovereignty, it is still a major step forward.

China’s ambassador to Japan, Cui Tiankai, has said the issue will be sorted out before President Hu’s trip. This issue, too, could cause a delay of the presidential visit.

What with the Abe-Wen-Fukuda visits, the two countries have been on a roll, and momentum for the improvement of relations has been building up over the last 17 months. However, if the dumpling issue and the East China Sea dispute continue to drag on, this momentum could be lost.

Actually, if need be, the two countries can set aside the dumpling issue and focus on the bigger issue of food safety. On that, it is clear, their interests are identical. China needs to export and Japan needs to import food, and this can only work if steps are taken to ensure that the food is safe from production through its appearance on supermarket shelves.

The disclosure that the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress, is considering food safety legislation is an encouraging sign and, one hopes, the saga of tainted Chinese food products may be coming to an end.

A breakthrough on the East China Sea is also vital. The presidential trip cannot be delayed indefinitely. The cherry blossoms, after all, start to bloom in late March and it is a stretch to say that they are still blooming in mid-May. But there can be no further delay.

New Malaysian Politics – NEP still matters? March 14, 2008

Posted by genchan in General, Government, Malaysia, Politics.
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Been thinking about what the recent 2008 general election in Malaysia meant for the NEP – an affirmative action program put in place by the ruling government in the early 1970s to assist the poor Malays.

If the article below is of any indication, the NEP that has often been used to rally support from the Malays comes election in the past no longer seemed effective. The idea that the Malays need to depend on the ruling government for their economic well being through the NEP seems less realistic today than 10 or 20 years ago.

The ability of the Opposition to wrestle and legitimately set up their governments in five states could indicate that the Malays are comfortable of their socio-economic standing and are eager to compete on a level playing field. This notion is supported by the fact that the Opposition will be dismantling the NEP based on race and replacing it with one based on need.

Obviously, old politics no longer hold. This could well signal the emergence of a matured civil society capable of making decisions without emotional attachments. Such an emergence, if holds true, could bode well for the country’s shift towards a more participatory and open democracy.

Postscript (17 March): To be certain, the NEP no longer exists since 1990 when it was replaced by the New Development Policy (NDP). However, critics observed that it was more of a name change than real substance primarily because many of the tangible economic benefits offered under the NEP policies continue to exist. Thus, the discussion here focuses more on that than the literal sense.

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Nazri: We may see end of NEP

KUALA LUMPUR: The election results signal the beginning of the possible demise of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and special rights for the Malays, said Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.

The Umno supreme council member said it appeared that the Malays, especially in the town areas, had become more confident now and felt they could compete with the other races on a level playing field.

“We (Umno) have to really sit down and think. It looks like the educated Malays do not care about Malay rights anymore,” he said when contacted.

“The Malay doctors, lawyers, engineers feel they have made it on their own merit.

“It looks like the NEP is not something that can be used to persuade the Malays to support the Barisan Nasional.

“The Malays are saying ‘you can’t scare us by talking about us losing our rights, because we are here on our own merit’.”

Nazri said it looked like some Malays felt that the NEP was unfair, and questioned

why special rights should be given to the Malays.

He described the new confidence among the Malays as good for the Malay psyche.

In the just concluded election, the Barisan only managed a simple majority in Parliament, and lost five states (Kedah, Selangor, Kelantan, Penang and Perak) to the Opposition.

The Opposition had largely said they would dismantle the NEP and put in a place a new affirmative action policy based on need rather than race.

Nazri, who retained his Padang Rengas

parliamentary seat by a majority of

1,749 votes, said he barely survived the political tsunami.

He said the youngsters – Chinese, Indians and Malays – who returned from Kuala Lumpur to vote in Perak had tried to persuade their parents, who are Barisan supporters, to either not go out to vote or vote for the Opposition.

“I only survived because of my personal touch with the voters,” he said.

He believed the political landscape in the country had changed irreversibly and that all parties would now have to work harder.

“Every wakil rakyat will have to work to win the hearts of the people. This is good for Malaysia because, at the end of the day, it is the rakyat who benefits,” he said.

Malaysian Election 2008: Towards New Politics March 10, 2008

Posted by genchan in General, Government, Malaysia, Politics.
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The 12th Malaysian general election was held on the 8th of March 2008 (Saturday). 13 days of election campaign saw a fiesta of banners, posters, party flags, talks, dinners and seminars as candidates of both ruling and opposition parties went all out to woo the people with their manifestos and pledges. stateseats1.jpg

As the polls closed at 5 pm, news about the results began to spread that started from around 7 pm and went on throughout the night. Thanks to the advancement of IT, handphones and SMS became the main channel in spreading the unofficial results of both state and parlimentary seats.

Unlike the 2004 general election, this round saw some monumental changes in Malaysian politics whereby states that were strongholds of the ruling party fell to the opposition camp. If 2004 saw one state under the opposition, 2008 saw a record five. Apart from Kelantan (PAS), Penang (DAP-PKR), Kedah (PAS), Perak and Selangor (PKR) will see new leaderships. It is a record indeed simply for the fact that never in the history of Malaysia have so many states been lost to the opposition since Malaysia gained independence 50 years ago.

Overall, Barisan Nasional (the ruling party) continues to run the country, not with a 2/3 majority (like in 2004) but a simple majority. The implications are such that the new BN government would be facing a tougher time in making laws and passing bills due to a louder opposition voice now taking office in parliament. Government actions would also be more closely scrutinized and carefully watched.

As for the states under opposition rule, there will be some exciting times ahead as the new local governments bring in their own brand of politics. The mandate for the new brand has been given by the people. The hope of the people is that this new brand would taste sweeter, better and more oomph than the old brand. However, whether it will come true or not remains to be seen.

As test cases, what transpires in those five states in the next five years could have serious implications for the future of Malaysian politics and as such should not be taken lightly. One can equally expect the ruling government to soul-search and work to win back the hearts of the people that it has unwittingly lost.

Malaysians are in for an exciting and important journey as politics in the country takes a new turn.

One thing seems to be clear from this election is that what once used to be blue does not continue to stay blue forever…  

For some more info on the election, see
http://thestar.com.my/election/

http://thestar.com.my/election/results/results.html

Malaysia’s Malaise November 29, 2007

Posted by genchan in Government, Malaysia, Politics.
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International Herald Tribune (Opinion)

By Philip Bowring (November 12, 2007)

Malaysia is in a political cul-de-sac, resulting in an erosion of national institutions and the entrenchment of corruption. Recent events show that awareness of these problems is growing, but Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is politically too feeble to implement his good intentions, increasing the difficulty of reconciling the interests of the Malay/Muslim majority with the non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that make up 45 percent of the population.

Public disquiet and Abdullah’s own weakness were on display in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday when some 40,000 people, headed by the leaders of the three opposition parties and including former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and representatives of a wide range of NGOs, defied a government ban to march to the palace of the king, the titular head of state, to petition for clean and fair elections.

This peaceful multiethnic event followed an equally unprecedented speech two weeks earlier by Sultan Azlan Shah, a respected former chief law officer who is also one of the nation’s nine hereditary rulers.

Azlan referred to a loss of confidence in the judiciary as a result of questionable appointments and judgments perceived to be driven by politics and money. He noted that its once high reputation had sunk dramatically, quoting a recent World Bank survey. Azlan is believed to be behind a revolt by the sultans against approving – normally a rubber stamp process – the appointment as chief justice of a legal adviser to the governing party with little experience on the bench.

Among current cases that have raised questions about the legal system is the conduct of the trial of Razak Baginda, a close associate of Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak, and two of Najib’s bodyguards for the murder of Baginda’s former mistress. Baginda was closely involved in arms deals with France.

The publicity given to the Azlan speech and the Baginda trial point to the greater openness of Malaysia under Abdullah compared with his authoritarian predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad. But though Mahathir was much-criticized for politicizing the judiciary and institutionalizing money politics, he was able to get things done. Abdullah, on the other hand, is seen to have largely – though not entirely – failed to deliver on his promises of cleaner government.

The fault lies less with his personality than with the structure of politics. Abdullah argues that the ballot box and Parliament are the places for political action, not street demonstrations. However, neither is likely to deliver change while race-based politics ensures continuation of the 50-year rule by the United Malays National Organization, which feeds off the economic privileges that the Malays accord themselves.

To keep the loyalty of Malay voters UMNO has both to outflank the Parti Islam and to divert attention from the enrichment of a small Malay elite at the expense of the Malays. Parti Islam is prone to stomach-churning speeches about Malay dominance and hypocritical displays of Islamic fervor that offend Malaysia’s plural reality and its secular Constitution.

Nothing can change as long as most non-Malays continue to grudgingly support UMNO rule for fear that the Parti Islam alternative would be worse, or while the non-Malay capitalist class remains wealthy enough to pay tribute to a Malay elite. In its own behavior this elite is liberal and internationalist, but for political purposes encourages the lower-income Malays to think in communal ways.

Judging by their attendance at the rally on Saturday, lower-income Malays may be becoming disillusioned with policies that mostly benefit the elite. But UMNO’s grip is strong.

Abdullah might in principle want to reform UMNO, bring in more of the Malay professional middle classes who rely on their own abilities rather than the patronage system, and give more senior government jobs to non-Malays. But he is proving to be a prisoner of the party, its money politics, its dynastic tendencies and its desire to occupy the higher reaches of the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the many quasi-government businesses.

Meanwhile, for all their ability to join together in a demonstration against the government, the two largest opposition parties – Parti Islam and the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party – are at either end of the race/religion spectrum. The multiracial middle ground now occupied by Anwar’s party has thus far had limited appeal.

None of this may seems to matter too much when the economy is expanding, thanks to record prices for oil, palm oil and other exports. But income inequality is bad and getting worse. Malaysia’s political stability may be threatened the next time there is a recession, and there is reason to worry about Malaysia’s ability to become a developed country when its institutions are corrupted by a stagnant, race-based political system that may have outlived its time.

Irrelevant funny feedback for a lecturer February 4, 2007

Posted by genchan in Education, General, Singapore, Video, You Tube.
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For those of us who have attended university lectures are required to give our evaluation of the lectures we attend including the competency of the lecturer and his/her teaching style.

For those who have received feedback from students would know how their teaching has or has not benefited the students they taught.

However, not much of us know what the others wrote unless the lecturer him/herself is prepared to share it with the class. So, here is one lecturer (probably of Indian descent) from Singapore’s NTU sharing his evaluation with his students in this interesting video below. You will have a good laugh, so enjoy. I know I did :)

The early part of the video is not relevant. Try to start off at 02:00 mins onwards.

Globalization – widening the gap of inequality? February 3, 2007

Posted by genchan in East Asia, General, Globalization, Government, Japan, Singapore.
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Much efforts have been put into defining ‘globalization’ and yet the term remains as elusive as ever. In essence, it is used to refer to the rapid spread of information, technology, ideas, goods and services, labor and capital across national borders causing the thick ‘walls’ that have for centuries gave meaning to sovereignty become porous and bringing the world closer in time and space.

Countries that defy the tide of change have often been warned of being left behind by their more assertive neighbors. Fearing being left out, countries warn their citizens to rise to the occasion and adapt to the changes in order to reap the benefits of globalization and help their nations develop. Globalization is thus seen as an opportunity to modernize and democratize in line with global values and choices. This means the opening up of a closed or regulated market to foreign capital, loosening up of borders to labor migration and importing of new technologies and creative ideas, among others.

While many realize the need to globalize, approaches have been varied from those taking a cautious approach to those fully embracing it. For the cautious ones, they are skeptical of the true benefits that globalization brings to a country and its people citing incompatibility with traditional cultural values, religion, political structure and practices and the belief that globalization equates westernization as reasons.

Globalization is a generic term and it would be a fallacy to equate it with westernization. However, the advancement of science and technology in the West has allowed the Western world to ‘export’ their influence and interests ahead of others to other regions of the world. The same could be said of Japan exporting its popular culture such as manga, anime, cuisines and music to Asia and the West.

Due to the differences in the configuration of each country and its set of people, the impact of globalization would logically be uneven and disparate. Not only does it causes disparities between economies, it affects the social stratification within state societies as well.

Take Singapore as an example. With a population of about 4 million people, it has often been lauded as a successful city-state which has embraced globalization to its best advantage. A tiny island lacking in natural resources and agricultural sector, it depends heavily on trade and finance with the outside world. Singapore is one of the first countries in the East Asian region to sign bilateral free trade deals with other countries and its global focus exemplifies its interest to reap the benefits of a global economy on offer.

With smart policies in place, Singapore has been able to grow at an average of 7.6%, in what Newsweek (Jan. 29, 2007) considers as “a staggering pace for an industrialized state”. While its macroeconomics are impressive and may be the envy of others, its microeconomics are less so. The magazine reported that 30% of Singapore’s poorest (approx. 1.2 million) are in fact worse off compared to 5 years ago. The wealthiest 10% have increased their income by 2.3% while the poorest 10% saw a drop by 4.3% annually over a 5 year period. This in effect expands the gap of inequality and could eventually lead to social instability. Writes the magazine, “what’s surprising is that even a country famous for its smart and transparent leadership has been unable to prevent the gains of globalization from flowing mostly to rich individuals and multinational corporations”.

Realizing the problem of disparity, the Singapore government has been taking steps to reduce the gap through various programs. Singapore’s case indicates that:

  1. riding the wave of globalization allow countries to prosper but causes side-effects such as unequal wealth distribution that could strain delicate social safety nets unless corrected by innovative policies.
  2. Such side-effects may have wider and deeper implications for countries with higher population and/or lower social cohesion.

The same can be said of Japan.  Ever since the country went into economic recession and stagnation, successive leaders have been focusing on ways to reform and bring the country closer inline with global trends by opening up its market to foreign competition and labor. The forceful reforms, according to some, are affecting the balance of wealth that, if left unchecked, leads to an expanding gap between the haves and have-nots.

The fear is real since Japan has long been able to pride itself on its ability to maintain equal wealth distribution and stable middle class population. This has given rise to debates on how to avoid, if not overcome, the problem of winners (勝ち組) and losers (負け組み). Japan’s social problems today ranges from the ending of life-time employment and declining birthrates to the increasing of job-hopping part-timers (freeters) and aging population. Corporate restructurings are contributing to unemployment while the younger generation are snubbing the path that their parents took opting for more freedom through temporary jobs. Long established social norms and barriers are preventing the ones cast-aside from rebounding.  

Realizing that Japan does have an adequate safety net in place to help those that get left behind by globalization, PM Abe is working on what he calls “challenge-again assistance measures” in his Sept. 2006 speech as below:

The kind of society that Japan should aim at is a society in which the efforts of people are rewarded, a society in which there is no stratification into winners and losers, and a society in which ways of working, learning, and living are diverse and multi-tracked- in other words, a society of opportunity where everyone has a chance to challenge again. If there are people who sense they are facing inequality, it is the role of politics to shed light on them. I will promote comprehensive “Challenge Again Assistance Measures” as an important task of my Cabinet.

 The “challenge again” (再チャレンジ) concept is meant to provide opportunities and pave the way for those that have fallen to rise again to the challenge and not to choose the convenient way of committing suicide in times of hardship. As a central policy, PM Abe is commited and has gone as far as creating the post of Minister of State for Challenge Again to oversee its implementations.

The concept covers 3 central pillars – shaking off employment difficulties and economic hardship brought by deflation, equal opportunities, and achieving a multi-track society (Japan +, Feb. 2007). The first pillar is to assist freeters to find stable employment through training. The second pillar is to enable the weak (primarily women and the elderly) and the disabled to support themselves such as reemployment of women after child raising. The third pillar is to change the structure of society in ways that would make it easy for people to achieve the lifestyle of their choice even at different stages of life such as helping those who would like to move from the cities to the countrysides  and engage in agriculture or forestry.

Globalization knows no borders and morals. A double-edged sword, it could benefit mankind but also help to spread vice. Its impact on societies is anything but homogenous. Therefore, countries would have to come up with their own unique measures and efforts to cope with external influence and internal changes. 

Japan’s legislative structure – main points January 27, 2007

Posted by genchan in General, Government, Japan, Politics.
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diet.jpg

Some of us may have difficulties following Japanese politics due to a lack of understanding of its complicated legislative structure and changing political system.

In line with the start of its ordinary session (see PM Abe’s opening address here and report here) as the year’s budget draft is being discussed in the Diet till the end of March, The Japan Times (Jan. 23, 2007) has provided some reference points or quick notes on the meaning of DIET, its constitution, types of sessions and the various parties in the two Houses as below:

The Diet is the center of Japanese politics. It’s where ruling and opposition lawmakers play power games and employ tactics in both open and backroom negotiations. With this year’s ordinary legislative session set to start Thursday, following are some basic facts about the parliamentary system:

Why is the legislature called the Diet?

The prewar parliament under the Meiji Constitution was modeled on that of imperial Germany, which is called the Diet in English. The term dates to the assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled most of Central Europe from 962 to 1806. Imperial Germany was chosen as the state model because Japanese leaders wanted a powerful system centered on the Emperor.

What constitutes the Diet?

The Diet consists of the 480-seat House of Representatives, also called the Lower House, and the 242-seat House of Councilors, or the Upper House.

What are the functional differences between the two chambers?

The House of Representatives is more powerful. As a general rule, a legislative bill must clear both chambers before enactment, but the decision of the Lower House prevails on three key issues: selection of the prime minister, adoption of the budget and approval of a treaty.

Even if the Upper House votes down a bill, the Lower House can override the decision with support of two-thirds or more of its members.

What kinds of sessions are held by the Diet?

The Diet holds ordinary, extraordinary and special sessions.

An ordinary session is convened once a year, usually in late January. It runs for 150 days until mid-June.

The main focus for the first three months of an ordinary session is the year’s budget draft, because the fiscal year ends on March 31.

After the ordinary session, the Cabinet usually convenes an extraordinary session in the fall to deliberate pending bills.

A special session is convened to choose a new prime minister within 30 days of a general election.

How does the length of a Diet session affect politics?

All bills submitted to the Diet are automatically scrapped at the end of a session unless action is taken to carry them over to the next session. Thus, opposition parties often try to kill a bill backed by the government and ruling camp by dragging out the deliberations in protest.

The prime minister often delivers a televised speech at the beginning of a Diet session. Why?

The prime minister delivers the General Policy Speech at the outset of ordinary sessions to outline policy plans for the year, followed by similar speeches by the finance minister, foreign minister, and economic and fiscal policy minister.

The prime minister also must deliver a policy speech at the outset of extraordinary and special sessions. Other ministers deliver speeches for those sessions when considered necessary.

What is the current strength of each party in the two chambers?

The ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — hold a majority in both chambers. A breakdown for Lower House seats (female Diet members are in parentheses) shows the LDP holds 306 (27), the Democratic Party of Japan and Club of Independents 113 (10), New Komeito 31 (four), the Japanese Communist Party nine (two), the Social Democratic Party seven (two), People’s New Party and Group of Independents five (none), and independents nine (none).

In the Upper House, the LDP has 111 (12), the DPJ and Shin-Ryokufukai 82 (11), New Komeito 24 (five), the JCP nine (three), the SDP six (one), PNP four (one), independents four (one), and two seats vacant.

China’s anti-satellite weapon test January 24, 2007

Posted by genchan in China, General, Government, Security.
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The militarization of space has begun – so warn some overly concerned pundits. Militarization of space? Has the militarization on earth been so advance that we are now taking it to the next stage?

Not exactly. But at least the concern is real. This is about the latest news on China first reported by an aerospace trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology (story here) that the Chinese successfully shot down one of its own aging weather satellite (Fengyun-1C) with a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile on Jan. 11.

With this news, it is now known that the US, former USSR and China are the only three countries in history to have anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) capability.

Before we get into the implications of China’s action, it is necessary to note that while the test marked the first successful use of a ground-based weapon, it is not unprecedented. A quick check on Wiki will reveal that the exploration of anti-satellite weapons dates back to the 1960s with the US and USSR separately engaging in the development and deployment of such space weapons. The USSR tested theirs by spewing out pellets from one satellite to destroy another in orbit and the US, though failed in their test fire in 1983, was successful in intercepting its own satellite P78 SolWind in September 1985 using a kinetic energy weapon launched from an airborne plane.

US’s ASAT program was made part of its broader Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” to use ground- and space- based systems to protect the country from nuclear missiles. That unilateral action raised the stakes with the USSR sparking fears of a new arms race at that time that prompted a shift in the minute hand of the doomsday clock to 3 mins to midnight in 1984 (BAS).

While the tests carried out by the US and USSR can be framed within the context of the Cold War, why is China test firing theirs at a time like this? And now that China has proven its capability, what implications would it have on international relations and the future use of outer space?

The fact that a missile was launched from a Chinese base and destroyed a Chinese satellite in space while keeping mum about it does not reflect well on a growing power that has pledged to rise ‘peacefully’ and take responsibility for its actions. The opaqueness of its military and space programs and rocket technology including its status as a nuclear power inevitably add to the problem. It is therefore only natural that other countries have voiced their concerns and called on Beijing to explain its military intentions in space. When a country behave in ways that other countries fail to comprehend, it immediately raises doubts and concerns more so in areas related to security. This could add further tension to a strained Japan-China relations as Japan sees the matter as a security threat (Japan Times, Jan. 20, 2007).

It should have taken precautions by alerting other countries of its move since it should know very well that such acts would not go undetected and would certainly affect relations with other countries. Keeping silence about it while denying that China has any ambition to militarize space would only leave doubts on those fearing an attack in space. What was China trying to prove? Was it trying to surprise the world that it now has space offensive weapons or was it just a reckless act trying to get rid of its defunct satellite from orbit? 

If its a cheap shot at removing one of its aging satellites, it is indeed a reckless act. This is because blowing up a satellite in space at a height of 850km from earth will contribute to space debris that will continue to remain in space for at least a decade. This is on top of some 14,000 pieces already floating around since Soviet’s Sputnik I launch in 1957, with about 200 new pieces added every year (The Japan Times, Jan. 22, 2007). As quoted in Defensetech.org, the Chinese test could “lead to nearly 800 debris fragments of size 10 cm or larger, nearly 40,000 debris fragments with size between 1 and 10 cm, and roughly 2 million fragments of size 1 mm or larger,” and that “roughly half of the debris fragments with size 1 cm or larger would stay in orbit for more than a decade.”

It is not only the concern of space junk per se but how such debris with some smaller pieces travelling at about 29,000 kph could cause damage to other orbiting satellites, the International Space Station (ISS) and shuttle missions in space. NASA’s space shuttles have rerouted their paths a dozen times since the Challenger exploded in 1986 and the ISS also had to maneuver several times to avoid space debris (Japan Times, Jan. 22, 2007). Eventually, meteors will no longer be our only concern.

The most pressing concern for most nations, however, is whether China has the capability to blow up spy satellites and GPS tracking satellites orbiting at higher altitudes (about 20,000 km up). The US has a network of these satellites in orbit and depends heavily on them for information gathering/reconnaissance and guidance including its operation of missile defense system. The Newscientistspace reported that the Chinese test is a low technology and can be easily applied by other countries as well. It is hard to conceive China as a credible threat since it would require more testings and much more advanced systems to come close to directly challenge the US. Thus, it would be somewhat premature to immediately conclude that China is capable of or intends to destroy Western strategic satellites, though it does give the country some leverage of holding Western satellites hostage at least in theory. If anything, it clearly shows China’s resolve to beef up its military capabilities in the hope of acquiring a place among the great powers in sync with its growing economic clout.

Nonetheless, if left unattended, the problem could escalate with the US and Japan upgrading their satellites with defensive and/or offensive capabilities, effectively contributing to a new arms race in space. A return to the Cold War ages with China and the US at opposite poles would be the last thing we want.

To avoid such escalations and prevent other countries from having any great ideas, its high time the Outer Space treaty, where the US and China are signatories, be upgraded to include a ban on ASATs testing or the use of lasers to take out orbiting satellites. There should be binding rules that would guarantee the use of space only for peaceful means.

Nuclear doomsday – 5 mins to midnight! January 23, 2007

Posted by genchan in General, Globalization, Nuclear, Security, World.
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Though my focus is on events in the East Asian region, I found this extremely interesting and decided to blog about it since it has ramification for both the region of my interest and the world at large.

To begin, how much of us are even aware of such a thing called a doomsday clock (pic above)? I for one was unaware of it until I read about it recently. Just a few days ago, Japanese TV made a documentary in line with this clock timeline to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons and how close we have come to a nuclear doomsday.

Certainly, Japan would know best as it is the only victim of nuclear weapons in the world. Every year, Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminds us of the destruction caused to mankind that has continued to reverberate decades later.

The doomsday clock is an indicator of how close our world is to a nuclear catastrophe. Created and ‘maintained’ by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists(BAS), it “evoked both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero)”. BAS was founded by University of Chicago scientists who were directly involved in the Manhattan Project (that gave birth to the world’s first atomic weapon) and therefore realized the consequences associated with nuclear force. Because of the organization’s reputation and the fact that its board of sponsors include 18 Nobel laureates, the clock plays an important role in ‘assessing’ the vulnerability of our world to nuclear threats, health epidemic and global warming.

Since the US rained two bombs on Japan, the former Soviet Union have tested theirs and until late 1980s, the world were divided into two blocs – the West vs the East, with each trying to outperform the other under what we have come to accept as the Cold War period. The end of the Cold War marked a new beginning as it effectively stopped the nuclear arms race between the two poles. If the minute hand was at 6 mins to midnight in 1988, it was at 17 mins (11:43) in 1991 (the furthest ever).

The future was supposed to be bright as the US and SU agreed to dismantle their large stockpile of nuclear warheads and as the world move from bipolarity to multipolarity and militarization to economic development.

Yet today, we are nearer to doomsday than ever before. The world did change after the collapse of the Berlin Wall but it did not change for the better. BAS justify their decision to shift the minute hand this year as below:

The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.

Currently, both the US and Russia still hold large quantities of nuclear arsenals. Russia has 15,000 nuclear weapons and the US still has about 10,000, with each side having more than 1000 on high alert that can be deployed in minutes. “Both countries would need to dismantle one weapon a day for the next 25 years to even approach the stockpile size of any of the other nuclear weapon states” (BAS website).

Countries possessing nuclear weapons have also grown in number. At present, there are nine countries possessing nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Libya would have been the tenth if not for their decision to abort and dismantle their’s. If Iran succeeds and joins in, it would not only increase the number but contribute to more complication especially when the US considers Iran as a rogue state and part of the axis of evil. Terrorism is another fear of weapons falling into the wrong hands. This is not to mention the possibility of accidents coming from a misfiring due to miscommunication, malfunction or system deterioration.

If nuclear proliferation starts spliting up the world again, dismantling of nuclear stockpiles (one of the recommendations of BAS) would be the least thinkable. Already, various moves have been taken in furthering ballistic missile defense system that could lead to an unending cycle of arms race.

This is the ugly side of the rise of globalization and the use of high-tech such as nano-technology. Information is shared easily and weapons are shrunk down but yet packed with more force. As our world become ever more connected in time and space, we become even more vulnerable to desolation.  

We might need to ponder what will happen when the hand strikes twelve. It would certainly be worse than the Cinderella story of the chariot turning into a pumpkin. While Cinderella does not have the power to turn back the clock, we do. The doomsday clock has been adjusted 18 times since 1947 and its time for us to adjust it as far back as we can for the 19th time or else….

Japan’s agriculture sector remains protected January 22, 2007

Posted by genchan in Economics, General, Government, Japan.
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It is no secret that Japan has for decades protected its agriculture sector with significant subsidies and high tariff rates. Its not only Japan but most advanced countries like the US and EU have done the same and earned the wrath of developing nations.

And while nobody dares to bet that Japan today has fully opened its farm sector, it remains less known how much Japan has been able to open up its farm products to foreign competition compared to, say, other OECD countries.

Facing a steep battle with vested interest groups who are not only traditional supporters of the ruling party LDP but also defenders of locally produced farm goods, the government is using unconventional methods such as free trade agreements (FTAs) to put pressure on farm trade liberalization. Reducing tariffs through FTAs do help increase importation of foreign farm products but are limited in their capability since sensitive items such as rice, often excluded from FTAs, would need stronger political will to overcome than what external pressures can offer. It is also worth noting that the exclusion of certain farm items from negotiation demonstrates the constraints and pressures from domestic lobbyists.

According to The Japan Times (Jan. 18, 2007), subsidies for farmers and tariff rates for agricultural items have remained high compared to imports in other sectors.  The paper reported on a biennial trade policy review report on Japan issued by the WTO which said that “farm subsidies amounted to 1.3 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, and the ratio of subsidies was almost equal to the share of farm product output in GDP at 1.4 percent”.

The report found that the “overall level of (Japanese) government assistance for agriculture is well above the (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average” and that “tariffs on imports of agricultural products remain high in Japan, with the average coming to 18.8 percent, compared with an average of 6.9 percent for other imports”.

The report (to be made public after a meeting from Jan. 31 – Feb. 2) indicates at least three things: 

  1. FTAs have yet to make an impact on Japan’s domestic farm trade.
  2. Farmers continue to be heavily subsidized by the government.
  3. Structural and regulatory reforms in other sectors like finance, economics, government, education etc. have not been followed successfully by agriculture. 
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