David Pilling

Some people view the US and China as being in fierce competition: for jobs, for technology, for sea lanes and ultimately for control. Others see a symbiotic relationship between a Chinese producer and a US consumer, between a US provider of technology, know-how and branding and a Chinese provider of cheap labour and lax pollution laws.

Stephen Roach, Yale professor and former chairman and chief economist of Morgan Stanley, sees something more like an old married couple in serious need of counselling. He uses the word “codependency”, a psychologists’ term for an inherently unstable relationship that keeps getting worse over time. This is the idea – only a bit of a stretch, he says – that forms the subtitle of his new book Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China. Read more

David Pilling

AFP

I had the privilege this week of listening to a lecture by Hans Rosling, professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. Many will have seen his engaging performances on Youtube or in Ted talks . He’s the one with the endearing Swedish accent – he says “yust” for “just” – and the animated charts that show nations as variously sized, coloured bubbles moving dramatically over time. He also uses a pointer with a little hand attached to the end.

His message is basically an optimistic one: that poor countries are rapidly converging on richer ones as their birth rates fall to sustainable levels and as their victory over preventable disease and premature death allows them to advance economically. Most of the world is now between what he calls “light bulb” and “washing machine” – in other words advancing up the lower rungs of the “middle classs”. Read more

David Pilling

Demonstrators march in support of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in Hong Kong (Getty)

Behind the shiny skyscrapers and business friendly reputation of Hong Kong lies a darker side. One of the attractions of the city for expatriate bankers and middle-class Chinese residents alike is the plentiful supply of domestic help at a very “reasonable” cost. A live-in maid, working six days a week, often for very long hours, is paid a minimum monthly wage of around $515.

The arrest this week of a woman accused of torturing her Indonesian maid over a six-month period highlights the extreme vulnerability of overseas domestic workers to exploitation. Many are virtually locked away in the ranks of tower blocks that crowd in on Hong Kong Harbour and beyond, away from scrutiny. Maids tend to leave the house only when they run errands or walk the dog – or on Sundays, the statutory day off, when the concrete walkways and tiny parks of Hong Kong are taken over by encampments of domestic workers with nowhere else to go. Read more

David Pilling

A survivor in Tacloban (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Typhoon Haiyan, which swept through the central Philippines hurling makeshift homes and shacks through the air like so many matchboxes, should remind us of something pretty basic. The Philippines remains an extremely poor country.

In recent years, the southeast Asian country of nearly 100m people has deservedly gained the attention of investors. It has gradually shed its image as the basket-case of Asia and attracted serious inflows of foreign capital. Since 2010, it has had a president, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino, who has put in place the most credible administration in a generation.

Mr Aquino has made genuine, if imperfect, efforts to tackle endemic corruption, to improve infrastructure and to crack down on tax evasion. The economy has grown fast, expanding for 58 straight quarters. In the first half of this year, it grew 7.6 per cent, bucking a downturn in much of the region and challenging China as the fastest-growing Asian economy. Read more

David Pilling

What can you trust in China these days? An investigative journalist who says a well-known company has allegedly been manipulating its financial results? Or the company that denies that point blank? How about a police force that crosses provincial lines to arrest the “offending” journalist on suspicion of damaging that company’s commercial reputation?

Above all, can we now trust the confession of the journalist – paraded on state TV with head shaved and in handcuffs – admitting that he was paid to falsify those stories? Read more

David Pilling

Shinzo Abe speaks at the Guildhall (Getty)

Shinzo Abe didn’t tell his British audience at London’s Guildhall anything new about Abenomics, his programme to reflate Japan’s economy back to health. But it is worth listening once again to the impassioned language with which he endeavoured to sell it.

Not since Junichiro Koizumi, the last prime minister to promise radical reform, has Japan had a leader so obviously energised by a sense of his own destiny. Mr Abe does not possess the charisma of the Elvis-loving Koizumi, but what he lacks in appeal he makes up for in zeal.

Mr Abe pledged to be “a drill bit that will break through [the] bedrock” of Japanese regulations. He promised to be “afire, burning with all the political strength I can muster”. To allow Japan’s economy to shrink would not just be unfortunate, he said, it would be nothing less than a “cardinal sin”. (In nominal terms, at least, Japan has evidently been a sinful place in recent years.) Read more

David Pilling

A recent cartoon in the China Daily depicted the Statue of Liberty holding a listening device instead of a torch and a tape-recorder in place of a legal tablet. The Global Times, in both its Chinese and English editions, noted what it said was US “aggressiveness in cyberspace” and its “hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another” – a reference to Washington’s demands that China stop its nefarious hacking campaign. The Global Times even suggested Beijing keep Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who leaked information about US domestic and international information-gathering activities, and milk him for all the information he’s worth. “This concerns China’s national interest,” it said. Read more

David Pilling

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 22: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen on a television monitor during a news conference on February 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. Abe is in Washington to meet with President Obama and discuss economic and security ties. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Shinzo Abe in Washington on February 22 (Getty)

It’s rare that the sequel is better than the original movie, but so far Shinzo Abe II is doing much better at the box office than its ill-fated prequel. As we approach the first 100 days in office mark, here are five differences (and a few similarities) between Shinzo Abe I and Shinzo Abe II.

1. Shinzo Abe I had a dull subtitle. Constitutional Amendment failed to excite the public and never got anywhere. Deflation Slayer, on the other hand, the subtitle for Shinzo Abe II, has got everyone talking, from bond traders and currency speculators to ordinary Japanese fed up with economic drift.

2. It is often forgotten that Shinzo Abe I, released in October 2006, had a strong opening. Abe travelled to Beijing and mended relations with China. But the movie quickly trailed off as the plot foundered on a boring and jerky narrative involving disappearing pension records and a series of ministerial scandals. Shinzo Abe II was strong even before the opening credits rolled. Many audience members were so excited that shares soared and the yen weakened even before Abe appeared in the opening scene.

3. The plot of Shinzo Abe II is intriguing. It starts off as a story about a bold economic experiment, but no one knows how it will end. Will the Japanese economy at last gain some traction after 20 years in the doldrums? Or will the gamble end in catastrophe with hyperinflation and capital flight? Read more

David Pilling

Built five years ago, Myanmar's capital is still eerily quiet. (AFP)

At Naypyidaw’s international airport, members of staff in stylish uniforms are at their posts behind ranks of check-in counters. The large departure hall is brightly lit and the air temperature pleasantly cooled. Two pilots and a glamorous young air hostess in traditional Burmese dress breeze across the polished marble floor of a terminal that would grace any European capital.

The only thing missing in this palace of modernity is passengers.

The airport was completed last December on the edge of a ghostly city that had itself not formally existed until November of 2005. After several years of construction, the generals who then ran Myanmar announced without warning that they had built a new capital in the interior of the country 200 miles north of Yangon. Government ministries were to relocate immediately.

 Read more

David Pilling

Aung San Suu Kyi arriving in New Delhi. (AFP)

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s opposition leader, gave an exceptionally interesting interview to the Hindu newspaper ahead of her trip on Tuesday to India, her first visit since she studied there as a schoolgirl nearly half a century ago.

The interview is worth reading in its entirety.

On whether she had ambitions to succeed Thein Sein as president after elections due in 2015, the 67-year-old recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was pretty unequivocal.

“I’d be prepared to take over the position of president. Not so much because I want to be president of a country but because I want the president of the country to be elected through the will of the people.”

She added that she believes her party, the National League for Democracy, “has the people behind it” but made no reference to the recent divisions within it.

An important test of the irreversibility of reform, she said, would be the military’s willingness to change parts of the 2008 constitution that were undemocratic. This would include sections that guarantee the military one-quarter of parliamentary seats as well as a provision – aimed explicitly against her – that bars people married to foreigners from becoming leader. Such changes would need to be made in advance of the 2015 elections, she said. Read more