Asia

Over the past year, there have been security and war scares all over East Asia – but Taiwan, the traditional hot spot, remained strikingly cool. In recent months, Japan and China have jostled over their disputed islands and the North Koreans have threatened America and the South with nuclear weapons. By contrast, Taiwan has not been at the centre of a good war scare since the Straits crisis of 1996. Visiting the island, a few weeks ago, I was told by a senior member of the security establishment that – “We look like an island of calm in a boiling sea.”

Perhaps the Taiwanese were feeling left out? Because, together with China, they have succeeded in creating some waves over the past week. First, the Taiwanese government staged its first live-fire security exercise since 2008. And this event was swiftly followed by the revelation that China has deployed missiles near the island that are capable of threatening American aircraft carriers. This is significant, because the carriers are the basis of American power in the Pacific. And, in the Straits crisis of the mid-90s, it was the dispatch of US carriers to the area that signalled that America was taking a tough stance. Read more

Is war with North Korea imminent?

In the last two weeks, tension on the Korean peninsula has risen dramatically, as North Korea has threatened to target US territories in the Pacific and blocked South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex in the North. In this week’s podcast, John Aglionby is joined by Geoff Dyer, diplomatic correspondent and Jamil Anderlini, Beijing bureau chief, to discuss whether Kim Jong-eun’s escalating rhetoric is purely sabre-rattling or if we should be worried about his threats.

The thing about MAD is that it requires both sides to be sane. Ever since the onset of the nuclear age, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, has kept the peace. The calculation that, ultimately, no rational political leadership would risk millions of deaths in their own nation has seen the world through some perilous moments – from the Cuba missile crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Sightings of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, are rare these days. He is 89, physically frail and was hospitalised briefly in February.

But on Wednesday he popped up at a conference organised by Standard Chartered bank in the city’s Shangri-la Hotel, taking part in a “fireside chat” with Paul Volcker, the 86-year old former US Federal Reserve chairman.

Most people in the audience, which included the finance minister of the Philippines, were probably just as interested to see how the architect of modern Singapore looked, as in what he might have to say.

The last time I can remember seeing him in any public setting was last August, when he made a surprise appearance at Singapore’s national day celebrations.

The night before, taxi drivers were telling their passengers that the great man had died. His appearance silenced that gossip, but Singaporeans have been more conscious of their former leader’s mortality ever since.

Lee looked thin on Wednesday, but was dressed sharply in a dark blue Chinese silk jacket, with red cuffs. He made his way unaided to the stage and sat down. The only concession to physical decline were the sports shoes on his feet, which presumably help him walk more comfortably.

Much of what the founder of modern Singapore thinks about the big geopolitical issues of the day are well-known.

He doesn’t think that conflict between the US and China is inevitable (China needs the US export market for a good while yet); he doesn’t think that an “Arab Spring” is possible in Asia (there isn’t the vast disparity in wealth and incomes that exist in the Middle East); and Japan risks “dissolving into nothingness” if it continues to refuse taking in migrants to boost its working age population. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

“Our intercontinental ballistic missiles are on standby … If we push the button, they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil … into a sea of fire.”

How dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear test?
Within hours of the North Korean nuclear test this week, the UN security council was meeting in emergency session. But how dangerous is this development, and what is likely to happen next? James Blitz, diplomatic and defence editor, Christian Oliver, former Seoul correspondent, and Simon Mundy, the current FT correspondent in Korea, join Gideon Rachman.

South Koreans burn pictures of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-eun after Pyongyang's nuclear test. (AP)

North Korea’s decision to conduct its third underground nuclear test will come as no surprise to governments around the world. Pyongyang has been making clear for some weeks that it planned a nuclear test at a “higher level” than its previous two in 2006 and 2009. Its decision to press ahead has already triggered widespread condemnation from the US and its allies. Now that the test has taken place, diplomats and nuclear experts will be asking four key questions about the nuclear explosion.

First, have the North Korans managed to developed a device that they can place on top of a long-range missile?

North Korea stated that the test used “a small and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously”. This will prompt fears that Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, in order to place it on top of a long range ballistic missile. Read more

The suggestion that the rise in tensions between China and Japan could lead to a world war is a grim one. So I hesitate to admit that I quite enjoyed writing last week’s column - largely because it sent me scrambling back to some old books on the origins of the first world war, that I have not looked at since I was a student. My original article has also provoked some interesting reactions from historians and political scientists.

Professor David Stevenson of the LSE wrote a letter to the FT, agreeing that there are disturbing parallels between events in the West Pacific now, and the prelude to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. He believes, however, that things will only become really dangerous, if and when the two sides become accustomed to the idea that they might go to war. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

The flickering black and white films of men going “over the top” in the first world war seem impossibly distant. Yet the idea that the great powers of today could never again stumble into a war, as they did in 1914, is far too complacent. The rising tensions between China, Japan and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago.

Facing a grilling: Chuck Hagel (Getty)

Chuck Hagel’s keenly awaited confirmation hearing on Thursday to be the next US defence secretary is likely to be dominated by the hot-button issues that have already got him into trouble with some of his fellow Republicans (and a few Democrats) – his position on Israel, his opposition to Iran sanctions, his criticism of the Iraq war and his views on gays.

If so, that will be a shame, because it would be both interesting and important to hear him explain what his brand of “principled realism” actually means for US foreign policy. The hearing could provide a seminal debate on America’s global role. Here are ten questions he should be asked.

1) Defence budget. You said in September 2011 that the defence budget was “bloated”. That was before the Pentagon announced $485bn in cuts over the next decade. Is the budget still bloated? Are more cuts possible or necessary?

2) Pentagon cuts. To meet the cuts that have already been announced, will the Pentagon need to axe some important capabilities? Can the US still afford all of its aircraft carrier groups? Is the F-35 jet fighter too expensive to support? Does the US need such a large presence in Europe? Read more

Lord Paul Boateng, former chief secretary to the treasury and the former UK high commissioner to South Africa, answers questions about his first trip to Davos.

1. Is this your first trip to Davos?

I have to confess that it is. I’ve reached a fairly advanced age without ever having felt Davos was for me. I have been an active participant, however, both as a cabinet minister and a diplomat at the spin offs in Mumbai and Cape Town where the WEF reaches out to the rest of the world.

2. What’s the best thing about going to Davos?

If you’ve got an idea or a product to sell then this is a quite unique market place. There are lots of serious people on the lookout for the next big idea or opportunity. A voracious media circus with the promise of global coverage also helps. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

Everybody agrees that economic and political power is moving east. Barack Obama has constructed a whole new foreign policy around this theory – the “pivot to Asia”. But, as I assemble my annual list of the five most important events of the year, it is striking how events in Europe and the Middle East still dominate.

South Korean students in Seoul sit a test (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

South Korean students in Seoul (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

A novelty that has emerged since the mid-1990s is the international standardised test solely designed to measure how good national school systems are – not individual schools nor their pupils. Today, two of the three big tests issued results.

The tests, TIMSS and PIRLS, measure basic learning skills and primary school performance respectively. (The third big test, the OECD’s PISA test, comes out next December. It measures higher order skills among 15 year-olds.)

The educational divide in the US is always startling: on the TIMSS maths test for teenagers, Alabama’s test scores put them in line with Armenia and behind Dubai. Meanwhile, Massachusetts comes in at around the same level as market-leader Japan.

These tests confirm the crowd of top performers: Korea, the Chinese cities and Singapore always do well. Not even Finland and Ontario, western school-reform pin-ups, have the degree of consistency that the Asian education superpowers do.

This will spark hand-wringing about school performance, but it is important to note the role of culture. As a really simple experiment to show this, we can look at how Chinese children in England do in their GCSE exams at the age of 16. Read more

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

By Gideon Rachman

Anybody might think that Susan Rice is gearing up for a confirmation hearing. Last week, the US ambassador to the UN tweeted: “I condemn today’s cowardly terrorist attack targeting innocents on a Tel Aviv bus.” Yet trawling back through her Twitter feed over the previous week, there is no indication that innocents might be dying anywhere else in the Middle East. The word “Gaza” is noticeable by its absence – although the ambassador did find time to hail America’s Transgender Day of Remembrance.

China’s new leadership
China has just completed its carefully-scripted, once-in-a-decade leadership transition. The Politburo was cut from nine to seven members and incoming general secretary and president Xi Jinping will also become head of the military. With these remaining uncertainties settled, Jamil Anderlini, Beijing bureau chief; James Blitz, diplomatic editor, and David Pilling, Asia editor, join John Aglionby to discuss how the new leadership will cope with an increasingly demanding population and whether the world will engage with Beijing any differently

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

China’s new leadership faces many challenges
China’s new leadership team is due be unveiled at the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins next week in Beijing.The transition takes place against a troubled background. The economy is slowing and tensions are rising in a territorial dispute with Japan. Bo Xilai, who once expected to promoted in the reshuffle, is instead about to go on trial, and the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, has just been accused in the New York Times of using his position to accumulate huge wealth for his family. James Kynge, editor of FT China Confidential, and David Pilling, Asia editor, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the state of China at this crucial juncture.

(MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, my son and I walked up to the Peak in Hong Kong. We set off from the wrong point, which meant that that the walk took longer than it should have – and we kept getting cut off, by private roads.

On the other hand, our circuitous route gave us the chance to stare into the front rooms, back gardens and swimming pools of some of the priciest properties in the world. For example, this modest town-house on Severn Road would set you back about $30m (that’s US). If you really want, you could spend twice that on a mere apartment in the most luxurious blocks in Hong Kong.

The downside of the incredible prices being fetched for Hong Kong property is that finding somewhere to live is increasingly tough for people on normal incomes. Now the Hong Kong government, normally noted for its laissez-faire attitude, has acted. Over the weekend it imposed a 15% stamp duty on property purchases by non-residents. Estate agents are predicting a sharp drop-off in interest from buyers from mainland China, who have been driving up prices. Read more