December 29, 2005
The Year in Asia, 2005
By Todd Crowell
The simmering feud between Japan and China was the most important
continuing story in Asia during 2005. Even as the year ended, Japanese
foreign minister Taro Aso irritated the Chinese once again by publicly
asserting that China’s military buildup posed a threat. Relations
between the two countries worsened significantly during the year,
strained by competition over natural resources, leadership in East
Asia and wartime history. They blew up in a short-lived spate of
anti-Japanese demonstrations in the spring, while the authorities
looked away. Chinese officials refused to meet with Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi at two regional meetings near the end of the year,
protesting his regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial
to Japan’s war dead. Yet trade relations deepened, and China
displaced the U.S. as Japan’s most important trading partner.
Other important developments of the year:
adopts anti-secession law aimed at Taiwan.
firm fails in bid to buy Unocal
September election blowout.
economy finally recovering
Korea claims to have nuclear weapons
electorate turns on ruling party
Korean fabricates cloning research.
corners and kills master bomber
toxic spill in Northeast China
China’s National People’s Congress approved an “anti-secession”
law pledging to attack should Taiwan formally declare independence.
But the Chinese government almost immediately softened the blow
by inviting Lien Chan, leader of the opposition Kuomintang Party,
to visit Beijing in May, the first such formal contact between
the two historic antagonists. Meanwhile, the U.S. escalated its
pressure on Taiwan to boost defense spending and pass an important
defense appropriations bill that has been opposed in the Legislature.
At year’s end the appropriations bill was defeated again
– for the 42nd time.
It was probably
inevitable, given its growing economic resources, that China would
emulate the Japanese by buying American companies. But the bid
by the CNOOC, one of China’s three state-owned petroleum
companies, to buy the Unocal Corp. of Los Angeles, revealed suppressed
anxieties and unexpectedly strong opposition from Congress. The
fact that it was an oil company during a summer of rising gasoline
prices didn’t help. Chinese washing machine maker Haier’s
simultaneous bid to buy the ailing Maytag (also unsuccessful),
made it look like the Chinese were set on taking over everything.
Eventually the Unocal board decided to accept the somewhat lower
bid from the American rival Chevron. But the Chinese will be back
upper chamber of Japan’s Diet defeated Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi’s plan to privatize the Japanese post office (which
includes its mammoth postal savings system), the premier dissolved
parliament, purged the dissenters in his party and called for
a new election. The press focused on Koizumi’s efforts to
recruit celebrities and others (dubbed “assassins”)
to run against them. By the time the press tired of this story
angle the election was on and Koizumi’s increased his majority
by more than 80 seats, unquestionably the slickest political success
by anyone, anywhere, during the year. Oh yes, the new Diet passed
the postal bills.
This is the
year that Japan finally began to pull itself out of a 15-year
economic slump. There have, of course, been false dawns before,
and the projected GDP growth rate of 2-3 percent, doesn’t
seem so dazzling set against China (whose economy was discovered
to be about 17 percent bigger than previously thought). But the
sheer size of Japan’s economy means that even that modest
growth should have an important ripple effect. All the signs are
there for a recovery: the stock market gained 30% during the year,
property prices in central Tokyo are rising again, consumer prices
are up, the job market, especially for new graduates, seems to
be brisk. If that were not proof enough, Toyota Motor Co. announced
that it would overtake General Motors as the world’s largest
automobile maker next year.
the official voice of North Korea announced: “We have manufactured
nuclear weapons for self-defense.” This story might have
ranked higher had the North Koreans proved the assertion beyond
doubt by setting one off. Nevertheless, problem of North Korea’s
nuclear weapons ambitions was a dominant theme for the year. The
Six-Party talks in Beijing seemed to meet with some success when
the conference issued a joint statement that the parties had agreed
in principle to de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The
talks broke off at that point and would not resume until 2006,
Democratic Progressive Party suffered an historic defeat in local
elections held Dec. 4. The opposition Kuomintang and its allies
won mayors and county councils in subdivisions that had been bedrock
DPP strongholds for years. The election seems to set the stage
for capturing the presidency in 2008. As elsewhere, politics in
Taiwan is local, and one can read a little too much into outside
influences. But it would seem that, in contrast to 1996 and 2000
when Beijing boosted DPP prospects through intimidation, its friendly
cultivation of KMT leaders, including offering such goodies as
eliminating tariffs on Taiwan fruit, paid off handsomely.
All of South
Korea basked in the reflected glory of its “supreme scientist,”
Hwang Woo Suk. He seemed to have single-handedly catapulted Korea
into the forefront of biotechnology with his claims, published
in respected journals, of successes in cloning. Then it all collapsed
when his research was revealed to be based on deliberate fabrications.
returned to Bali in October, when three suicide bombers blew themselves
up in restaurants of a seaside resort, killing about a dozen people.
Less than one month later, Jakarta’s special forces cornered
and killed one of the two masterminds of this and other bombings
in Indonesia, Azhara bin Husin. The swiftness underscored the
fact that Indonesia emerged in 2005 as one of the success stories
of the global war on terrorism. Arrests and internal dissension
have severely weakened Southeast Asia’s principal Islamic
terrorist group, the Jemaah Islamyiah.
have thought the Chinese authorities learned their lesson after
the SARS cover up unraveled. But it is hard to shed old habits.
When a petrochemical plant south of Harbin exploded Nov. 13 sending
100 tons of toxic benzene into the Songha River, the first reaction
of the authorities was to stonewall. The city officials explained
that they were shutting off the water supply for this city of
3.8 million to carry out “repairs and inspections”
on the system. The true story soon emerged, thanks largely to
efforts of journalists working for the China Youth Daily.
non-story of the year
the biggest non-story of 2005 was Beijing’s decision to
“revalue” the reminbi, China’s undervalued currency.
In July Beijing announced it was linking it to a basket of currencies.
But as of year’s end, the reminbi had scarcely budged more
than 2 per cent. Meanwhile, the Japanese yen fell some 18 percent
during the year, a situation seemingly unnoticed by anyone except
maybe in Detroit. General Motor’s Chairman Rick Wagoner
published an editorial in the Washington Post in December
claiming that moves by Tokyo to lower the value of the yen gave
Japanese automakers an unfair advantage selling cars in the U.S.
Asia correspondent Todd Crowell comments on Asian affairs at Asia