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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of March 14, 2014

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
March 14, 2014

International school students light candles to pray for passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, on March 10, 2014. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters) International school students light candles to pray for passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, on March 10, 2014. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Lauren Dickey, Darcie Draudt, Charles McClean, Will Piekos, and Sharone Tobias look at the top stories in Asia today.

1. Missing Malaysia Airlines flight leaves the fate of 239 passengers shrouded in mystery. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared Saturday, and its fate has still not been determined nearly a week after it vanished from radar screens. The most recent information indicates that the plane was deliberately flown off course, making a sharp left and flying hundreds of miles toward India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar islands. India has now joined twelve other countries and more than one hundred ships and aircraft in the search mission, which has extended into the Indian ocean. While no cause has been ruled out for the disappearance, officials are increasingly suspecting foul play, possibly by crew or passengers with aviation experience. The search has been plagued by false leads and contradictory reports: an oil slick found in the Gulf of Thailand was dismissed as unrelated; debris spotted by Vietnam turned out to be trash or wood; and the search radius has been repeatedly expanded. Chinese officials have expressed frustration with Malaysia’s lack of transparency throughout the investigation; two-thirds of the passengers on the flight were Chinese nationals. The fact that two passengers were able to board the flight on fake passports has also exposed serious security gaps in Kuala Lumpur’s airport and focused attention on the black market for stolen passports in Southeast Asia. The passengers with fake passports do not seem to have terrorist ties and are likely Iranian nationals attempting to flee to Europe.

2. Chinese exports unexpectedly low. Chinese exports unexpectedly declined 18.1 percent in February from last year, the biggest drop since the global financial crisis. According to China’s General Administration of Customs in Beijing, the sudden decline left a trade deficit of $22.98 billion for the month. The drop in exports reverberated globally, taking a toll on commodity prices and stock markets. At the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang encouraged the 7.5 percent annual GDP growth target to remain flexible as “severe challenges” lie ahead for the Chinese economy.

3. Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of preventing delivery of supplies in Ayungin Shoal. Manila has lodged a protest with China after two civilian supply vessels attempting to resupply sailors in the Ayungin Shoal (known as Ren’ai in China) were obstructed by a Chinese coastguard vessel. The Philippines claims the shoal is part of its continental shelf, while China claims much of the South China Sea, including the shoal, for itself. Supplies were later airdropped to the sailors, who occupy a military hospital ship that was intentionally grounded in 1999. The Chinese foreign ministry asserted that the supply vessels in fact carried construction materials to reinforce the Filipino presence on the shoal.

4. North Korea uses front companies, embassies to conduct illegal arms trade, UN report finds. The United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea found that North Korea continues to trade prohibited goods, including weapons and materials used in nuclear weapons development. The report alleges that front companies and possibly even the North Korean missions to Cuba and Singapore may be involved in the illegal trade activity. The report also refers to foreign suppliers for North Korea’s missile program, and a rocket test-fired into sea in December 2012 was found to contain parts from China, the United States, the former Soviet Union, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. The UN Security Council voted on March 5, 2014, to extend the mandate of the panel of experts by thirteen months, through April 2015.

5. Abe announces Japanese support for the United States in Ukraine crisis. On March 7, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe promised U.S. president Barack Obama that Tokyo would back U.S. efforts to address the Ukraine crisis, including economic sanctions against Russia. Japan’s foreign minister Fumio Kishida said the same day that Japan would also consider giving financial assistance to Ukraine through the International Monetary Fund. The announcements marked a shift in policy, as Tokyo was initially hesitant to back sanctions because of its dependence on Russia for energy imports. Japan also postponed a visit set for this week by Russia’s military chief Valeriy Gerasimov, who was to discuss defense exchanges with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. Meanwhile, Shotaro Yachi, head of Japan’s new National Security Council, traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and explained Tokyo’s desire to see a peaceful end to the crisis and respect for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Bonus: North Korea reelects Kim Jong-un with 100 percent of votes. North Korean state media reported that 100 percent of all registered voters went to the polls for this week’s legislative elections. In a country where voting is mandatory and there is only one yes/no option on the ballot consisting of a single candidate, 100 percent of the voters chose to re-elect Kim Jong-un to the country’s parliament. Citizens celebrated this “single-minded solidarity” for Mr. Kim with singing, dancing, and poetry; Kim Jong-un celebrated with his sister, in her first official appearance. These quinquennial elections allow the North Korean state to keep tabs on its population and bolster Kim Jong-un’s right to rule.

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