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Japan’s Gigantic Stockpile of Plutonium

On Monday, Beijing said it was “extremely concerned” that Japan had resisted returning more than 300 kilograms of plutonium, most of it weapons-grade, to the United States. The material, purchased from America in the 1960s for research purposes, is enough to make 50 nuclear weapons.

Some think Tokyo will agree to hand back the fissile material in March, at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Even if it does so, the loss will hardly put a dent in its stockpile: the Japanese possess 44 tons of plutonium. Three-quarters of this fissile material is stored in other countries, but Japan has kept 10 tons on its own soil. Those 10 tons are enough to build about 1,500 nuclear weapons. 

Putin, East Asia’s New Power Broker

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy few days of diplomacy in Sochi as the Winter Olympics opened there last week, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday. Analysts say that, by scheduling the meetings as he did, Putin was using the occasion to expand his influence in East Asia.

Up until now, the dour Russian leader has shown little interest in that part of the world, preferring to devote himself to the “near abroad,” his country’s western border, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Yet an increasingly nasty struggle embroiling China and Japan has given Putin an opening in East Asia—and leverage. Says Liang Yunxiang of Peking University, “Both countries attach great importance to their relationship with Russia as they hope he will play an active role in regional security and they want his support amid the dispute over the uninhabited islands.”

Mao and Militarization at China's Spring Festival Gala

China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala, which bills itself as “the most watched television event in the world,” was heavy on Cultural Revolution images this year. The show, a five-hour variety program airing the evening of January 30th, featured a performance of a portion of The Red Detachment of Women, one of the “eight model plays” endorsed by the notorious Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife and ringleader of the Gang of Four. The host of the event, Zhu Jun, appeared in Mao-like apparel to introduce the much-discussed segment.

There were other propagandistic elements to this year’s gala, such as the patriotic “My Chinese Dream,” a song reinforcing one of the major themes of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rule. Organizers also included two revolutionary ballads. That there was propaganda in CCTV’s show is not news. It is noteworthy, however, that the state broadcaster reached back in such a heavy-handed way to Maoist times.

The Cycle of North Korean Provocations

North Korea is now telling the world that South Korea’s joint military exercises with the US might trigger an “unimaginable disaster.” This warning, delivered in New York on Friday by Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN, looks like the beginning of the third stage in the North’s most recent campaign of provocations.

Analysts correctly see the Kim regime as unpredictable, but there are some observable patterns in its behavior, and this year it looks as if the North is following a classic one. In his New Year’s speech, young ruler Kim Jong Un expressed hope for better relations with South Korea. There was a catch, however. The offer, as it became clear, was conditioned on the South dropping its annual military exercises with the US. This was Stage 1, an apparently friendly gesture.

Hanoi's Symbolic Pushback Against Chinese Expansionism

For the first time, Hanoi has formally marked the deaths of 74 South Vietnamese sailors killed in an attempt to dislodge Chinese forces occupying several of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government, many believe, is trying to stay ahead of public sentiment. On Sunday, the 40th anniversary of the sea battle, activists in Vietnam’s capital shouted anti-China slogans and laid flowers at the statue of Ly Thai To, a nationalist figure. Police allowed the unauthorized event to go on for about a half hour before dispersing the crowd.

Why Is China Blaming America for Its Flawed Dam Project?

The Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. (ACHC) issued its first social responsibility report in late December on the Myitsone dam, which it is building in northern Burma. Activists immediately—and accurately—called the report “propaganda.” 

In 2009, ACHC, a Sino-Burmese consortium controlled by a Chinese state-owned entity, began work on Myitsone, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. It will be the first dam on that vital waterway and a part of a seven-dam cascade, a $20 billion undertaking.

China’s Water Crisis Made Worse by Policy Failures

On Friday, the National Development and Reform Commission announced that China will, by the end of 2015, put in place a three-tier pricing structure for water. Heavy users will pay more under the new system, which will cover all cities but not all towns. The Wall Street Journal called it “the first stab at actual resource-sector reform” after November’s Third Plenum.

Technically, it’s the first announcement of a future stab because it remains to be seen whether significantly higher charges, which will surely be unpopular, will in fact be imposed. If there were political will, the NDRC would likely have put the new and urgently needed price restructuring system in place much sooner.

Bickering US Asian Allies Complicate Regional Security

On December 26th, Shinzo Abe paid his respects to Japan’s war dead at the Yasukuni shrine.

The US expressed disappointment at the visit, the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister since 2006. Others expressed disgust. No reaction was stronger than the one from Seoul. Washington’s two main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, can’t get along, and that animosity undermines America’s ability to defend them.

Abe said his visit to the Shinto shrine was personal, and meant “to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,” but few in Asia accepted the explanation. Fourteen “Class A” war criminals, including wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, are enshrined at Yasukuni, and visits there are deeply resented throughout East Asia, even in countries maintaining good relations with Tokyo.  

China’s Credit Crunch—and Prospects for a Crash

John-Paul Smith, who predicted the 1998 Russian stock market collapse, sees China’s equity markets tanking soon. “There is potential for a debt trap in industrial companies which can trigger an economy-wide financial crisis as early as next year,” said Smith, now a strategist at Deutsche Bank, in an interview this month. China today, Smith says, resembles Russia before its markets flopped 15 years ago.

China analysts, when they think about debt, focus on out-of-control municipalities and their notorious local government financing vehicles, but, as Smith reminds us, it could be Chinese corporate debt that will be responsible for the world’s next great equity crash.

North Korea and China's Resurgent Militaries

Last Thursday’s surprise execution of Jang Song Thaek in North Korea may well suggest that a fundamental shift in the balance of power is taking place in Pyongyang. If so, it seems likely that the country’s military—at least for now—is winning in the rough game of Kim-style politics. A similar shift might also be taking shape in Beijing, where Chinese generals and admirals seem to be gaining influence in Communist Party circles. The rise of the two militaries is bound to profoundly affect an already troubled region.

Is Beijing Stacking the Deck in Hong Kong?

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, released the city’s first consultative paper on electoral reform (pdf). At stake is who gets to choose the next leader—the “chief executive”—of the freest place in the People’s Republic of China.

In the last “election,” which took place last year, Beijing essentially picked the chief executive by informally making its preference known to a select group in Hong Kong—1,200 notables in a city of more than 7 million—that constituted the Election Committee, which formally made the choice. The process was deeply unpopular and will surely change in time for the next election.

North Korea Detains 85-Year-Old American Veteran

On October 26th, two uniformed North Korean officers marched Merrill Newman off his plane just before it departed the regimented state for Beijing. The 85-year-old Korean War veteran has not been heard from since. Bob Hamrdla, who traveled with him on the 10-day trip, said his detention “has to be a terrible misunderstanding.” Newman’s wife, in a statement issued from her home in Palo Alto, California, used the same word.

America the Generous

After Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines this month, Beijing announced a contribution to Manila of $100,000. Derided almost everywhere for its stinginess, China then reconsidered. Beijing then said it would make a subsequent gift of $1.64 million and extended the offer of rescue and medical assistance teams.

Are China's Dissidents Becoming Violent?

In the central Chinese city of Taiyuan last Wednesday, seven nearly simultaneous explosions killed one person and injured eight others, according to official reports.

“At the time of going to press, there was no indication that Wednesday’s serial blasts involved terrorism,” the Global Times, the Communist Party–run newspaper, wrote on the day after the incident. The suggestion of terrorism, however, was unmistakable, even then. Police had found fragments of circuit boards at the sites of the detonations, an indication that they were the result of homemade devices. Also, “finger-length long nails” and ball bearings littered the scenes, conclusive proof of an intention to harm passersby.

Putin the Powerful?

Last week, Forbes named Vladimir Putin the world’s most powerful person. The Russian president edged out the American and Chinese leaders. Barack Obama came in second and Xi Jinping third in the magazine’s fifth-annual list.

So congratulations to President Putin. Yet his perch at the top could be short-lived. It’s true, as Steve Forbes explained, his publication ranked people and not countries, but Putin’s fortunes and influence, no matter the strength of his personality, will diminish as his country’s accelerating economic decline and irrelevance continue, as seems inevitable today.

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