|Asia News Digest
Thousands Demonstrate vs. U.S.-Thai Free-Trade Deal
Ten thousand people demonstrated in Chiang Mai, Thailand, against the planning meeting for a U.S.-Thai free-trade agreement. The U.S. is demanding that Thailand go far beyond the requirements of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in regard to patents and industrial property rights. The Thaksin Shinawatra government is contesting these issues, but has thus far refused to discuss the Free Trade Agreement talks with protesters, or with the Parliament, which is raising passions in the country.
The demonstrators are primarily from three groups: farmers, who will watch U.S.-subsidized grains flood their market; labor unionists; and AIDS victims and their supporters, who are protesting the U.S. effort to stop generic-drug research and production in Thailand. A spokesman for soybean and maize farmers pointed to the NAFTA agreement, which forced Mexican farmers to stop growing maize so they could not compete with U.S. imports, noting that after they stopped domestic production, the price of maize rose 300%.
Protests Against Thai Prime Minister Turn Violent
Weekly Friday demonstrations, led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, against Thai PM Thaksin turned violent on Jan. 13, when a few hundred protesters entered the grounds of Government House, Thaksin's residence, leading to a police confrontation, The Nation reported Jan. 15. The nature of the demonstrations was characterized by the sign posted on the grounds: "Return Power to the King." This appeal to a monarchical restoration, while not supported by the King, is an extremely volatile issue in Thailand. The demonstrations are not threatening the regime at this point, but Thaksin's overwhelming majority in the Parliament is beginning to fall apart. The demonstrations are separate from, but taking advantage of, the widespread anger against Thaksin's plans to sign a free-trade pact with the U.S. (see separate slug), to privatize the state electrical power sector, and his inability to stem the continuing separatist terrorism in the Islamic regions in the south of the country.
U.S. Objects to China-Pakistan Nuclear Energy Deal
Pakistan's leading news daily Dawn, quoting "informed sources," reported Jan. 6 that China is considering Pakistan's request to help it build more nuclear power plants. Based on media reports, the deal could cost $7-10 billion and would involve adding 3,600-4,800 MW of capacity using a number of 600 MW reactors. The plants are expected to be completed by 2025, with construction starting by 2015.
Two days prior to the Dawn report, an unnamed senior U.S. official told journalists that ministers in Pakistan have given assurances that they are not seeking to purchase nuclear reactors from China. The official was apparently responding to earlier intelligence reports that Pakistan was in negotiations to purchase between six and eight 600 MW nuclear power reactors from China.
The U.S. official said that the Chinese government was aware of U.S. concerns relating to China's pledge in 1996 that it would not provide nuclear equipment to "any un-safeguarded nuclear facility in any country." Pakistan is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and therefore, its nuclear reactors are not under the IAEA safeguards. What it implies is that Pakistan can freely convert some of the fissile material, such as plutonium, produced in these reactors, during the process of power generation, for weapons development. In fact, Pakistan has exhibited its capability to develop nuclear weapons and is estimated to have quite a few.
It became evident that the U.S. concerns were centered around an intelligence report which said the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, told Pakistani President Gen. Parvez Musharraf last month that China could upgrade Pakistan's military nuclear program if Pakistan formally requested. But China had denied press reports of plans to construct more civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan.
On Jan. 7, media reported the CIA has received intelligence that a Chinese technical team was in Pakistan in the first week of December to assess the damage to Pakistani nuclear storage facilities in the earthquake disaster. The CIA report said the Agency is now in the process of making a fresh assessment of the nuclear and missile cooperation between Pakistan and China. The Chinese team reportedly put repair costs of Pakistan's nuclear facilities at several hundred million dollars.
Pakistan has refused to divulge the cooperation with China to the United States. But CIA director Porter Goss recently briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about fresh cooperation between China and Pakistan, saying that China had so far expressed its intent to assist Pakistan, but if it went ahead, then the U.S. would reconsider its existing relations with both states.
Earlier, during his recent visit to China, the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned China that the U.S. would be concerned about any cooperation between China and other countries in the area of WMDs. What measures U.S. proposes to implement against either Pakistan or China, in case they defy the U.S. warning, has not been revealed.
While the nuclear proliferation issue cannot be sidelined, there is no doubt that Pakistan needs a long-term power generation source in order to survive. Speaking at the site of the Chashma-2 nuclear power plant Dec. 29, provided earlier by Beijing, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said: "We are looking for power generation from all possible sources."
One likely reason that Washington is worried about Pakistan-China nuclear nexus is that both these parties were involved in the nuclear material and missile developments in both Iran and North Korea, intelligence agencies claim. It is also widely known that Pakistan's nuclear program, which helped develop that country's nuclear weapons, was fathered with Chinese help. What irks the Americans most is that Washington has been kept out of nuclear facilities by Islamabad.
At the same time, Pakistan is seeking nuclear power cooperation with the United States. Talking to senior Pakistani journalists on Dec. 13 in Islamabad, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker praised President Musharraf as a man of "compelling vision." About the possibility of Pakistan-U.S. nuclear cooperation for civilian use, Crocker said his country recognized the critical need for energy resources in Pakistan for development.
Philippines Congress To Scrap Visiting Forces Agreement
The Philippines Congress is moving to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. over Washington's refusal to turn over rape suspects, the Inquirer reported Jan. 19. A resolution, calling for the termination of the VFA and its renegotiation into a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow Philippine custody of U.S. nationals charged with crimes in local courts, is sailing through both houses of the Congress. Four U.S. soldiers are charged with raping a young Filipina woman, and the U.S. says they will appear in court. However, under the current VFA, the U.S. is retaining custody of the accused. Anger over this refusal to meet Philippine court demands was made worse when, in a murder case in Japan, the U.S. turned the accused over to Japanese authorities, as required under the agreement with Japan. The Philippine Congress then moved to change the agreement to assure at least the same rights as the Japanese (and the Koreans). It is not clear how the U.S. will respond.