|Asia News Digest
Iran, Pakistan To Open Trade Routes for Russia, China:
Iran has offered to Pakistan a trade corridor for exports to Russia and Central Asian republics, and has sought a similar facility from Pakistan for its exports to China, The Dawn reported from Islamabad Dec. 20. "We are ready to provide transit facilities through a land route to Pakistan," visiting Iranian Deputy Commerce Minister Dr. Sadegh Mofatteh said.
Mofatteh said Iran was keen to make Pakistan its partner in trade and wanted to increase trade volume between the two countries from the current $650 million to $1 billion.
Beyond the bilateral trade, what is of great importance to both nations is gaining a land access to trade with the regions beyond. For instance, China-Iran trade takes place via long sea travel. When Pakistani roads become available to the Iranians, the trade can take place through Pakistan by land to the western part of China.
Similarly, Pakistan's trade with Russia and Central Asia takes place by air and sea. Access to Iranian roads will cut down on the cost and time and increase the volume of trade in no time.
This development is of particular importance, since it is taking place at a time when Washington is trying to isolate Tehran in order to scuttle Iran's nuclear energy program.
U.S. Pressures India To Begin Sweeping Economic Reforms
U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Franklin Lavin has asked the Manmohan Singh government in India to adopt sweeping reforms, including lifting ownership caps and reducing high tariff rates, to draw foreign investments and fuel "rapid growth," according to Asian Age Dec. 21.
Interestingly, Lavin's statement was issued a day after U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law a landmark bill for Washington to transfer nuclear fuel and technologies to India.
Lavin called for the opening of India's retail sector to foreign multi-brand retailers, saying it would allow Indian consumers access to "best products at the lowest prices" and improve supply-chain efficiencies in the world's second-most populous nation. At the same time, this month, the Manmohan Singh government allowed the entry of Wal-Mart into India.
"Despite recent news stories about cracks in the dam on retail access, the fact is that barriers [in India] remain," Lavin added. "Right now, investment caps are very low," he said, citing particularly the 26% equity limit in the insurance sector which, he claims, prohibited foreign firms from participating in the "lucrative pensions" sector.
Comparing the huge Asian nation with tiny but business-friendly Singapore, Lavin said India had immense potential to draw investments if it pursued reforms. Overall, Lavin said, that as of 2005, India has received $45 billion in foreign direct investment compared with Singapore's $186 billion.
Former NATO Commander: U.S. Reputation Tarnished by Bush
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Dec. 22, in answer to a question on the difficult situation in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones said: "We as a nation, I think, need to understand that we can't do it alone and that we need our partners and friends...." He also agreed with the interviewer that the United States' reputation has deteriorated sharply in recent years and noted that even Turkey, which has long been a staunch NATO ally, believe the United States is its biggest enemy.
On the Afghan situation, he pointed out that while more NATO troops are required to beat back the insurgents, more is needed to be done to establish the country as a self-sustaining democracy. He said that can be done only by strengthening its civil institutions and eradicating the huge trade in opium.
Without ignoring the realities, Jones said: "I think the Achilles heel of Afghanistan is the narcotics problem. I think the uncontrolled rise of the spread of narcotics, the business that it brings in, the money that it generates is being used to fund the insurgency, the criminal elementsanything to bring chaos and disorder."
He also urged the NATO countries to focus their attention on reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.
Phillipines 'Operation Condor' Called For
On Dec. 16, Philippines National Security Advisor Norberto Gonzales urged that left-leaning candidates be labelled as "communists" and "democracy's enemies," openly saying: "It is important to show soldiers and police what groups are being used by the communists to continue their bad intentions on the public." This comes in the midst of a massive government operation to "wipe out" the communists in the Philippines, coupled with death squads killing hundreds of social activists and journalists associated with the left. An international outcry against this Philippine version of "Operation Condor" has not restrained Gonzales and others in the government in their blatant public endorsement of this murder spree.
The Philippines Inquirer, the leading establishment paper, wrote on Dec. 19: "We thought the Cold War was over, but here we have the national security advisor smearing leftists as 'communists.' There was a time when labeling someone a 'communist' or 'leftist' practically set him up as a target for assassination by government forces. Now, it seems, the time is coming back, no small thanks to the national security advisor.... Gonzales would set back political progress, shut out leftist groups and individuals from Congress, and worse, set them up as targets for assassination."
U.S.-North Korea Meetings Held During Six-Party Talks
Bilateral meetings were held Dec. 19 between the U.S. and the North Korean delegations, in the context of Six-Party talks. The meeting lasted several hours, with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan leading their respective delegations. Separate bilateral talks involving the closing of a North Korean bank account at the behest of the U.S. Treasury, were also taking place, involving U.S. Treasury officials and their North Korean counterparts. Little optimism has been expressed by any of the parties, but the talks are just in their initial phases.
Speaking to reporters after the session, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was asked what he thought the attitude of the North Koreans had been during the session. "I would say, without revealing the elements of their position, there was certainly a willingness to listen and engage on some of our ideas. I think they wanted to reserve their own position as they listened to what we had to say to them." He then reiterated the U.S. position. "I continue to emphasize that the purpose of these Six-Party Talks is to achieve denuclearization. With that, the denuclearization, many things are going to be possible. Without it, we're going to have pretty tough sledding." Hill did, however, note some progress. "Today, it was a much more substantive discussion, so I think we have a better idea of how they are looking at issues," Hill said. "I must say, in terms of the quality of the discussion that we had, the bilateral discussion, there is a healthy exchange of information that helped us understand things better than before. It was a step."
Mideast Quartet Holds Seminar in Beijing
At the conclusion of a four-day seminar on Middle East Peace, held in Beijing under the auspices of the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations issued a statement expressing the hope that China would soon become a member of the Quartet, Peoples Daily reported Dec. 17. The Quartet, the group that is chiefly responsible for coordinating discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, presently consists of the U.S., Russia, the EU, and the UN. China would make it a Quintet. China has been upgrading its diplomacy in the Middle East, with Sun Bigan, China's envoy to the Middle East and a fluent Arab speaker, hosting the discussions in Beijing. Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli Minister of Justice and a participant in the Beijing proceedings, noted that China is a country that no one can ignore. "That is part of the reason we support China to join the Quartet," Beilin said.
China Economic Sectors To Be Held Under State Control
The Chinese government has just released a list of the "strategically important sectors" of the economy in which the state must have "absolute control," China Daily reported Dec. 19. These sectors include the armaments, power generation and distribution, oil and petrochemicals, telecommunications, coal, aviation and shipping industries. "State capital must play a leading role in these sectors, which are the vital arteries of the national economy and essential to national security," China Daily quoted State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) Chairman Li Rongrong saying yesterday. "The Chinese government will inject more capital into large state-owned companies (SOEs) in these priority sectors, optimize their structure and make them more competitive."
"In these sectors, State-owned assets should expand in volume and optimize in structure, and some key enterprises should grow into leading world businesses."
The SASAC was set up by the government three years ago to maintain the core of state-owned enterprises through the reform of the Chinese economy. The point is to maintain state sole ownership or a majority share in these critical industries, and ensure state capital flows into these industries.