PHNOM PENH – Perhaps trying to pick up the pieces after President Donald Trump skipped an October 31-November 4 series of summit meetings organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten country regional organisation, the United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent the last week exchanging bromides and handshakes in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. The trip’s purpose, Esper said on the flight to Asia on November 13, is “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific] theater is DOD’s [Department of Defense] number one priority.”
PHNOM PENH — The world’s proposed biggest free trade agreement was dealt a blow on Monday when India made a last minute but unsurprising withdrawal from seven-year-old negotiations during a series of weekend meetings of Asian governments in Bangkok. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, would have encompassed all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. It also would have made for the world’s biggest trade deal measured by population and factoring in the combined gross domestic products (GDPs) of the putative signatories, though India’s withdrawal could see it drop below the Canada-Mexico-United States deal formerly known as NAFTA in combined GDP. India would have been the third largest economy in the tariff-reducing trade deal.
PHNOM PENH — Asian governments appear increasingly reluctant to implement the kind of pro-business reforms that could help offset slowing economic growth and other debilitating impacts of the US-China trade war. The World Bank’s latest “Doing Business” survey, a comparative global index of countries’ business environments previously known as “Ease of Doing Business”, shows the number of “business climate-enhancing” reforms implemented in East Asia and the Pacific fell by a quarter over the 12 months through May this year compared with the previous year. Referring to the region, the World Bank’s survey said “the overall pace of reforms slowed.” The Doing Business survey released last week compiles 11 criteria ranging from electricity access to labor market rules that it sees as crucial to the commercial success of small and medium-sized enterprises. The survey does not take into account wider issues such as national financial systems, macroeconomic policies or perceptions of political stability.
PHNOM PENH — In late September, protestors in Central Java, on Indonesia’s most populous island, stood outside a regional government office and vented their frustration at what they saw as inaction over complaints that the towering smokestacks of a nearby coal-fuelled power plant had been sputtering ash onto their farms. With “we need clean air” and “we are covered in coal dust,” among the jeremiads, the protests echoed another long-standing struggle – near Batang, also on Java. There, locals have fought for years against the imminent opening of a 2,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant, part of the government’s plans to expand the electricity grid by 35,000 megawatts to meet the energy demands of an economy growing at 5% a year. Such protests are likely to become more common across the region in the coming years, as urbanisation, industrialisation and increasing consumer spending in Southeast Asia’s growing economies spur a surge in energy demand. This in turn will likely prompt a trend-defying expansion of coal-fired power plants over the coming years even as most other regions lower their dependence on coal over environmental concerns.
PHNOM PENH — Visiting Dili in late August to mark the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s blood-soaked vote for independence from Indonesia, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the opening of a “new chapter” in bilateral relations. “In a region where some boundary disputes remain unresolved,” Morrison said, in a seeming reference to the disputed South China Sea farther north, “Australia and Timor-Leste have set an example by sitting down, as neighbours, partners, and friends, to finalise a new maritime boundary.” Though Morrison followed up by announcing plans to help upgrade East Timor’s internet connectivity and its navy, his Timorese counterpart Taur Matan Ruak was less gushing. “Today will mark a new beginning, a new phase for both countries,” he said. The implication, of course, was that the previous two decades of the relationship had been less than amicable. While Australia stood by the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who defiantly voted for independence in the face of scorched-earth Indonesian-backed intimidation, sending 5,000 soldiers to the country shortly after the vote, it later stood accused of strong-arming its tiny and impoverished neighbour out of billions of dollars of vital oil and gas revenues – in part by refusing to delineate a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea until 2018.
PHNOM PENH — With no end in sight to the so-called trade war between the US and China, the European Union (EU) sees a chance to act as the guardian of free trade and hold its own against the two giants. But as the bloc gets increasingly bogged down in spats with individual Southeast Asian countries, prospects for a wider regional trade relationship look increasingly precarious. With Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential market access to the EU coming under question and with the likelihood growing that Myanmar could be put under similar scrutiny, the EU appears to be hedging against any consequent damage to its relations with Southeast Asia by seeking free trade agreements and closer defence ties with some of the region’s countries. While for now Cambodia can export duty-free to the 28-country, 513 million-population European Union market, this week saw the end of the “monitoring and engagement” phase of a review of that access, potentially putting $5 billion worth of Cambodian garment exports at risk. A European Commission spokesperson said in an August 12 email that “over the next six months, the Commission and the European External Action Service will analyse all the evidence collected”.
PHNOM PENH – Tax And Spend has rarely been part of the Southeast Asian governance lexicon. And judging by the region’s dismal tax-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratios, it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon. Newly published revenue statistics compiled by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the five biggest Southeast Asian economies have ratios of half or less than the 2017 OECD average of 34.2%, though most countries in the region showed small increases in revenues compared with the previous year. The OECD defines the tax-to-GDP ratio as “total tax revenue, including social security contributions, as a percentage of GDP”. While more prosperous countries in Southeast Asia’s vicinity such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand all come in around the 30% mark, Southeast Asia’s own numbers were much lower, with Indonesia at 11.5%, Malaysia on 13.6 and Singapore only slightly above on 14.1. This last number in particular seems surprisingly low given that Singapore’s economy more resembles higher-tax Western counterparts than its neighbours in Southeast Asia.
PHNOM PENH – Cambodia appears to be the latest beneficiary of the US-China trade war, joining the already exhaustively profiled Vietnam among the countries enjoying increased exports to the US as tariffed Chinese goods open the door for other cheap suppliers. Latest US government data show annual imports from Cambodia rising significantly since the start of the year, with the US$1.8 billion registered from January-May a roughly 20% increase on the same period last year. Like Vietnam, Cambodia has duty-free access to American markets under the Generalized System of Preferences, a trade program designed to promote economic growth in the developing world. Trade represented 125% of Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, according to the World Bank. In 2018, the bulk of Cambodia’s goods exports to the US were clothing and footwear, with the Office of the US Trade Representative listing the top four sectors as knit apparel ($1.8 billion), woven apparel ($628 million), leather products ($390 million), and footwear ($329 million). Cambodia’s 2018 trade surplus with the US was $3.4 billion — which, though relatively-small compared with Vietnam’s near-$40 billion for the same year — will continue to rise this year as Cambodia’s exports to the US surge. Parsing the numbers for a direct trade war link is not as clear-cut as it may seem, however, with both Vietnam – where trade represented 188% of GDP in 2018 – and Cambodia expanding their commerce with the US since before the start of the tariff war.
KUALA LUMPUR — “We do not want to choose between the United States and China.” So said Malaysia’s Deputy Defense Minister Chin Tong Liew during a speech last week on his country’s relations with China. Earlier this month the U.S. Secretary of Defence and his Chinese counterpart told a conference of defence ministers in Singapore that they do not expect other countries to takes sides. But many in Southeast Asia fear this is a choice they will have to make, given the increasingly-acrimonious Chinese-American rivalry.
JAKARTA — While global foreign direct investment (FDI) dipped in 2018 for a third consecutive year, Asia bucked the global trend with rises nearly across the board, including record inflows to Southeast Asia’s booming economies. New United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) data released today (June 12) shows total worldwide FDI fell 13% to US$1.3 trillion in 2018, as global economic uncertainties grew over the US and China’s increasingly antagonistic trade and investment policies, particularly in strategic sectors such as digital and mobile technology. But “developing Asia”, a region encompassing most of the continent aside from wealthy countries such as Japan, saw a 4% rise in foreign direct investment to $512 billion, representing 39% of the global total, according to UNCTAD’s 2018 World Investment Report.