KUALA LUMPUR — Indonesia has sent an armada of warships and fishermen to waters around its northern Natuna Islands in response to recent incursions by dozens of Chinese fishing boats and coastguard ships. China’s sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesian waters around the Natunas, with the latest flare-up prompting the usually soft-spoken Indonesian President Joko Widodo to bluntly assert that “Natuna is Indonesia” during a visit to the contested region last week. Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, through which between US$3-5 billion worth of trade passes most years, extends 2000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and has angered neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, whose own smaller claims around the sea overlap with Beijing’s.
PHNOM PENH – Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei predicted in late December that the number of 5G connections worldwide would jump from around 20 million in 2019 to over 200 million by the end of 2020. Nowhere will the corporate and geopolitical contest to lead that rollout be more hotly contested than in Southeast Asia. Since a successful launch of commercial 5G services last April in South Korea, where around 3.5 million people have signed up for more expensive high-speed 5G and are using three times the data of 4G subscribers, mobile network providers across Asia could be set to cash in if the technology is made widespread soon. If those millions can soon become tens or even hundreds of millions, 5G, which promises download speeds between 20 to 100 times faster than the current leading 4G system, could revolutionize fields from public transport to healthcare to manufacturing, a potential that Dutch bank ING suggests could be “an economic light-bulb moment.”
BANGKOK — A confluence of drought and dams along the Mekong River has renewed concerns about the future of the 4,763 kilometer waterway, upon which tens of millions of people depend for their livelihoods in [mention China too? or maybe it just flows too fast there for it to matter] Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The number of dams impeding the Mekong’s flow is fast multiplying, drying up segments of the once fast-flowing river and leaving the region facing imminent drought, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a regional intergovernmental body that aims to jointly manage the river’s water resources. “China’s operators of the Jinghong Dam and the Thai operators of the newly opened Xayaburi dam in Laos conducted operations that actually exacerbated the drought,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank. “Those dams and more than 70 others now operational in Laos and China all contribute to deteriorating downstream conditions related to the drought.”
PHNOM PENH — The deaths of 39 migrants found dead last month in the back of a truck in the United Kingdom were a grim and tragic reminder that, despite Asia’s world-beating growth rates, poverty and low pay continue to push people to risk their lives to work overseas. Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has quintupled to US$2,563 over the last 15 years, buoyed by one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but all 39 dead were economic migrants who had left impoverished areas of central and northern Vietnam in search of more gainful employment abroad. As with elsewhere in Asia, these rural regions are dominated by the so-called informal economy, outside of the reach of government protection and regulation. Based on estimates published last year by the World Bank, 47% of all employment in the East Asia and Pacific Region is informal.
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”.