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 further 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.
SINGAPORE — Efforts by Southeast Asian lawmakers to highlight religious discrimination could help prevent future atrocities along the lines of the recent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar, according to the head of the the United Nations’ human rights fact-finding mission to the country.“Religious persecution matters because, left unchecked, it leads up to atrocity crimes. This is a condition that is not unique to Myanmar but to the region as a whole,” said mission head Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian lawyer. But the MPs may have their work cut in the wake of growing politicization of religion and persecution of minorities.“it is very important to spread the message of freedom of religion, but this is a region where religion has been exploited for political purposes,” said Kyaw Win, a Muslim from Myanmar and founder of the Burma Human Rights Network.Indonesia has seen the hounding and jailing of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Protestant ex-governor of Jakarta, and the August 2018 imprisonment of a Buddhist in North Sumatra after she allegedly complained that the speakers at a neighborhood mosque were too loud.
SINGAPORE — China’s top security official articulated today (June 2) an uncompromising defense of his country’s stance on the contested South China Sea and threats to invade Taiwan in an anticipated address at a top security conference in Singapore. “Building facilities on one’s own territories is not militarization,” Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe said, responding to accusations that China has militarized islands in the sea as a means of taking effective control of what the US and others regard as international watersWei also warned of a “fight to the end” with the US in their escalating trade spat, and a “fight at all costs” for “reunification” with Taiwan, the island country China considers a renegade province. The US has recently upped its strategic support for the democratically-run Taiwan, much to Beijing’s chagrin.“No attempts to split China will succeed. Any interference in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” said Wei, dressed in his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uniform.
SINGAPORE — In a highly-anticipated policy address in Singapore, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned today (June 1) China that “behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.”At the same time, America’s top defense official stopped short of demanding countries take sides in the US-China economic and military face-off and said that there is still a chance for the two superpowers to come to terms.“The United States does not want any country in this region to have to choose or forgo positive economic relations with any partner,” Shanahan said, adding in a veiled reference to China that “some in our region are choosing to act contrary to the principles and norms that have benefitted us all.”
KUALA LUMPUR — The Philippines appears to have won its long-running and often heated dispute with Canada over 69 shipping containers brimming with Canadian waste left to rot at two Philippine ports since 2013.Ottawa announced on Wednesday (May 22) that it had hired a private company to take back the refuse, which the Philippines has said was wrongly classified as recyclable. Officials said the waste would be back on Canadian soil by June.Ottawa’s announcement came after the Philippines said it would ship the containers back to Canada after a May 15 deadline announced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had lapsed.