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 parallel signals that press freedom remains under duress in parts of Southeast Asia, courts in Cambodia and Myanmar recently ordered reruns of cases against prominent journalists. The decisions, announced within days of each other in late September and early October, came as other countries in the region weighed up new laws concerning freedom of speech. On Sept. 30, a court in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay ordered a re-hearing in a lawsuit against Swe Win, the editor of local news publication Myanmar Now, who was accused of defaming a prominent Buddhist monk. Then on Oct. 2 a judge in Phnom Penh ordered a reinvestigation of former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who are facing between seven and 15 years in jail over charges of espionage and the production of pornography. On the day of the Cambodia announcement, Sothearin told reporters outside the court that he was “very disappointed” with the prospect of reinvestigation, which local civil society groups said showed that the charges were politically-motivated in the first place. Both the Cambodian and Myanmar decisions mean a double prolongation of cases that otherwise had looked to have run aground, and Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications and external relations said that the Cambodian case decision was “an admission of there being no real evidence to convict.”
PHNOM PENH — Dependent on its increasingly assertive neighbour China for investment and on faraway markets in Europe and North America for exports, Cambodia’s 16.2 million people, like residents of any small country, are exposed to the flux and churn of fortune and influence from without. Such vulnerabilities are not just economic. The national language, Khmer, is increasingly treading lexical water, as if about to be pulled under by waves of technological and scientific neologisms. “Hundreds of new technical, scientific and legal terms are added into the English dictionary every year,”said Khoun Theara of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank.Such terms, usually coined first in English, present tongue-twisting translation dilemmas for Khmer speakers trying to localise new words in what is the mother tongue for around 97% of Cambodians. That is not to say that other tongues in the region do not face similar dilemmas. “All Southeast Asian languages have difficulty in adapting to the modern world,” said Jean-Michel Filippi, professor of linguistics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
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 – 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.
JAKARTA — Myanmar attracted the most foreign direct investment of any of the world’s so-called “least developed countries” in 2017, even as the nation’s reputation plummeted over its forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. The $4.3 billion worth of realized FDI that went into the resource-rich Southeast Asian country put it on top of the global economy’s bottom division of 47 nations, according to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Myanmar edged out second-place Ethiopia, with Asian neighbors Cambodia and Bangladesh taking third and fifth spots. Even so the nations remain far behind Association of Southeast Asian Nations peers such as Indonesia and Vietnam.
JAKARTA — In contrast to Malaysia’s electoral earthquake in May, which resulted in the first opposition win since independence, last Sunday’s elections in Cambodia produced a predictable landslide victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985. His Cambodian People’s Party claims to have won all 125 seats available, prompting Mu Sochea, an exiled opposition leader, to tell media in Jakarta that election day “marked the death of democracy in Cambodia.” The view from Malaysia: “Millions of Cambodians were denied a genuine choice, as the CPP’s victory was guaranteed even before the first ballot was cast,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Democratic Action Party, which is now part of the new Mahathir Mohamad-led governing coalition, in a statement released on Monday.
SIEM REAP — For an art production house based in North Korea, whose usual stock-in-trade is nationalist-communist propaganda, constructing a museum in Cambodia to celebrate the grandeur of the Khmer Empire might seem a surprising project. While North Korea may be on the verge of a rapprochement with the U.S. ahead of the proposed meeting between its dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, recent sanctions imposed on the country in response to its missile tests could raise questions about the status of the Angkor Panorama Museum, which opened in late 2015 at a cost of $24 million and sits on the doorstep of the vast Angkor temple complex. When the United Nations Security Council enacted sanctions against North Korea in 2017 in response to its missile tests, it said that states “shall prohibit, by their nationals or in their territories, the opening, maintenance, and operation of all joint ventures or cooperative entities, new and existing, with DPRK entities or individuals.” That suggests Cambodia, other than requesting an opt-out from the council, would be required to close the North Korean-built museum or ensure that it is now fully locally owned. “Cambodia is required by UNSC sanctions measures to close the joint venture or request an exemption,” said William Newcomb of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
JAKARTA/SINGAPORE — A year ago two young female migrant workers in Indonesia, including 26 year old Indonesian Siti Nurbaya, were cast at the center of an international murder mystery when they were arrested by police for their alleged role in the audacious, Le Carré-esque assassination by poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was carried out despite the usual bustling morning crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Preying on the women’s perceived vulnerability as relatively-poor migrant workers at the margins of society, defense lawyers contend that North Korean agents duped their clients into unwittingly carrying out the murder by bluffing they were being recruited for a series of made for TV pranks. As the trial of Nurbaya and her alleged accomplice from Vietnam rolled on last month in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur, another case was emerging that highlighted the perils facing migrants in Malaysia. Adelina Sao died in a Penang hospital on February 11 after she was found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, succumbing after two years in Malaysia as one of around 400,000 foreign maids working in the country.