Low tax, low spend – Southeast Asia Globe

Among the finished infrastructure projects in Indonesia is the new metro in Jakarta, pictured here in April 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

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.

Despite tensions with U.S., Cambodia joins trade war beneficiaries – Asia Times

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.

US defense chief assails China’s “toolkit of coercion” – Asia Times

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 1, 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

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.”

Remittances to Asia bigger than GDPs of Vietnam and Myanmar combined – Asia Times

KUALA LUMPUR — New economic data shows that foreign remittances sent to Asian countries hit US$300 billion for the first time last year, underscoring the ever-rising importance overseas work for the region’s laborers despite world-beating economic growth rates. Freshly released World Bank statistics put the total amount of remittances for 2018 to countries in South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific at $299.6 billion, a sum that does not include what are believed to be substantial informal flows of money sent home by regional migrants. Globally and in Asia, remittance figures are growing year by year, despite heady 6-7% gross domestic product (GDP) growth in countries such as the Philippines, a nation which has around 10 million of its citizens working abroad across various vocations. The 2018 amount of regional remittances was around $25 billion greater than in 2017 and $125 billion more than in 2008. Worldwide, remittance flows now account for more than foreign direct investment to middle and low income countries excluding China, the World Bank data shows.

As Southeast Asia muzzles media, investors do business as usual – Nikkei Asian Review

BANGKOK — The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia’s press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns. Last year’s inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites. “In general, if we compare to other factors — political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules — [press freedom] is not a decisive factor” in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecoft. Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. “A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed,” they said in an email.

Second Trump-Kim summit set for Feb 27-28 in Vietnam – Nikkei Asian Review

SINGAPORE — U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28. “Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said in his State of the Union address in Washington late Tuesday. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.” Vietnam, which opened up its economy under Doi Moi reforms in the 1980s, has also been touted by the U.S. as a possible model for Pyongyang to follow. The country emerged as a likely host after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last July, shortly after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Pompeo lauded the “once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership” between Vietnam and the U.S., before turning to North Korea.

Southeast Asia bucks trend of sinking global foreign investment – Nikkei Asian Review

JAKARTA — Southeast Asia is bucking the global trend of falling direct foreign investment, as the low-cost fast-growing region solidifies its position as an attractive location for multinationals. James Dyson’s recent decision to relocate the headquarters of his eponymous technology business to Singapore is not about Brexit, the company said. Rather, the British tycoon said he is looking to a region that continues to exhibit solid growth — “future proofing” as his chief executive termed it. The move follows an October announcement that Dyson — famous for its vacuum cleaners — will make electric vehicles in Singapore, citing the city-state’s proximity to “high-growth markets” in emerging Asia, where annual gross domestic product could grow by 6.1% between now and 2023, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Asia received a third of global investment in 2018 and accounted for nearly all the year’s investment growth, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This is despite global foreign direct investment (FDI) declining 19% in 2018. Japanese retailer Aeon opened a second large mall in Cambodia in June as part of its regional expansion plans, which this year will include new shopping centers in Hanoi and Bogor, Indonesia. “As for South East countries, generally speaking, they have been showing rapid economic growth and will keep their pace in future, too,” an Aeon Asia spokesperson said.

Public debt in “emerging Asia” creeps past 50% of GDP – Nikkei Asian Review

Government debt in emerging Asian economies hit 50% of gross domestic product in the third quarter of last year, according to estimates by the Institute of International Finance, in a trend that suggests a regional shift away from fiscal conservatism. “Entering a financial crisis with a weak fiscal position worsens the depth and duration of the ensuing recession, particularly in emerging-market economies, because fiscal policy tends to be procyclical in these cases,” said Vitor Gaspar, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department. While government debt in emerging Asia is creeping up, it remains low compared with Japan’s 223.1% of GDP and 100.8% in the U.S. “The relatively low public debt gives the region more buffer against a potential global downturn, enabling policymakers to use expansionary fiscal policy to support demand,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC.

Southeast Asia’s traditional markets try to hold their own – Nikkei Asian Review

SINGAPORE — “Yes, hello, fruits?” Shouting above the din, vendor Sini Mohamad leans forward into a conga line of office workers edging between dozens of lavishly provisioned stalls in Singapore’s Tekka Market. It is lunchtime, and crowds throng the market as dozens of hawker stalls dish out noodles, rice and curries. Most ignore Mohamad’s appeals. But he keeps at it, alongside stallholders selling meat, fish, vegetables and spices. The lunchtime crowd offers a fleeting chance for butchers and grocers to persuade passers-by to do a bit of grocery shopping before they head back to work, their palettes whetted by the aromas of spices and herbs clinging to the steamy market air.

How Beijing is winning control of the South China Sea – Nikkei Asian Review

SINGAPORE — It was tame enough weighed against his usual invective, but by itself Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling. During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China’s president. “[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte recounted.