DILI — When Joshua Kohn and Lea Mietzle set out backpacking around Southeast Asia, East Timor was not on their itinerary. But after visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and then parts of Indonesia, the two young Germans revised their plans to include the region’s newest country, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. “We became interested [in East Timor], it was really cool” said Kohn. During their 12 days in the country they took in some of the main landmarks: trekking up the highest peak, the near 3,000-meter-high Mount Ramelau, followed by a bone-rattling motorcycle ride eastwards to Jaco, a tiny uninhabited island. With secluded white sand beaches fronting turquoise seas and kaleidoscopic reefs — all offering lush diving — East Timor aims to triple annual visitor numbers to 200,000 by 2030, part of a plan to diversify an economy that depends oil and gas for almost all government revenue.
JAKARTA — The sight of commuters, their faces hidden behind masks, zipping around on the back of motorcycle taxis is common across Asia. The bikes weave through gridlock in cities like Jakarta and Bangkok, getting the passengers to work on time. The masks, sometimes worn by both driver and passenger, hint that the air they breathe might not be the cleanest. Judging from World Health Organization figures released on Wednesday, covering 4,300 cities across 108 countries, the commuters have the right idea. Of an estimated 7 million deaths worldwide per year from air pollution, just over two-thirds take place in Asia, which is home to slightly less than 60% of the global population. Breaking the numbers down further, the 10 countries in the WHO’s “South-east Asia” region account for about a quarter of the world’s population but suffer around 2.4 million, or 34%, of all air pollution deaths.
SINGAPORE — With the US and China squaring up over trade, getting the 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed by the end of the year seems increasingly important for the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). That urgency has been sharpened by US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now an 11-country deal rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after being signed in Chile in March. Singapore’s prime minister clearly wanted to get a message across when hosting the ASEAN summit at the weekend. “The fact is that we do not have a TPP,” Lee Hsien Loong told journalists after the meeting. “We have a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has made it more urgent that we proceed with this [RCEP].”
SINGAPORE — With the U.S. government pledging to resume manned missions to the Moon, and eventually send a mission to Mars, Cold War-style competition over space exploration is re-emerging — between China and the U.S. this time. China hopes to make its first manned lunar landing within 15 years, around six decades after the last American walked on the moon in 1972. But China is not as far behind as those dates suggest. It hopes to make the first-ever landing on the dark side of the Moon by the end of 2018. This feat eluded the U.S. and Soviet Union during the heyday of their Space Race from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Other Asian counties, notably Japan and India, have their own space programs. But China appears to be leading the way.
SINGAPORE — If China and the United States continue their charge into a full-on trade war, few regions will be as vulnerable to the resulting economic turbulence as Southeast Asia. That’s why the 10 governments of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Singapore this week are hashing out ideas about how the region can duck any shrapnel if the world’s two biggest economies keep firing protectionist salvos at each other. “Considering that China and the U.S. are ASEAN’s first and third trading partner respectively, the early exchange of blows between Washington and Beijing would be watched nervously across all ASEAN capitals,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based research organization.
YANGON — China’s media took little notice of the visit of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong this week. As Sturgeon met with Chinese political and business leaders, all parties were careful to avoid uncomfortable issues, such as Scotland’s relationship with post-Brexit U.K., aware that secession is a particularly touchy subject with Beijing. There was just a two line mention on Xinhua news sites regarding Sturgeon’s meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in Beijing on April 9, discussions that Scotland’s leading independence advocate depicted as “very constructive.” The English language version of The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, did not mention the visit.
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 — East Timor is a tiny country, with a land area around the same as the North of Ireland and a population of 1.3 million people. Its existing oil and gas reserves will be depleted in less than a decade, and with little sign of growth in other parts of the economy, it badly needs this deal with Australia How much money it ends up getting will depend on fluctuating oil and gas prices and on what subsequent deal is worked out to extract and process the underwater oil and gas. The companies with rights to drill in the field have floated, pun intended, the idea of a floating platform in the Timor Sea to process the gas there. But Australia wants to pipe to Darwin and use existing facilities, which would mean an 80% revenue cut for East Timor. The Timorese want pipe to East Timor and process there, giving a Dili 70% revenue cut but potentially allowing the Timorese to develop spin-off industries that could modernise its economy.
JAKARTA — Australia and East Timor on Wednesday signed what Canberra’s foreign minister Julie Bishop called “a milestone” agreement on a maritime boundary between the two countries. The treaty ends a long a bitter dispute between the neighbouring countries and paves the way for exploitation of billions of dollars in gas and oil under the Timor Sea – with at least 70 percent of the revenue to go to impoverished East Timor. The agreement was also historic because it marked the first successful conclusion of “conciliation” negotiations to settle maritime differences under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. How much money the country, a half-island nation of 1.3 million people who are among the poorest in the world, ends up getting depends partly on what deal is worked out to drill and pipe the underwater gas.
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.