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”.
DUBLIN — Business deals worth more than US$60 billion were arguably the least significant aspects of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and France during the past five days. The key moment arrived in Paris on Tuesday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the European Union wants “to play an active part” in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “We, as Europeans, want to play an active part [in the project] and that must lead to a certain reciprocity and we are still wrangling over that a bit,” she said at a media briefing after talks with Xi, French President Emmanuel Macro and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Her comments came despite pressure from the United States to block BRI deals and a recent statement by the EU branding China a “systemic rival.”
JAKARTA — A spokesperson for the EU stated that the bloc “wants to continue to negotiate ambitious and balanced trade agreements with key partners in the region — this is what we have been doing with Japan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.” A “no deal” Brexit could work in one of two ways. While it would risk sidetracking the EU from tricky trade talks with Asia, Brexit could also make the bloc “more interested” in international agreements,” according to Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, a senior visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank at the National University of Singapore. The EU “will not want to appear paralyzed or inward-looking after Brexit,” Moeller said.
NUSA DUA — Chinese billionaire businessman Jack Ma slammed Western economies as over-regulated during a frank exchange with World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim at a conference in Bali. “In Europe they don’t like me, in America they don’t like me,” Ma said, drawing laughter from an audience at the International Monetary Fund/World Bank annual meeting that included government representatives from around the world. “In Europe a lot of people talk about regulations, they love to discuss about the worries, asking what ya gonna do. In America they have their system,” said Ma, who will step down as chairman of Alibaba Group Holding, the Chinese internet giant he founded, in September next year
JAKARTA — While European Union leaders were in the middle of another round of Brexit talks in Salzburg this week, the European Commission was pitching a plan to boost Europe’s infrastructure links with Asia. The commission, a key EU decision-making body, estimates that Asia needs 1.3 trillion euros ($1.5 trillion) a year in infrastructure spending over the next few decades. European infrastructure upgrades will cost a projected 1.5 trillion euros between 2021 and 2030, it said. EU foreign ministers will vote on the plan ahead of a meeting of leaders of 51 countries across Asia and Europe in Brussels next month. Financing details are hazy, with the commission suggesting that it draws on existing EU funds, loans from development banks and public-private partnerships. Some analysts say the plan — titled “The European Way to Connectivity” — suggests that the EU is proposing an alternative to China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious collection of road, rail and port projects in 60 countries spanning Asia, Europe and Africa.
KNOCK — Hundreds of thousands of Catholics gathered under dark rain clouds as Pope Francis said Mass in a Dublin park and stopped briefly to pray at Knock Shrine, a pilgrimage site in the west of Ireland, on the second and final day of his visit to Ireland. Clouds of a different sort were gathering over Francis’s increasingly troubled papacy, however, after a former Holy See ambassador to the U.S. called on Francis to resign over claims that the pope protected Theodore McCarrick, who was forced to resign as cardinal in July after accusations of sex abuse crimes. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Papal Nuncio in Washington, D.C., sent a statement to several Catholic newspapers overnight, in which he claimed Francis “continued to cover” for the disgraced McCarrick, who, Vigano said, was sanctioned by Benedict XVI, Francis’s immediate predecessor as pope.
DUBLIN — Pope Francis on Saturday vowed to adopt “stringent” measures to rid a crisis-convulsed Catholic Church of the “pain and shame” caused by decades of sexual abuse and its tolerance by clerical authorities. Francis traveled to Ireland, once a bastion of Catholic belief, but where religious practice that has been eroded by years of church scandal that has fed a process of secularization similar to preceding variants elsewhere in Europe. He met privately for an hour and a half with eight survivors, the Vatican said, without providing details. Two of the participants in the meeting later said the pontiff equated the scandal and cover-up with excrement.
KNOCK — When Pope Francis lands in Dublin on Saturday morning, he will encounter a land much changed from the one that gave predecessor John Paul II a euphoric welcome nearly four decades ago. “Devotion was at its peak, there were around 450,000 people here in Knock to see the pope,” said Bernard Byrne, 74, sitting inside his souvenir shop next to the parish church in Knock, a village in the west of Ireland. Behind him loomed statues of the Virgin Mary and framed photos of Francis, who will visit the Catholic pilgrimage site on Sunday, emulating John Paul II.
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.
JAKARTA — Even as the terms of its exit from the European Union remain undecided, the U.K. looks set to take on Brussels over access to Asian markets, with Indonesia’s growing economy set to be the first, and potentially crucial, battleground. While Britain tries to lay the groundwork for future trade agreements, the bloc it is leaving has already brokered a number of deals across the region. Last week, the EU and Indonesia held the fourth round of negotiations over a proposed free trade deal known as the Indonesia-European Union Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. As those discussions were taking place in Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s hometown of Solo in central Java, the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced the appointment of Richard Michael as Britain’s official export finance representative in Indonesia.