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.
MANILA — Cambodia’s Supreme Court has ordered the break-up of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party over allegations that it aimed to topple the government. The ruling was widely expected, including by the CNRP, which did not send lawyers to contest the case. The court is headed by a judge who is a member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The decision means that Prime Minister Hun Sen, in office since 1985, will face little opposition in national elections scheduled for July 2018. The CNRP came close to matching CPP in national elections in 2013, winning 44.46% of the popular vote. There was a similar outcome in local elections earlier this year.
PULAU UBIN, Singapore — It takes no more than 15 minutes to make the eastward crossing on a juddery old bumboat from Changi Jetty on Singapore’s main island to Pulau Ubin, where gray-barked pulai trees stretch skyward, their pillar-straight trunks evoking the slate and glossy office towers that crowd the Singapore skyline. The 1,020-hectare boomerang-shaped Pulau Ubin is “the last kampong,” or village, and “a living showcase of what Singapore was like in the 1960s,” according to Visit Singapore, part of the country’s official tourist board. Not surprisingly for a place advertised as such, the short boat trip across the narrow strait aims to take visitors back a half century. Pulau Ubin, or Granite Island, is a preservationist’s pearl — a verdant throwback to the pre-industrial, pre-urban way of life still to be found here and there in rural Malaysia and Indonesia. Those old ways are otherwise history in Singapore, where 5.6 million people are jammed onto a mere 720 sq. km. of land area.
JAKARTA — As Asia’s economies grow and its cities modernize, the region’s voracious appetite for construction materials has driven demand for sand — alongside illegal trade of the commodity — to unprecedented levels. With rapid urbanization and infrastructure expansion, some countries are mining surrounding seas and their river and lake beds at a pace that could have grave implications for the environment. Along with gravel, cement and water, sand is needed to make up the trillions of tons of concrete used so far in laying Asia’s new roads and constructing tens of thousands of urban buildings. Around a third of the world’s land area is classed as desert, but, rounded and smoothed by the heat and wind, desert sand grains are useless for construction. Sand also makes for a bulky, heavy cargo and the high transportation costs mean that sand is usually dug up or dredged relatively close to where it ends up being used. “International trade is limited, unless the two countries in question are close neighbors,” said Zoe Biller, an industry analyst
PHNOM PENH — As he described his search for funding for Khmerload, a digital media company touted as Cambodia’s version of BuzzFeed, chief executive Vichet In recounted an arduous struggle. “We sent an email to 10 [venture capitalists] — no reply. We talked to a few investors — there was no interest. They couldn’t believe we could do an expansion to another country.” Finally, U.S.-based investor 500 Startups, which describes itself as “a global venture capital seed fund,” came up with $200,000, cash that could help the company expand beyond Cambodia and Myanmar, where Myanmarload was launched in 2016. The websites churn out the kind of entertainment and celebrity gossip that was the foundation for the global success of U.S.-based BuzzFeed, a website that mixes entertainment, news and so-called viral content The 500 Startups deal, announced in March, was the first time a Silicon Valley venture capital fund had put its money into a Cambodian “startup,” a term for a newly-established business that nowadays usually refers to a tech, online or smartphone-related enterprise.
PHNOM PENH — Not so long ago, the backdrop in any photo of Phnom Penh landmarks such as the Royal Palace or Independence Monument would have been a low-rise panoply of four- and five-story townhouses. But in one of Southeast Asia’s more visually transformative building booms, dozens of apartment and office blocks have gone up around the Cambodian capital, sending land prices skyward. If not quite the cornerstone of the country’s economic growth, Phnom Penh’s construction boom has at least cemented Cambodia’s already rapid expansion, which has topped 7% most years for the past two decades.