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.
SINGAPORE — After a saga lasting nearly two decades, Australia will on March 6 sign a boundary treaty with East Timor that will allow the Southeast Asian country to earn much-needed revenue from gas fields under the Timor Sea. “The Parties have reached agreement on a treaty which delimits the maritime boundary between them in the Timor Sea,” read an announcement made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on February 25 after negotiations in Kuala Lumpur. “This marks a new chapter in our relationship with Timor-Leste, bringing us together as neighbours sharing a boundary, and as partners and friend,” said Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop in a March 4 press statement. Australia’s decision should strengthen ties with Southeast Asian countries as it finds itself torn between the interests of the U.S. and China. “Undoubtedly it will help in that way,” said John Blaxland, director of the Southeast Asia Institute at The Australian National University. Australia’s previous reluctance to establish a maritime boundary with the East Timorese prompted criticism from Dili and from campaign groups in Australia. “This treaty will hopefully go someway to restoring its reputation which definitely took a hit due to its bullying of East Timor” said Tom Clarke, spokesman for the Timor Sea Justice Campaign.
JAKARTA — Nearly three years after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean, Australia, China and Malaysia on Tuesday called off the underwater search, saying “no new information has been discovered” to solve what has become one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. A review of the plane’s likely trajectory as well as new information about ocean currents led experts to conclude that the aircraft might have crashed into the Indian Ocean north of the search zone, and that crews should have been hunting in a 15,000-square-mile zone to the north. The Australian government rejected that recommendation, saying the findings were not precise enough to warrant moving the search. Australia, China and Malaysia, which have funded the search, said last year that the operation would be called off once all of the 46,000-mile zone had been investigated. “It is obvious that the search should be to the north,” Ghislain Wattrelos, a 52-year-old Frenchman whose wife and two children were aboard the aircraft, said in an interview.
JAKARTA — There is, it seems, a link between hard work and untimely death in Asia. Perhaps the most luridly tragic side effect of Asia’s push for growth is karoshi, a Japanese term describing death from overwork, often by suicides but also linked to exhaustion and stress. Japan saw compensation claims for karoshi and illnesses related to overwork rise to a record high of 2,310 cases in 2015. A government white paper published this October warned that almost a quarter of the workforce could be vulnerable to karoshi, with the benchmark set at employees who work more than 80 hours of overtime each month.
The suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, an employee of advertising agency Dentsu, in December 2015 seems to have sparked a more determined push for reform. The 24-year-old jumped to her death from a company dormitory after putting in more than 100 hours of overtime the previous month. On Nov. 7, Tokyo Labor Bureau officials raided Dentsu offices on suspicion of violating labor laws. The following day, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, minister of health, labor and welfare, said the ministry “will thoroughly investigate, eyeing the possibility of sending the case to prosecutors.”
JAKARTA — On the face of it, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his soon-to-be American counterpart U.S. President-elect Donald Trump could not be more dissimilar. Widodo, or “Jokowi” as he is known, is understated, self-effacing and wry, while Trump is abrasive, brash and loquacious. Before entering Indonesian politics, Widodo was a furniture exporter, while Trump, a real estate mogul, has long been one of the best-known U.S. businessmen. During a five-minute phone call on Nov. 28, it was reported that the two leaders hit it off. “It seems because both are lifelong businessmen they really connect well, there is good chemistry,” said Thomas Lembong, chairman of the Indonesia Investment Co-ordination Board, the government investment agency, speaking to media at the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Jakarta. “They had a very cordial telephone conversation,” added Lembong, who was Indonesia’s trade minister before a cabinet reshuffle in mid-2016. If true, the rapport between Trump and Widodo could offset any Indonesian disappointment over the incoming U.S. administration’s intention to ditch the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a far-reaching free trade pact between the U.S. and 11 other Asia-Pacific countries. Indonesia was not among the initial 12 signatories to TPP, but had wanted to join the bloc. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, Lembong said Jakarta would continue to try to liberalize its trading arrangements with other countries. “President Jokowi reaffirmed our commitment to free trade, to international investment. We are very committed to concluding our free trade agreements with the European Union, with Australia. Our economic agenda remains unchanged,” Lembong told the Nikkei Asian Review.
JAKARTA — A year after China began phasing out its infamous one child policy, global sports and fashion brands are hoping to sell more babywear and childrenswear in the world’s second biggest economy. “It seems reasonable to assume that now people are allowed to have more than one child, many will take advantage of the opportunity,” said a spokesperson for Adidas, a German sportswear giant perhaps best known for the three stripe logo that has long adorned the shirts and boots of the world’s best football players. In a recent survey of the Chinese childrenswear market, business research group Euromonitor forecast a 62.5% sales volume increase in babywear up to 2020, with a 38.3% increase in childrenswear projected for the same period. An Adidas spokesman told the Nikkei Asian Review that “the market for kids’ sports products and apparel continues to go from strength to strength in China and we fully expect this trend to continue.”
JAKARTA — China and Cambodia reaffirmed their solid relationship during a two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Phnom Penh, which ended on Oct. 14. Xi’s meetings with Cambodian government leaders yielded 31 agreements, including one that doubles Cambodia’s quota for rice exports to China to 200,000 tons a year. Cambodia’s rice sector has been hit by falling prices, affecting farmers and millers, and the government has been scrambling to offset the damage, which could undermine ruling party support among the country’s rural majority ahead of local elections in 2017. Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen recently visited China, where he pushed for an increase in the rice quota. “About 80% of our people are farmers,” Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers told the Nikkei Asian Review. “This agreement is very important to the rural economy.”
JAKARTA — After deteriorating during the early part of President Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure, Sri Lanka’s relations with China appear to be on firmer footing as both sides continue to iron out differences over Chinese investments in the island country. “In most of the cases, we found we got better terms,” Kabir Hashim, Sri Lanka’s minister of public enterprise development, told the Nikkei Asian Review. He added that a few more Beijing-backed projects are currently under review. “In some cases we renegotiated the loans, in some cases the contracts had legal issues, which we cleared up,” Hashim said, without going into detail about specific projects. Under the previous president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka forged close relations with China as Beijing’s economy boomed and China’s overseas economic reach grew rapidly during Rajapaksa’s decade in office from 2005.
JAKARTA — The international tribunal decision against Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea has provoked a mixed response in the region, with indications that it may tone down some rivalries while sharpening others. Most revealingly, after years of acrimony with China over rival claims in the disputed waters, the Philippines initially took a conciliatory tone, inviting China to bilateral talks over the matter. Despite a jubilant reaction from his countrymen following the July 12 ruling, which was overwhelmingly in favor of Manila, the normally strident new President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not “flaunt” the decision. Instead, he reiterated his desire to improve relations with China, his country’s biggest source of imports. “War is not an option,” Duterte said. “So, what is the other side? Peaceful talk.” Despite Duterte’s muted response, China has refused to compromise — insisting that any talks must exclude mention of the tribunal’s verdict. The tribunal, convened at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, suggested that Chinese naval maneuvers in waters around islands near the Philippines are illegal. Yet Beijing has continued to block Filipino fishermen from working around Scarborough Shoal, 190km off the Philippine coast and 800km from mainland China.
TOKYO/JAKARTA — China’s claims to historical rights in the South China Sea have no legal basis, an international tribunal at The Hague ruled on Tuesday. In the first international ruling on artificial islands and military facilities built by Beijing in the disputed waters, the tribunal sided with the Philippines, flatly denying China’s historic claim to the “nine-dash” line, which encompasses most of the sea. A panel of five judges at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Netherlands also noted that no maritime feature claimed by China along the Spratly Islands constitute a fully entitled island, and therefore cannot generate an exclusive economic zone or a continental shelf. The tribunal, established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, said there was “no evidence” China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters in the South China Sea or its resources. Moreover, the tribunal said any historical rights “were extinguished” when the U.N. convention established EEZs.