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.
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.
JAKARTA — Major palm oil producers in Asia are hoping European governments will not go ahead with proposals that could undermine their businesses and damage the Indonesian and Malaysian economies. Proponents say palm oil requires less land to grow than other vegetable oil crops. “Palm oil is the most productive oil that exists today,” said Colin Lee, director of corporate affairs at Cargill Tropical Palm, which has around 80,000 hectares of oil palm plantation in the region. Indonesia and Malaysia provide around 85% of the world’s palm oil. Palm oil makes up between 10% and 12% of their total exports, according to global bank HSBC.
BELCOO, NORTHERN IRELAND — On the short bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo stand two clues that the crossing links not only a pair of towns, but two countries. The road-sign speed limits for Blacklion in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometers per hour. In Belcoo, in Northern Ireland, miles are used. Over the last two decades — particularly since the 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland — Belcoo, population 540, and Blacklion, population 194, have are effectively operated as one town. “There are no barriers, it’s how people want it,” said Eugene McCann, who runs a well-stocked grocery store and post office in Belcoo, his hometown.
DUBLIN — Ahead of the U.K. exit from the European Union in March 2019, several Asian financial institutions have already set up hubs in other cities within the bloc to ensure continued access to the continent. Ireland is among the countries hoping to benefit from Asian unease prompted by the Brexit vote, with Dublin regularly touted alongside Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Luxembourg and Paris as possible destinations for banks trying to reposition due to Brexit. So far, Nomura International and Daiwa Securities have set up hubs in Frankfurt, base of the European Central Bank, to serve their European businesses while still keeping their London presence; Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group has chosen Amsterdam for its new European base; and Bank of China has opened a new subsidiary in Dublin.
JAKARTA — Marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Nations, or ASEAN for short, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a gathering of Jakarta-based diplomats that “together with Indonesia, ASEAN is strong.” There is no doubt the region is on the up economically. The ten ASEAN member countries have a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion, bigger than any European country bar Germany, and if growth rates hold up, ASEAN as a whole will be behind only the European Union, China and the United States by 2030. ASEAN countries have committed to increased economic integration, and like the EU, to which ASEAN is often compared, the group has forged free trade agreements — with neighbours such as Australia, China and India. But did the Indonesian president really mean what he said about “strong,” beyond the reference to his own country, which with a population of 260 million is by far the biggest in ASEAN and has an economy more than twice the size of Thailand’s, the second biggest in the region?
JAKARTA — Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil, are resisting proposals by European parliamentarians that could limit their access to the second biggest palm oil market after India. Government ministers from Malaysia and Indonesia, along with some regional palm oil producers, met in Jakarta on April 11 to plan a response to a resolution approved on April 4 by European parliament members concerning “palm oil and deforestation.” The parliamentarians requested the EU to “introduce a single certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU market and phase out the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation by 2020.” They hope for an EU-wide ban on biodiesel made from palm oil by 2020, claiming that the expansion of palm oil plantations, mostly in Southeast Asia, is causing “massive forest fires, the drying up of rivers, soil erosion, peatland drainage, the pollution of waterways and overall loss of biodiversity.” Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar called the EU proposals an “insult,” while the foreign ministry accused the EU of “protectionism” and of ignoring the rights of millions of Indonesian farmers whose main source of income is from small oil palm plots.
JAKARTA — Stalled efforts by the U.S. and European Union to forge a trans-Atlantic trade pact will remain on ice for the foreseeable future — regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, according to the EU’s agriculture commissioner. Failure to finalize the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pact reflects growing protectionist sentiment in both the U.S. and Europe, and mirrors problems besetting its U.S.-Asian counterpart, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Negotiations on the TTIP will not resume until the new U.S. administration — led by Democrat Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival Donald Trump — settles into office, said Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. “These are on hold at the moment until we know what the new policy position of the U.S. will be,” Hogan said on Tuesday in Jakarta, on the final leg of an EU trade mission to Asia. “We have had a lot of political rhetoric from both candidates, probably to a greater extent from Mr. Trump who has expressed himself as anti-trade, Mrs. Clinton has said less than positive things about trade as well.”