KUALA LUMPUR — “We do not want to choose between the United States and China.” So said Malaysia’s Deputy Defense Minister Chin Tong Liew during a speech last week on his country’s relations with China. Earlier this month the U.S. Secretary of Defence and his Chinese counterpart told a conference of defence ministers in Singapore that they do not expect other countries to takes sides. But many in Southeast Asia fear this is a choice they will have to make, given the increasingly-acrimonious Chinese-American rivalry.
JAKARTA — As oil prices fluctuate and markets brace for the impact of the end of a US sanctions waiver on fuel purchases from Iran, Asia’s energy companies are making deals closer to home as bigger global players pull away from the region. Southeast Asia has already seen up to US$2.8 billion in mergers and acquisition (M&A) deals so far this year, according to Wood Mackenzie, a United Kingdom-based consultancy. Those deals have been led by US-based Murphy Oil selling its Malaysia operations to PTTEP, a subsidiary of Thailand’s national energy company, for $2.1 billion. Wood Mackenzie predicts that up to $14 billion of energy assets could change hands in the region this year if, as expected, more M&A deals like the Murphy-PTTEP deal are completed. Big deals such as the Murphy-PTTEP sale represent a significant jump, given that a typical Southeast Asian oil and gas M&A deal over the past five years has been worth a mere $111.6 million, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. Total annual energy deal values in Asia have ranged between $5.4 billion and $8.7 billion in the past four years, according to Wood Mackenzie data. Wood Mackenzie’s Andrew Harwood said that he expects buyers to be “Southeast Asian NOCs [national oil companies] and smaller regional players” with back-up from “some of the mid-tier IOCs [international oil companies] that retain Southeast Asian ambitions.”
LUANG PRABANG — Although Laos will soon to join the World Trade Organization, in economic terms it remains very much Southeast Asia’s forgotten country, a landlocked backpacker magnet of unexploded ordnance and winding roads, nicely topped off by stunning jungle, river and mountain vistas. Lying between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, Communist-ruled Laos has worked off what economists like to call “a low base,” with the country’s economy averaging 7-8 percent gross domestic product growth, built on hydropower development – which has raised the hackles of international environmentalists – and a mining boom. The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) started opening slowly to the outside world in the late 1980s, around the same time as neighboring Vietnam’s doi moi or renovation reforms got underway, in which a similar one-party Communist regime slowly liberalized parts of its economy. But despite the parallel paths, Vietnam’s much bigger economy – though recently struggling with slowing growth, graft scandals and inflation – is much more diversified than that of Laos. One of the world’s poorest countries, Laos’ annual per capita gross domestic product by purchasing power parity is just US$2,700 per year, ranking it 177th in the world and well below Vietnam’s US$3,400.
BANGKOK – With Western countries and Japan seeking to get around China’s domination of the crucial but mis-named “rare earths” sector, a potentially game-changing processing site slated for Malaysia looks set to become a major election issue as that country gears up to vote. Opposition politicians and local activists from Kuantan – where Australia’s Lynas Corp hopes to build a processing plant for rare earth minerals mined in Australia – are protesting against the project. The plant will provide “a crucial link in developing a non-Chinese supply of rare earth metals,” according to Yaron Voronas of the Technology and Rare Earths Center, an online forum for the industry. The 17 materials, which are not in fact “rare”, but difficult to mine in commercially viable amounts, are growing in economic and strategic importance because they are a key component in high-tech devices such as mobile phones and computers, as well as military hardware such as night-vision goggles and guided missiles. Despite having only around 35% of estimated global rare earth deposits, China currently supplies approximately 95% of the global market – as mining and processing in western countries has been largely mothballed over environmental worries. Green concerns have animated protests against the proposed Malaysian site, which awaits the granting of a Temporary Operating Licence from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, initially approved in February but postponed pending an appeal by locals and activists who have come out against the project