Most Asian economies do not innovate in line with growth levels – dpa international

DUBLIN — Most East Asian countries “innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels” and could therefore struggle to sustain recent economic growth, according to the World Bank. Countries in the region are dogged by “insufficient staff skills and limited financing options,” the bank said in a report published late Tuesday, with firms often seeming wary of investing in innovation because “policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.” Lower-than-expected innovation could lead to questions about “whether the region’s past model of development can continue to deliver rapid growth and poverty reduction,” the bank said.

London trial starts for four accused in deadly migrant smuggling plot – dpa international

DUBLIN — A lorry container became a “tomb” for 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated while being smuggled into Britain in 2019, a jury at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales was told on Wednesday. “Obviously, any time you fill an airtight container with a large number of people, where they will be left for hours and hours … it is fraught with danger,” said prosecution lawyer Bill Emlyn Jones. British resident Gheorghe Nica and Irish lorry driver Eamonn Harrison face 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist illegal immigration. Valentin Calota, also listed as a British resident, and Christopher Kennedy, from Northern Ireland, face the latter charge, to which Nica pleaded guilty ahead of the trial. The 39 bodies were discovered in the container after it was parked in an industrial estate in Essex in October 2019. The container had been taken by road from Dunkirk in France to Zeebrugge in Belgium, from where it was put on a Britain-bound ferry.

Southeast Asia most vulnerable to coronavirus spread – Licas News

With concerns growing about the possible spread of Novel Coronavirus, facemasks are an increasingly-common sight in cities such as Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Southeast Asia is the region most vulnerable to the new coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 170 people in China and infected almost 8,000 since the turn of the year. Several dozen cases of the virus have been reported across the region, with 14 confirmed in Thailand — the most of any country outside of China — as of Jan. 28.  By Jan. 30, 10 cases were reported in Singapore. Hundreds more people are under medical observation or in quarantine, pending confirmation of infection or a disappearance of symptoms. The number of cases in Malaysia rose to eight on Jan. 30. “It looks like the volume of airline travelers from cities in mainland China are highly correlated with the number of cases reported in affected countries,” said Shengjie Lai of the University of Southampton, co-author of an analysis of travel trends within and from China which aims to predict what places might be most at risk of further outbreak.  Of the 30 most exposed cities outside China, 14 are in Southeast Asia, with Bangkok facing the highest risk globally. Singapore, Phuket, and Kuala Lumpur are among the 10 cities most at risk. Seven of the 14 countries deemed most vulnerable are in Southeast Asia, according to the study, which was published on Jan. 28.

New power plants blamed for turning Mekong River blue – The Times

PHNOM PENH – With horror images showing fields of plastic rubbish bobbing on turquoise seas around the world, one could be forgiven for welcoming the sight of one of the world’s great rivers turning a fresh blue. However the azure hue seen in recent weeks along stretches of the Mekong is stirring concerns that dozens of hydroelectric dams, the biggest of which are in China, are interrupting the river’s natural flow and blocking sediment that should be carried to farmland downriver that helps feed 60 million people. Earlier this month the Mekong River Commission, a regional intergovernmental body, put the colour change down to “extremely low flow, slow drop in the river sediments,” after warning last month that the Mekong region could face serious drought over the turn of the year.

Life-giving Mekong dying a slow death – Asia Times

BANGKOK — A confluence of drought and dams along the Mekong River has renewed concerns about the future of the 4,763 kilometer waterway, upon which tens of millions of people depend for their livelihoods in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The number of dams impeding the Mekong’s flow is fast multiplying, drying up segments of the once fast-flowing river and leaving the region facing imminent drought, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a regional intergovernmental body that aims to jointly manage the river’s water resources. “China’s operators of the Jinghong Dam and the Thai operators of the newly opened Xayaburi dam in Laos conducted operations that actually exacerbated the drought,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank. “Those dams and more than 70 others now operational in Laos and China all contribute to deteriorating downstream conditions related to the drought.”

Asia’s hidden economies point to harsh realities – Asia Times

PHNOM PENH — The deaths of 39 migrants found dead last month in the back of a truck in the United Kingdom were a grim and tragic reminder that, despite Asia’s world-beating growth rates, poverty and low pay continue to push people to risk their lives to work overseas. Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has quintupled to US$2,563 over the last 15 years, buoyed by one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but all 39 dead were economic migrants who had left impoverished areas of central and northern Vietnam in search of more gainful employment abroad. As with elsewhere in Asia, these rural regions are dominated by the so-called informal economy, outside of the reach of government protection and regulation. Based on estimates published last year by the World Bank, 47% of all employment in the East Asia and Pacific Region is informal.

Despite tensions with U.S., Cambodia joins trade war beneficiaries – Asia Times

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.

China rebuffs US criticism over South China Sea, threatens ‘fight to the end’ over Taiwan- Asia Times

China’s defense chief Wei Fenghe addresses the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in Singapore, June 2, 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

SINGAPORE — China’s top security official articulated today (June 2) an uncompromising defense of his country’s stance on the contested South China Sea and threats to invade Taiwan in an anticipated address at a top security conference in Singapore. “Building facilities on one’s own territories is not militarization,” Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe said, responding to accusations that China has militarized islands in the sea as a means of taking effective control of what the US and others regard as international watersWei also warned of a “fight to the end” with the US in their escalating trade spat, and a “fight at all costs” for “reunification” with Taiwan, the island country China considers a renegade province. The US has recently upped its strategic support for the democratically-run Taiwan, much to Beijing’s chagrin.“No attempts to split China will succeed. Any interference in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” said Wei, dressed in his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uniform.

Remittances to Asia bigger than GDPs of Vietnam and Myanmar combined – Asia Times

KUALA LUMPUR — New economic data shows that foreign remittances sent to Asian countries hit US$300 billion for the first time last year, underscoring the ever-rising importance overseas work for the region’s laborers despite world-beating economic growth rates. Freshly released World Bank statistics put the total amount of remittances for 2018 to countries in South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific at $299.6 billion, a sum that does not include what are believed to be substantial informal flows of money sent home by regional migrants. Globally and in Asia, remittance figures are growing year by year, despite heady 6-7% gross domestic product (GDP) growth in countries such as the Philippines, a nation which has around 10 million of its citizens working abroad across various vocations. The 2018 amount of regional remittances was around $25 billion greater than in 2017 and $125 billion more than in 2008. Worldwide, remittance flows now account for more than foreign direct investment to middle and low income countries excluding China, the World Bank data shows.

As Southeast Asia muzzles media, investors do business as usual – Nikkei Asian Review

BANGKOK — The arrest last week of a high-profile journalist in the Philippines and a gag order against a Thai television station are the latest reminders that Southeast Asia’s press freedoms rest on the whims of governments. But after investors poured a record $145 billion into the region last year, there is little reason to think they will be deterred by the latest clampdowns. Last year’s inflow, recently reported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, included an unprecedented sum for Vietnam, a one-party communist state. As usual, around half of the money went via Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965 and where reporting is stymied by prolific use of the courts against foreign critics of the ruling elites. “In general, if we compare to other factors — political stability, infrastructure, predictability of rules — [press freedom] is not a decisive factor” in investment moves, said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia politics research at Verisk Maplecoft. Nonetheless, a free press can at least inform business decisions, according to Ebb Hinchliffe, Executive Director of American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, and John D. Forbes, Senior Adviser to the chamber. “A responsible free press is more useful and important than a censored one for the purpose of being informed,” they said in an email.