Regional Roundup for Week of 8.23.18

EXSE FOCUS

Developers Press Ahead With Dams, Despite Lao Order to Halt New Hydropower Projects –Radio Free Asia Developers of two proposed hydropower projects in Laos are pressing ahead with plans to build the mega-dams on the Mekong River, despite a recent order by the government to halt new dam investments following a deadly breach in July that killed 35 people and displaced thousands. A developer working on plans for the 770-megawatt Pak Lay hydropower project in northwestern Laos’ Xayaburi province told RFA’s Lao Service that developers are in the process of conducting a feasibility study and have not been informed by provincial authorities that they should stop their work.

What Malaysia’s ‘Mahathir doctrine’ means for China-US rivalry –South China Morning Post Since returning to power after his stunning election victory in May, 93-year-old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has made a series of comments reflective of weaker states’ views of the evolving Asian order in the Trump-Xi era. These include a firmer stance on the South China Sea disputes, Malaysia’s relations with the Asian powers (especially concerning the controversial China-backed infrastructure projects and Japan’s regional role), as well as the future of multilateral trading arrangements.

Malaysia shelves Belt and Road projects with China –Investvine Malaysia has cancelled two multi-billion dollar projects that were part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road project, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad saying that Malaysia at the moment “cannot afford them.” Malaysia’s state news agency Bernama said Mahathir told Malaysian reporters during the final day of a visit to Beijing on August 21 that both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang understood the reasons behind the cancellations and “accepted them.”

    Related: Malaysia cancels two big Chinese projects, fearing they will bankrupt the country –Washington Post

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Australia-Singapore Military Ties in Focus With Navy Chief Voyage –The Diplomat Last week, Australia’s new navy chief paid his first visit to Singapore in his current capacity. The development put the focus on the ongoing defense relationship between the two Asian states, amid wider domestic and regional changes at play and a series of upcoming events within bilateral ties more specifically. As I observed previously in these pages, Australia and Singapore have long had a strong defense relationship as part of their wider ties, which were elevated to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership back in 2013.

Xi meets Malaysian PM, calling for better ties in new era –Xinhua  Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Beijing on Monday. Xi expressed his appreciation for the great importance Mahathir has attached to advancing ties between the two countries and his support for the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, as well as his contributions to accelerating regional cooperation within Asia. China is endeavoring to achieve its two centenary goals, meanwhile, Malaysia has embarked on its journey of building a new Malaysia, Xi noted, saying that bilateral ties stand at a new and pivotal point.

How to Improve U.S.-Indonesia Relations –CFR The Donald J. Trump administration has pursued a foreign policy toward Southeast Asia that has simultaneously courted and alienated countries in the region. The White House has taken a tougher approach to regional security, including increasing freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea and developing a regional concept, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” which draws clearer lines against coercive behavior in regional waters and trade practices, especially by Beijing.

China train project runs roughshod over Laos –Asia Times Lao officials have told Samkhan Koomsanyalat that she and her family will have to leave their home in Phu Din Daeng village, nestled in a bucolic valley amid limestone cliffs, to make way for the Laos-China railway.“The government has told us we have to leave, but they haven’t told us how much they will pay us,” said Samkhan, who currently lives about eight kilometers outside of Vang Vieng town. “We will not move unless we are paid.” Now her once peaceful home is next to a giant construction site, near the planned Vang Vieng Railway Station.

Myanmar, Japan to build Aung San National Green Park in Yangon –Myanmar Times Japan and Myanmar will sign and an MOU to develop and international-standard mixed development project near the Kyaikkasan Stadium in Tamwe township, Yangon, Daw Khin San Hlaing, member of the National Economic Co-ordination Committee, told The Myanmar Times. On August 19, the government met with residents of Kyaikkasan to explain the project, which will include international-standard sports and recreational facilities as well as a business complex. The new Aung San National Green Park will involve Japan investing in the sports and recreational area, while Myanmar will focus on building the business complex, which will be developed over one third of the 100 acre Kyaikkasan sports area.

ASEAN–China Maritime Exercise CUES greater SCS stability –East Asia Forum In early August, Singapore hosted the table-top exercise for the inaugural ASEAN–China Maritime Exercise. This was a follow up to the ASEAN–China Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting in February 2018, where the defence ministers agreed to launch the ASEAN–China Maritime Exercise in 2018. At the table-top exercise, ASEAN and China agreed to use the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as a basis for developing plans to respond to maritime incidents, including search-and-rescue and medical evacuation procedures.

Mahathir looks east. Abe doesn’t look him back. –EastbySoutheast  Just one month after his surprise victory against the scandal-ridden and increasingly-authoritarian incumbent Nazib Razak in May, the new Malaysian Prime Minister Dr.Mahathir bin Mohamad landed in Tokyo for his first foreign visit, where he chatted with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since then, Mahathir has aggressively courted Japan for investment, aid, and loans, visiting Japan once more in August before even announcing the dates for his much-anticipated first official visit to Beijing.

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT  

‘Empty pocket season’: Dayak women farmers grapple with the impacts of oil palm plantations –Mongabay “When oil palm was given out by the district head I didn’t accept it. I am still angry at the oil palm companies,” says Monica Mensea. At 83, Mensea is the oldest woman in her village of Long Bentuk, a Dayak Medang indigenous community in East Kalimantan, a province in Indonesian Borneo. Though her body is weakening and her brown eyes are cloudy with cataracts, Mensea’s mind is as sharp as ever.

In Search of Maritime Grand Strategy: Thailand’s fisheries policy under the military rule –Mekong Eye  Thai governments, for decades, have never treated the problem of forced labors and other serious allegations against its billion-dollar fishing industry as its primary concerns. Worse still, since the coup in 2014 Thailand’s ruling junta has constantly faced the mounting pressure at home and abroad. Portrayed as a repressive authoritarian regime, the tasks for reconstituting the image of Thailand as well as resolving the junta’s crisis of legitimacy are of paramount importance, overshadowing the efforts to eliminate modern-day slavery in Thai fisheries.

Komodo protesters say no to development in the dragons’ den –Mongabay Locals and activists have denounced plans to build tourism infrastructure in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, a string of sun-kissed islands best known for their resident giant lizards. Developers PT Segara Komodo Lestari (SKL) and PT Komodo Wildlife Ecotourism (KWE) have already pocketed building permits for the park’s three larger islands, Padar, Rinca and Komodo. The latter two are home to the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the world’s largest living lizard and a threatened species on the IUCN Red List.

Seizing Opportunity In Southeast Asia’s Energy Market –Forbes There has been an almost never-ending stream of negative news about Southeast Asia’s energy market, once one of the globe’s most active. A decade of political unrest in Thailand, creeping nationalization in Indonesia, conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and territorial disputes in Vietnam’s offshore market coupled with low global energy prices and difficult operating environments have all discouraged foreign investment. This obscures the fact the market holds significant potential for foreign investors and operators – just not in the same way it once did.

CHINA

China shifts to Iranian tankers to keep oil flowing amid US sanctions: Report –CNBC Chinese buyers of Iranian oil are starting to shift their cargoes to vessels owned by National Iranian Tanker for nearly all of their imports to keep supply flowing amid the re-imposition of economic sanctions by the United States. The shift demonstrates that China, Iran’s biggest oil customer, wants to keep buying Iranian crude despite the sanctions, which were put back after the United States withdrew in May from a 2015 agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

More than tariffs: China sees trade war as a new US containment tactic –South China Morning Post For nearly two weeks, China’s top leaders disappeared from public view as they gathered at a secluded beach resort in eastern Hebei province this month. Though the heavily guarded gathering in Beidaihe was secret, their agenda was likely dominated by the trade war with the United States – and the emerging view that the nations’ escalating tensions go beyond trade and economic disputes.

China Reconsiders LNG Tariff Threat –Radio Free Asia  China has sown confusion in international energy markets after reconsidering plans to slap tariffs on U.S. crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG). The conflicting signals on China’s energy imports reflect Beijing’s uncertainty about the risks of retaliatory measures as it tries to match tariffs imposed by the United States in the escalating trade war. The reversal also highlights China’s concern about its growing dependence on foreign oil and gas with imports of crude now nearing 70 percent of the country’s supplies.

El Salvador Recognizes China in Blow to Taiwan –New York Times El Salvador severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan on Tuesday and established ties with China, leaving only 17 nations that officially recognize the Taiwanese government. Latin America and the Caribbean have been an important bastion of support for Taiwan. Nine of the countries that maintain diplomatic ties are in the region. That has been eroding, however. Panama broke ties with Taiwan’s government in 2017, and the Dominican Republic did the same in May 2018.

Why countries might want out of China’s Belt and Road –Washington Post China has never spared any effort to portray its Belt and Road Initiative, a grand, trillion-dollar-plus global investment plan, as a positive vision for the world. Last year, China released cringeworthy videos featuring children who were, somewhat unrealistically, excited by the idea of infrastructure investment. “The future’s coming now,” a group of children sang in one clip. “The Belt and Road is how.” But not everyone is convinced that Belt and Road is such a great plan — either for China or the countries in which it’s investing.

China’s economic capital in the Philippines: Problems and prospects –EastbySoutheast Over the last two decades the improved bilateral relations between China and the Philippines led to the increased inflows of Chinese economic capital—as foreign direct investment (FDI) and aid—in the Philippines. I argue that China’s foreign aid, if managed correctly will immensely benefit the Philippines. During the Arroyo administration (2001-2010), the number of Chinese aid projects ranging from commercial and concessional loans to grants increased exponentially.


SOUTHEAST ASIA

Wissanu: Poll to happen May 25 at the latest –Bangkok Post Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam says the general election will be held on Feb 24 at the earliest or May 5 at the latest. His comment came after the Election Commission (EC) announced on Saturday the poll would be held on Feb 24, according to its calculations. Mr Wissanu said on Monday no attempts had been made to delay the poll. “Up until now, there has been no factor that may delay or cancel the plan.” //If the election occurs after February 2019, this will be the 6th time that Praytuth’s government has changed the election date.

What Maneuvering Around the 2019 Elections Says About Indonesian Democracy –CFR The past two weeks, both major contenders for the 2019 Indonesian presidential election took steps in advance of the contest next April, which almost surely will pit incumbent President Joko Widodo or Jokowi, against his rival from the last election, former lieutenant general and Gerindra party chief Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi picked his running mate, tapping Ma’ruf Amin, a cleric and head of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the mass movement that often claims it is the largest biggest Islamic organization in the world.

Vietnam Controls Inflation, Avoids Broader Economic Fallout –VOA Vietnam is trying to get a grip on inflation that might otherwise threaten its quick economic growth again as it did a decade ago, analysts and domestic media say. Consumer prices in June were 4.67 percent higher than in the same month last year following an increase of 3.29 percent in the first half of 2018, the Vietnamese General Statistics Office said. The legislature had set a target of no more than 4 percent. Prices of commodities, including crude oil, are contributing heavily to inflation, and a fuel tax proposed for October would exacerbate it, the VnExpress International news website said. Currency weakness, a rising middle class and credit growth are further raising prices.

Cambodian Opposition Leader Will Stay in Jail, Court Rules –New York Times Cambodia’s imprisoned opposition leader was denied bail by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, disappointing supporters who had hoped he might be freed now that the country’s widely criticized elections are over. Kem Sokha, leader of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party, has been held without trial for nearly a year, accused of treason. He is in solitary confinement in a remote prison near the Vietnamese border. Several Cambodian activists and journalists have been released from prison in recent days, which led some supporters to hope that Mr. Kem Sokha would be next.

This week’s news digest was curated by Kevin Rutigliano.

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