Category Archives: ASEAN

Mekong lessons: Reflecting on October trip to Southeast Asia

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I’ve just returned from my first business trip to Southeast Asia with the Stimson Center’s “Team Mekong.”  Below are a few lessons learned and brief observations from our visits in Bangkok, Kunming, Phnom Penh, Can Tho, Hanoi, and Saigon.

Good ideas gain currency

Before I joined the Stimson team in June, I must confess that my outlook on the future of the Mekong region was not filled with optimism. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it is to join a team that is developing pragmatic and innovative solutions to some of the region’s toughest issues. Moreover, it’s extremely satisfying to watch the deployment of an idea gain momentum among decision makers and begin to take on a life of its own. Simply put, ideas work. At public forums in Bangkok, Kunming and Hanoi and in meetings with regional government officials Stimson’s “Team Mekong” launched a more refined version of the concept of the need for a “New Narrative” on Mekong hydropower development first mooted by my colleagues, SEA Program Director Rich Cronin and Research Associate Courtney Weatherby this March. The New Narrative challenges the current narrative that the construction of 11 dams on the Mekong’s main stem is a prevailing ‘domino theory’ of inevitability based on an emerging body of evidence. Stimson’s most recent report and its main argument can be found here, but it was encouraging to hear the idea confirmed when well informed hydropower experts placed their bets on no more than five dams, all of them above Vientiane excepting Don Sahong.

So if the Lao PDR government is banking on income generated from the construction of eleven main stem dams but only gets five in the end, shouldn’t it consider alternatives? Considering the known and unknown costs of downstream effects on fisheries and livelihoods, it seems prudent for Laos to give the entire basin development plan another look.  As a sustainable, one-country alternative to relieving the pressure of hydropower development on the Mekong’s main stem along with the unbearable downstream costs related to impacted fisheries and livelihoods, the Stimson team is continuing to develop the concept of a Laos national power grid designed for both the export of hydropower and national electrification as an alternative to Laos’ current economic development plan.

The grid would be designed to optimized trade-offs related to the food- water-energy nexus on a basin wide scale. On this trip, we received much encouragement for the national power grid concept from regional government officials, but challenges still remain in convincing Laos as to why national electrification will provide more benefits than the current plan.  As a suggestion, Vietnam, as a most concerned state in regard to downstream impacts can, share the story of the benefits of rural electrification with its neighbor through the history of its own development.  Further, Vietnam’s electricity demand is increasing at 12% year-on-year prior to the TPP and could act as a major purchaser of power generated from a Laos’s national grid.

No clear trends on the China Factor.

I see no clear evidence that China’s state-owned enterprises are trending toward improving practices in Southeast Asia or that there is a concerted move from policy-motivated concessional projects to those based on financial viability. A few firms might be making improvements here or there, but even these firms are not willing to release the details and data supporting these so-called improvements. In the case of Hydrolancang’s Lower Sesan 2 project in Cambodia, the developer claims its fish passages will be successful in protecting vulnerable fish species, but will not release the research or plans for those fish passages for public observation or scrutiny. The message for Hydrolancang and other similar Chinese dam developers hasn’t changed: “We’ve conducted 100% of research relevant to these projects, and we’re confident that all problems will be solved. You only need to trust us.” But trust is built on results and transparent public relations. China simply runs a poor track record on these factors in the Mekong region.

A surprising development is that China’s firms are playing the victim when discussing their Southeast Asian projects. Officers of these firms claim Beijing put them to task on these projects while the firms have to bear the risks and interact with prickly civil society groups, unwarranted Western criticism, and unstable host governments – the Myitsone dam serves as a case in point. Yet they fail to acknowledge the unbalanced stream of benefits granted by concessional contracts or the processes through which these benefits are gained.

Further, these firms often claim to strictly follow the laws and regulations of host countries related to environmental and social impacts. Yet weak states like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have promulgated little to nothing in terms of environmental or social safeguards, so these claims of being responsible legal investors are interpreted as trite and non-persuasive.

Lastly, some anecdotal evidence points to Chinese money earmarked for overseas infrastructure development drying up in this latest round of China’s economic downturn. This discovery supports emerging conversations that Chinese firms are investing in more commercially viable or “bankable” projects. However, at the same time China’s One Belt One Road initiative appears to be creating a pool for free money given out on soft terms to any firm interested in constructing a project vaguely related to the objectives of the One Belt One Road whatever they may be. When weighing whether or not China’s upcoming investment on Mekong main-stem dams in the pipeline will be based on strategic motivations or sound financial decision making, this last point is particularly concerning.

New institutional frameworks are forming to coordinate regional policy making.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Mekong River Commission is NOT the institution to solve the big issues rising the Mekong region, though it still constitutes the only treaty-based intergovernmental organization in the region, and its technical review of the Xayaburi dam and its anticipated critique of the Don Sahong project have caused both developers to delay the projects and spend hundreds of millions on significant engineering changes and additional fisheries research. But in terms of actual governmental engagement, other institutions and bilateral arrangements are beginning to fill this gap. The US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), for instance, in its still nascent form aims to promote higher standards on water resource management and assessment of infrastructure development within the region. The LMI brings together the line ministries of the four MRC countries and Myanmar several times a year in working groups both on functional “pillars” and cross-cutting issues like the water-energy-food nexus, and the prime ministers of the LMI countries meet in the wings of the annual ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where transboundary issues and impacts from hydropower dams and other major infrastructure projects can be raised to the extent that the leaders are willing to engage on them.

In response to both the US-led LMI and the waning power of the MRC, China is assembling a multi-lateral organization for joint river basin management called the Lancang-Mekong Dialogue Mechanism (LMDM). Mekong watchers should pay attention to the outcomes of the first vice-ministerial meeting of the LMDM on November 12. Further, Cambodia is negotiating a transboundary environmental impact assessment treaty with Laos and Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are authoring new sets of environmental and social safeguards related to infrastructure development.

These frameworks are all coming together quite quickly. Yet even the US led LMI is said to be underfunded, uncoordinated, and unsure of its product. China’s forming of its own river basin organization is a welcomed foray into multi-lateral diplomacy, a realm often eschewed by the Chinese, but the intent and purpose of this organization is unclear. Serious cooperation on the use of the water and hydropower development will be highly limited so long as China refuses on national security grounds to provide downstream countries with the results of its hydrological and water quality studies, or the operation of its dams and other water releases from its monster reservoirs.  And whether or not new safeguards in the Mekong’s weakest countries will have teeth or just pay green-washing lip-service is unknown.  These developments all deserve our close attention.

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A More Comprehensive Partnership: What the US should seek from Jokowi’s visit

This is Indonesian President Joko Widodo's first visit to the US since taking office more than a year ago. Photo used under Wikimedia commons license.

This is Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s first visit to the US since taking office more than a year ago. Photo used under Wikimedia commons license.

For leaders of large Asian countries, the United States is the focus for fall 2016. After India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping both visited the US in September, Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo landed on US soil this week, for the first time since he took office a little more than a year ago. Today, Indonesia sits at an important crossroads as it engages with the US and China, all while forging its own identity in Southeast Asia. During Jokowi’s visit, the US should build on its existing comprehensive partnership with Indonesia by strengthening bilateral security and defense ties and continuing to court Indonesia economically, specifically in light of the newly-agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Washington should also push Jakarta to use its perennial leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region.
Since the Suharto era, the US and Indonesia have maintained close security ties. This facet of the bilateral relationship should be augmented during this month’s visit. Jokowi aims to make Indonesia a maritime power that serves as a strategic and economic link between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The US should help Jokowi realize this goal by providing assistance as Indonesia plans to create a coast guard independent of its navy. This assistance could come in the form of the US Coast Guard training its Indonesian counterpart and possible joint exercises in 2016. Moreover, as the world’s maritime superpower, the US has much to offer Indonesia as it looks to upgrade its own capabilities. A new strategic dialogue focused on maritime security would serve to strengthen bilateral ties and help Jakarta attain its maritime goals.
Additionally, Indonesia has struggled with piracy throughout the archipelago and is host to a low-level insurgency in its western islands. Recently, more than 500 Indonesians have traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State (IS). The US should offer to assist Indonesia in combating both off-shore piracy and terrorism through an agreement for enhanced cooperation on terrorism and intelligence sharing.
In Jokowi’s visit, the US also has an opportunity to enhance economic ties with Indonesia. The country of 250 million has great economic potential; however the first year of the Jokowi presidency has been marked by low growth rates and disappointing economic stimulus packages. Jokowi desires to attract investment from US businesses, however regulatory red-tape and a penchant for economic nationalism has scared away foreign enterprises in the past. To solve this issue and benefit both sides, Washington and Jakarta should lay the groundwork for a new bilateral investment agreement.
In addition, the US should continue to court Indonesia to join the TPP. With negotiations recently concluding in Atlanta, now is the perfect time to remind Indonesia of the economic benefits of joining the trade pact. In the past, the Indonesian response to the TPP has been lukewarm, though fears of falling behind its neighbors in attracting foreign direct investment could spur Jakarta to reconsider the treaty.
Lastly, Washington should not miss this chance to encourage Indonesia to continue its leadership role in ASEAN. As the regional bloc’s largest country and strongest democracy, Indonesia holds a special place among the member states and its past efforts have shaped political transitions in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. The US should push Jokowi to continue to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region, especially at a time when these institutions are under renewed peril in Thailand and Myanmar. Additionally, ASEAN member states face a threat from Chinese
expansion in the South China Sea. A strong Indonesia is necessary if ASEAN is able to stand-up to its northern neighbor’s provocations.

 

After more than five years, the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership could use a refresher and Jokowi’s visit to the US provides the perfect opportunity. By enhancing military-to-military ties, pushing for a new bilateral investment treaty and encouraging Indonesia to continue its leadership in ASEAN, the US can develop Indonesia into a robust regional partner capable of supporting the United States’ interests in Southeast Asia.

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John Kerry’s 2015 ASEAN Summit Speech 8.6.15

Transcript of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech and Q&A at 2015 ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  August 6.2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. So let me begin, if I may, by thanking our Malaysian hosts for their very warm welcome and for having really put together an exemplary ASEAN and regional forum as well as the entertainment and gathering us. We really appreciate the generous hospitality and quality of their chairmanship for the past year.

I think all of you know that ASEAN has really long been the centerpiece of the Asia Pacific’s multilateral architecture and it’s really also a key of the United States’ ongoing focus on the initiative to rebalance our resources, our time, our energy, our effort with respect to the region.

In my remarks at Singapore Management University earlier this week, I spoke about how we seek a region in which countries come to each other’s aid when natural disasters strike or human emergencies occur. In that spirit, I want to express my personal and my country’s condolences to all those affected by the flooding and the very heavy rains in Myanmar. The United States – I said there would be additional assistance. The United States will provide $600,000 of immediate relief through USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. And we have a team on the ground now working with local officials in order to meet the most urgent needs. We will continue to follow the situation and we’re going to work with our partners in order to help those in the most affected areas.

I also want to express my condolences to the folks who have experienced an extraordinary tragic loss of life on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. While we were here during the course of this journey with the discovery of the flap on Reunion Island, all the wounds have been opened again, all of the sorrow is felt even more intensely, and there are no words to express adequately our sense of loss and our sense of heartbreak to the families of the victims. Obviously, we hope very much that the debris that was discovered on the Reunion Island, if it is found to be conclusively from the aircraft, that this will help to bring some sense of closure about what happened and perhaps even more reliable information that can be tracked from the currents that may even narrow the area of search, which we would hope for.

I want to commend the French authorities and other international experts for their diligence both in the analysis of this wing but also in their overall investigation as well as in the ongoing search.

Over the last two days here, we reviewed a number of challenges that are related to the security and quality of life of this region that require the kind of cooperative thought and action that ASEAN was specifically designed to achieve. We are, for example, all of us – all of us at this meeting – united in our desire to counter and mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change, one of the most acute and potentially devastating threats to our shared future. And those countries that have not yet announced their independent – nationally designed contributions – defined contributions, all stepped up and said they intend to do so, some of them very shortly. Australia, for instance, has a big meeting in the next couple of days.

So people are pushing towards the target date of the Paris negotiations, and we welcome that. I was able to report to our colleagues that the United States has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest levels in two decades and that we have set a goal for even more ambitious reductions by the year 2025. At the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting, we discussed the importance of every single country going into this effort, each of them putting forward their own targets for the post-2020 period. And I would remind everybody that was actually agreed to at the ASEAN-U.S. summit last fall.

Following the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting – the ministerial meeting – we issued a statement on building a sustainable future for the Mekong. I think it’s an important document because it lays out a plan of action for the next five years and the statement reiterates our goal of supporting a smart and responsible development along the Mekong River. And the Mekong River, as everybody in this part of the world knows, is one of the great rivers of the world and millions of people rely on that river as their source of livelihood, their source – protein, of food. It is critical.

At the ASEAN regional forum, ministers endorsed a statement committing everyone to tackle illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. And I was proud to announce a new multiyear Oceans and Fisheries Partnership with the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in order to develop a system for documenting and tracing illegal fishing with an initial commitment by the United States of 4.3 million for the first year as it gets going.

On the security side, I expressed our serious concerns over the developments in the South China Sea, including a massive land reclamation and the potential militarization of land features. I reiterated America’s strong support of freedom of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea. These rights, I would remind everybody, are universal rights and they must be respected by every nation, large and small. To that end, I made clear our belief that the claimants to some of these reefs, islands, to some of these areas, should – all of them, every one of them – take concrete steps in order to try to lower the tensions by refraining from further land reclamation, militarization, and construction projects. A number of the claimants today made clear their willingness to refrain from those very actions.

So this is an important step forward, but obviously there’s work left to be done since no claimant is going to be expected to stop if others are disregarding this call and continuing to proceed with their work. So a policy of restraint will create the diplomatic space that is required for a meaningful code of conduct to emerge. And we will work very hard with all of our partners in order to try to help that code of conduct come into being. It is vital that claimants refrain from provocative unilateral actions, that they pursue their claims according to international law, and that they settle their differences peacefully through rule of law.

I also reaffirm that the United States has very strong interests itself in the South China Sea and we have a strong interest in the way that disputes are addressed. The United States will continue to take steps to support peace and stability in this region, to uphold international law, and protect our interests throughout this arena as we have, in fact, for decades.

In the East Asia Summit ministerial, we tackled a wide array of pressing political and security challenges from maritime security to cyber security to countering violent extremism. And I’m very pleased to report that the – excuse me – that the East Asia Summit foreign ministers endorsed the Vienna P5+1 plan for the reduction of Iran’s – the reduction – the elimination of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and I think that the endorsement that came from all of the countries there today this morning really underscores the interest that people on a global basis have in the success of this agreement.

I also had an opportunity to meet with the prime minister and the foreign minister in bilateral meetings. In addition to global and regional issues, we discussed our shared interest in wrapping up successfully the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and especially, cooperating to combat violent extremism. I also raised concerns about freedom of expression and I spoke with the prime minister about Anwar Ibrahim’s situation.

We also talked about accelerating progress in the fight against human trafficking. This was a very significant part of my message at a number of the meetings that we had publicly with all of my colleagues as well as privately with each of my bilaterals. Human trafficking is too prevalent in places where people who are migrants or who are simply poor and without and recourse or refugees are preyed on. And it is intolerable that in the year 2015 anyone should be content to live with what amounts to modern day slavery – people who are pressed into any number of types of work from sexual exploitation to the labor market exploitation and put into positions they can’t escape from, and some of them, even literally, very much imprisoned in those positions.

The Government of Malaysia, I’m pleased to say, has made significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards of the elimination of trafficking. And in my conversation with the prime minister, we talked about the ways in which we can cooperate to do more, and the prime minister welcomed that opportunity, particularly in the field of law enforcement. I made it clear in my meetings with both the prime minister and the foreign minister that this is a priority for the United States and that they need to continue to show leadership, as they did in the passing with their laws, now with the full implementation of those laws.

And let me just say – I’m sure all of you feel this inherently, viscerally – that there is perhaps no greater threat to human dignity and no greater assault on basic freedom and no greater detraction from the values that we are espousing and trying to lift people up with, no greater evil alive today in many ways than human trafficking. We all need to be true to the principle that although money may be used for many things, we must never, ever allow a price tag to be attached to the heart and soul and the mind and freedom of a fellow human being. That is the standard that we need to set for all nations, and this will remain a main priority of both the State Department and the Obama Administration for the remainder his time in office.

So as always, when representatives of the United States of America and ASEAN nations get together, we really had a very full plate of challenges to discuss. And I can assure you, as I made it clear to my colleagues, the United States will remain deeply committed to the security of this region, deeply committed to the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and of the Asia Pacific more generally.

I was thrilled to meet with young students and recent graduates, all members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders effort that President Obama has started – YSEALI, as it’s called. The energy and excitement that they feel about the possibilities of the future is really what defines not just Malaysia but this entire region. And we’re fully engaged and confident because we believe in those young people and in the possibilities that they believe in. And we will do everything in our power to work with the governments of this region to help deliver to their people.

So on that note, I’d be delighted to try to take a few questions.

 

MR KIRBY: First question will come from Matt Lee, Associated Press.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Ready?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, sir.

 

QUESTION: Okay. I want to take you a little bit further afield and ask you about your meeting last night with Foreign Minister Lavrov (inaudible), because the word is that you two signed off on or made some significant progress on the new UN Security Council resolution that would, in fact, create a mechanism to investigate the use or alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, and that that resolution could be presented for a vote as early as tomorrow, I guess. So I’m wondering if you could tell us what the details are of this mechanism and if you’re at all concerned that Russia’s apparent willingness to do this while still holding to its friendship to Assad will string out or delay actual bringing to justice of any perpetrators that are found or whether you’re convinced that this is actually going to do the trick. Thank you.

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks, Matt. Let me comment on the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We discussed a number of issues. We talked about Ukraine and the need to fully implement Minsk and what seems to be the difference of opinion with respect to what Minsk means relative to the elections and the modalities for the elections and the constitutional reform. There is a meeting tomorrow that will take place by video and we will both instruct our teams to try to dig in and make some suggestions for each of them as to how we might be able to try to move forward, because we both agree that these working groups are the best mechanism for the full implementation of the Minsk agreement and the defusing of the crisis in Ukraine.

We’re not far away now from having an agreement for the flow of (inaudible), for some rail – resumption of rail track, for the OSCE to be able to have greater oversight and understanding of what weapons will be pulled back from the line of contact. All of these issues are very much on the table and part of the discussion at this point. And I think that Foreign Minister Lavrov is anxious, as I am, to try to see as much progress be made as rapidly as possible as we come to the end of summer and beginning of fall and obviously other kinds of challenges that may come forward.

But yes, we also talked about the UN resolution, and indeed, I believe, reached an agreement that should try to see that resolution voted on shortly, which will create a process of accountability which has been missing. What happens is the inspection process produces evidence of use of some kind of weapon. By the way, so we’re clear, all declared chemical weapons – mustard and sarin and other declared that are illegal – were removed. The allegations that exist today are almost exclusively – not – not exclusively, there’s one – maybe one instance of some or two instances of something else – about chlorine. And chlorine by itself is not one of the required declaration items that has to be removed. But when mixed in a certain way, chlorine can be become a toxic agent and a illegal chemical.

So what we are trying to do is get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designate accountability for its use. And what we will achieve, we believe, with this resolution is the creation of a mechanism which will actually enable us to do that. That’s our hope. So I think it was a worthwhile meeting and hopefully the UN will be able to proceed forward with an agreement unless there is some last-minute glitch, which I hope there will not be.

MR KIRBY: Next question. (Inaudible).

 

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the U.S. Government’s decision to upgrade Malaysia to Tier 2 in the human trafficking watch list has been criticized by those who feel that Malaysia has not done enough to merit such a rating. Do you think Malaysia has done enough? And what do you have to say about accusations that the rating has just been given to pave the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Malaysia?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Not – let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this. I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation with anybody in the Administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision – zero. The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change.

Now, let me make this clear: Tier 2 Watch List ranking actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement. It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means. It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go. And that’s the discussion that I had yesterday with the foreign minister and with the prime minister. In the last year, Malaysian authorities increased the number of trafficking investigations, they increased the number of prosecutions relative to 2013, and they adopted a pilot project in order to allow a limited number of trafficking victims to leave government facilities in order to go work.

Now, we still are concerned about the comparison of the number of investigations and prosecutions to the number of the convictions. It’s not good enough yet. But we felt that because the law just passed, because it’s being implemented, that this gives us an opportunity to work with the government, which is exactly what I got commitments to do yesterday and now we will do in order to up the number of convictions. And one of the reasons for that disparity is the difficultly of getting evidence. It’s very complicated. It’s very hard to do. We believe that we can be very helpful through Federal Bureau of Investigation and through other entities that work at this to help Malaysian authorities be able to develop greater capacity to gather the evidence that will produce the convictions that we want to see so we can end impunity for this crime.

So our – my judgment was I want a country that we can work with and improve that has already indicated its willingness to start down that road in a significant way. Malaysia has done that, and this year will be a very important year of truth. If they don’t advance, if there isn’t sufficient cooperation, if there isn’t a genuine effort to improve the gathering of evidence and to have better prosecutions, and if the pilot project isn’t built on and so forth, then next year, obviously, I have the distinct ability to be able to make a different decision. But I’m confident it was the right decision and I can guarantee you it was made without regard to any other issue.

MR KIRBY: Last question from Pam Dockins, Voice of America.

 

QUESTION: Thank you. As you mentioned, the South China Sea has been a focal point here. First of all, what is the U.S. view on China’s statement that it has stopped reclamation work in the South China Sea?

And then secondly, a follow-up on the last question regarding human trafficking, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today has a hearing on the State Department’s human trafficking report. How do you feel about the hearing to look into how the final report was compiled? Do you feel that the hearing is justified?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think any hearing on a report of the – of any agency of the government is justified. I mean, obviously, the Congress has a right to – I mean, the Congress are the ones who mandate these reports and they have every right in the world to take a look to see whether or not it’s being implemented in the way that Congress intended. So I don’t have any problem with that at all, and I’m absolutely confident about the work that our TIP team does which literally takes an entire year to do; it is extremely thorough. There’s an enormous amount of input from our embassies, from our consulates, from people in the field, and I think that that will come out in the course of the hearing.

So frankly, I look forward to the members of Congress learning more about exactly how in depth our efforts are, how professional they are, and how exhausting the effort is that they have joined with us in engaging.

Now, with respect to the South China Sea, first of all, let me remind everybody that the United States doesn’t take a position on the competing claims. We’re not choosing between claimants, and that’s for the legal process or the diplomatic process to do. What we do urge is all the claimants to refrain from unilateral actions that create tension or the potential of conflict, or frankly, the potential of a mistake that could then become an international incident. And it’s our sense that the Chinese have indicated that they have stopped. I hope it’s true. I don’t know yet. What’s really needed, though, is an agreement to stop not just the reclamation but the large-scale construction and militarization. So it’s not just an issue of reclamation. And our hope is we put forward a proposal that people stop all three and that they step back and work the process of the code of conduct and whatever other legal process to try to resolve these issues.

I did find, and I will say this openly, that in my meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he indicated a – I think a different readiness of China to try to resolve some of this, though I think it still was not as fulsome as many of us would like to see, but it’s a beginning. And it may open up some opportunity for conversation on this in the months ahead; we’ll have to wait and see. But the easiest thing of all would be for everybody to adopt a position of we’re not going to do anything except routine maintenance – no new buildings, no new facilities, no militarization, no more reclamation – while the legal process is resolved in order to give certainty to everybody, which is what is required here.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Appreciate it.

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Daniel Russel: Remarks at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference

russel
On July 21, 2015 at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the US State Department delivered a keynote speech clearly outlining the US position on China’s recent land reclamation action in the South China Sea and its implications for US-China relations.  Given the timeliness and relevance of this speech, we’ve posted it in its entirety below.  
Good afternoon. Thank you, Murray, for the kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to be back at CSIS.

Let me start by laying out the essential context.

The United States has always had interests in Asia. These interests have only grown stronger as our economies have become more interconnected, and as our people have grown closer through travel and the Internet.

For the last seven decades, we’ve worked with allies and partners in the region to build shared prosperity and shared security. In the last six-and-a-half years, in particular, we’ve invested in building cooperative relations with every country in the region. This is the rebalance.

There are many types of investment the world, and Asia, needs in order to grow—investment in people, first and foremost; investment in business; in physical infrastructure, and just as important; investment in “cooperative capital” – the international law and order infrastructure that facilitates the interactions between countries, that advances regional economic integration, and helps states peacefully manage and settle disputes.

The U.S. makes balanced investments in all of these areas.

The last one, the international rules-based system, has been the ‘essential but underappreciated underpinning’ of global growth over the last 70 years. That’s especially true in Asia, where many countries have grown – and continue to grow – their economies through international trade, especially trade with the U.S.

Asia’s nations have achieved so much in recent decades—reducing poverty, raising living standards, and creating opportunities for their people. They’ve done it through hard work, cooperation with each other, partnership with the U.S., and by jointly developing and operating within a rules-based system.

And we are helping them to do even more:

We’re taking broad-based, sustainable economic growth to a new level with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP embraces a future that reaches beyond trade and investment to include high standards for environmental protection, for labor rights.

TPP’s provisions will support a thriving, growing, entrepreneurial middle class that is able to connect with the world and do business through a free, open Internet.

We’re taking the security architecture that underpins this brighter future to a new level by investing in regional institutions like the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in addition to our longstanding work with global ones like the U.N.

These institutions uphold norms and tackle tough challenges; they can help bring parties together to hash out disagreements, or when bilateral diplomacy doesn’t succeed, help to have those disputes resolved peacefully in a fair, impartial manner.

Standing behind and supporting these institutions is our system of alliances and partnerships.

This network has helped keep the peace in the region since World War II. And through a series of important agreements with key security partners over the last few years, we’ve refreshed them so they’ll last for decades to come.

We’re taking environmental protection to a new level, through our work on ocean preservation, on combatting climate change and its effects, and through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative that help make economic growth environmentally sustainable.

As we pursue this broad, forward-looking vision for the region, we’ve worked constructively with China—a lot.

We’ve built greater understanding through President Obama’s 20 some-odd meetings with the Chinese President or Premier; and through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and an alphabet soup of other consultations.

We’ve put a floor under the relationship so it can withstand tensions or even a crisis.

And in the last couple years, all of this work has paid off—we’ve made measurable progress in a range of cooperative efforts: in low-carbon policies; countering piracy at sea; in stemming the Ebola crisis; supporting a better future for Afghanistan; and much more.

But unfortunately, the situation in the South China Sea does not fit this cooperative pattern.

Now, the U.S. is not a claimant. As I’ve said here at CSIS, these maritime and territorial disputes are not intrinsically a US-China issue. The issue is between China and its neighbors and – ultimately – it’s an issue of what kind of power China will become. But for a variety of reasons, the competing claims and problematic behavior in the South China Sea have emerged as a serious area of friction in the U.S.-China relationship.

Let’s take a step back and recall, as I’m sure you discussed this morning, that there is a history of competing assertions of sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea, and even violent conflicts in 1974 and 1988.

There are no angels here. The occupation of land features in this contested space over the years looked a lot like “squatters’ rights.” But that is something that in 2002 the claimants agreed to stop doing.

In that year, all the claimants (and the ASEAN states) signed a Declaration of Conduct. In it, and on other occasions, they have committed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from … inhabiting the presently uninhabited… features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.

In the Declaration of Conduct, they also committed to negotiate a Code of Conduct that would lay out and lock in responsible behavior. But in the ensuing 13 years, work on the Code has stalled, and the Declaration has not been sufficient to prevent confrontations or to help claimants resolve these disputes peacefully.

Recently, the level of concern in the region has escalated as the scale and speed of China’s reclamation work has become public. The Chairman’s statement at the ASEAN leaders’ summit in April was unusually blunt, speaking of “serious concerns” about “land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability….”

While China’s statement on June 16 that it would stop reclamation work “soon” was presumably intended to reassure, its effect was in fact alarming since the statement went on to warn that China would construct military facilities on these reclaimed outposts.

So we are pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.

We see a broad consensus within ASEAN on a path forward to reduce tensions and promote peaceful handling of these disputes. And we support ASEAN’s efforts to expeditiously conclude an effective, rigorous Code of Conduct that builds on the Declaration by translating its cooperative spirit into specific “do’s and don’ts.”

But to make this happen, the parties need to create room for diplomacy.

In the famous words of Rich Armitage’s Dictum Number 1, “when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging.” That is the advice we are giving to all the claimants: lower the temperature and create breathing room by: stopping land reclamation on South China Sea features; stopping construction of new facilities; and stopping militarization of existing facilities.

These are steps the parties could commit to immediately; steps that would cost them nothing; steps that would significantly reduce risks; steps that would open the door to eventual resolution of the disputes.

Secretary Kerry has made this point to Chinese leaders and to the other claimants, and will be meeting with his counterparts early next month in Malaysia at the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, to push for progress on this important priority.

Now, steps to exercise restraint through a moratorium and a Code of Conduct will create diplomatic space and help keep the peace, but they won’t address the question of maritime boundaries or sovereignty over land features.

So what’s the way forward?

When it comes to competing claims, two of the main peaceful paths available to claimants are negotiations and arbitration.

Countries across the region in fact have resolved maritime and territorial disputes peacefully and cooperatively, whether through direct negotiations or through third-party dispute settlement mechanisms.

Just a few examples: Indonesia and the Philippines recently agreed on their maritime boundary;

Malaysia and Singapore used international court and tribunal proceedings to resolve disputes concerning the Singapore Strait; and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delimited the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Burma.

A common thread runs through the maritime boundary disputes that have been resolved peacefully: the parties asserted maritime claims based on land features, and were prepared to resolve those disputes in accordance with international law.

This is why we’ve consistently called on all claimants to clarify the scope of their claims in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Doing so would narrow the differences and offer the basis for negotiations and cooperative solutions.

Regrettably, I don’t know anyone in the region who believes that a negotiated settlement between China and other claimants is attainable in the current atmosphere.

And the multiple competing claims in some parts of the South China Sea make negotiations that much more difficult.

And then there is the absolutist political position taken by some claimants who insist that their own claims are “indisputable” and represent territory – however distant from their shores – that was “entrusted to them by ancestors” and who vow never to relinquish “one inch.”

What about arbitration? As this audience knows, there currently is an arbitration case pending under the Law of the Sea Convention between the Philippines and China.

At the heart of the case is the question of the so-called “Nine Dash Line” and whether that has a legal basis under the international law of the sea. It also asks what maritime entitlements, if any, are generated by features that China occupies? In other words, regardless of whose jurisdiction it may fall under, would Mischief Reef, for example, be entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea? A 200nm exclusive economic zone? A continental shelf?

Now, it’s important to note that the Tribunal is not being asked – and is not authorized to rule – on the question of sovereignty over disputed land features. Everyone recognizes that the sovereignty issue is beyond the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. Claimants would need to agree to bring that sort of sovereignty dispute before a court or tribunal, typically the ICJ.

But under the Law of the Sea Convention, the Tribunal is authorized to first determine whether it has jurisdiction under the Convention over any of the Philippines’ claims in the case and, if it does, whether the Philippines’ arguments have merit.

The United States, of course, is not a party to this arbitration and does not take a position on the merits of the case. But when they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime.

Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not.

Now China has argued that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction, and the tribunal has specifically considered this issue in recent hearings in The Hague, looking very carefully at a position paper published by China. But if the Tribunal concludes that it in fact has jurisdiction in this case, it will proceed to the merits, including potentially the question of the legality of China’s “Nine-Dash Line.”

Should it then rule that the “Nine-Dash Line” is not consistent with the Law of the Sea Convention, and particularly if the Tribunal ruled that the features cited in the case do not generate EEZ or continental shelf entitlements, the scope of the overlapping maritime claims – and hopefully the points of friction – would be significantly reduced.

But it’s also important to recognize that even in this outcome, important sovereignty and boundary issues would remain unresolved.

This is as good a time as any to acknowledge (as China has often pointed out) that the United States has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention, although accession has been supported by every Republican and Democratic administration since the Convention was signed and sent to the Senate in 1994. It is supported by the U.S. military, by industry, environmental groups, and other stakeholders.

For the United States to secure the benefits of accession, the Senate has to provide its advice and consent, as I hope it ultimately will.

But even as we encourage the parties to work for long term solutions, we are obligated to protect U.S. interests. Let me take a moment to examine what some of those interests are:

  • Protecting unimpeded freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea by all, not just the U.S. Navy;
  • Honoring our alliance and security commitments, and retaining the full confidence of our partners and the region in the United States;
  • Aiding the development of effective regional institutions, including a unified ASEAN;
  • Promoting responsible marine environmental practices;
  • Fostering China’s peaceful rise in a manner that promotes economic growth and regional stability, including through consistency with international law and standards.
  • And more generally, an international order based on compliance with international law and the peaceful of disputes without the threat or use of force.

As a practical matter, in addition to our support for principles such as the rule of law, we are taking steps to help all countries in the region cooperate on maritime issues. For example, we’re investing in the maritime domain awareness capabilities of coastal states in the region.

This allows countries to protect safety at sea and respond to threats such as piracy, marine pollution and illegal trafficking. Maritime awareness also advances transparency, in line with our call to all claimants to be more open and transparent about their capabilities, actions, and intentions at sea.

The U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations are another element of a global policy to promote compliance with the international law of the sea.

Our goal is to ensure that not only can the U.S. Navy or Air Force exercise their navigational rights and freedoms, but ships and planes from even the smallest countries are also able to enjoy those rights without risk. The principles underlying unimpeded lawful commerce apply to vessels from countries around the globe.

And under international law, all countries—not just the United States—enjoy the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that our diplomacy and the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations help protect.

For us, it’s not about the rocks and shoals in the South China Sea or the resources in and under it, it’s about rules and it’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in. So we will continue to defend the rules, and encourage others to do so as well. We will also encourage all countries to apply principles of good neighborliness to avoid dangerous confrontations.

Let me close by mentioning that we have a host of cooperative initiatives we’re working on for the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the East Asia Summit—all of which will advance much more quickly and effectively when tensions in the South China Sea are lower.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown that they are not afraid to tackle the biggest challenges facing US foreign policy and the world. And we’re energized, here in the fourth quarter of this administration to do much more in partnership with our Allies, with ASEAN and with China.

For us, for the region, and for China – finding a peaceful, lawful and responsible way forward on the South China Sea is a prerequisite to achieving our longer term goals.

Thank you.

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All aboard: Kunming-Vientiane Railway inches forward

china train head

Although a bit trite with repetition, no saying better encapsulates the major obstacle facing Laos than “geography is destiny”. The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos is wedged between the vast rivers and expansive mountain ranges that demarcate its natural borders with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Because of its lack of access to maritime trade routes, the small country has historically relied heavily on domestic subsistence agriculture with little opportunity for much international commerce.

The legacy of its geography in combination with the destruction wrought by the United States during the Vietnam War has today resulted in a nation with some of the world’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. With the help of the Chinese and Thai governments, Laos hopes to change this narrative of international isolation in the years to come.

Since 2010, plans have been under consideration to construct a high-speed railway between Kunming and Vientiane, Laos’ capital. However, political and financial setbacks have pushed the starting date of the project back by five years. This year, the three governments all sound confident that construction of the seven billion dollar project will begin.

Many analysts now view the construction of the Kunming-Vientiane railway within the context of China’s larger ambitions to revamp trade routes throughout Southeast Asia. China’s president Xi Jinping has openly stated his eagerness to establish silk road-esque connections with China’s neighbors, placing Kunming at the epicenter of overland transactions. The country has already invested 40 billion dollars to facilitate railway links, which it hopes will eventually drive new economic plans throughout South Asia.

Already, long-term proposals have been hashed out to eventually link Kunming with Singapore. The first phase in the series of projects is currently under construction, with China building a 737-kilometer connection between the Thai city of Nong Khai — just across the Mekong River from Vientiane — and Map Ta Phut — one of the largest deep water ports in Thailand.

The planned Kunming-Vientiane rail then, would add on to existing railroad infrastructure, facilitating a larger Kunming-Bangkok route by — according to recent estimates — no later than 2020. A link to Malaysia would from there be relatively simple. If all goes as projected, passengers may, within the next decade, be able to hop onto a high speed rail from Kunming all the way to Singapore.

Past financial qualms that have plagued the realization of the Vientiane-Kunming proposal continue to worry politicians in both China and Laos. Although a fairly small investment for China, the seven billion dollar price tag corresponds to over 60 percent of Laos’ US$11.24 billion gross domestic product, making it a hefty and risky endeavor. Currently, the two countries have agreed on a 40-60 split of the initial financing, with Laos contributing US$840 million and China US$1.26 billion. The remaining five billion will later be chipped in by Chinese venture capital firms, who would then hold substantial stakes in the railway once it is up and running.

Although worries over the pragmatic utilization of the railway have previously stymied Laos’ cooperation with Chinese entrepreneurs, increasingly Lao politicians believe the connection to Yunnan’s capital is paramount for their country’s economic growth. In an interview with Japanese magazine Nikkei, Laos’ deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, explained that Laos, being a landlocked country, can only rely on roads, so the transport cost is very high. “In our policy of turning Laos from a landlocked to a land-linked country, we believe the railroad will help us reach our objective. [The railway] will boost the Lao economy because many investors are now looking for a production base here. They say that if the country had a railway, it would help them reduce their transportation costs. So it would make us more attractive to investors.”

Recently, the country has proven itself one in an appealing group of potential manufacturing centers in Southeast Asia as overseas companies flee China. Over the past few years, Laos has ridden a growing wave of economic growth, with annual GDP often topping eight percent. Such financial development has been attributed primarily to the construction of massive 1,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam complexes, growing highway infrastructure and multibillion-dollar investors betting on long term prosperity in the region.

Politicians, including Lengsavad, remain sanguine that the fiscal expansion will only be further boosted by a direct link to Yunnan. Already, companies including Samsung and Yahoo have left China to venture into smaller, burgeoning financial systems. Laos hopes the Vientiane-Kunming connection will enable it to hop onto the train of foreign investment out of China.

Skeptics, including Lao politicians, point out that the real construction cost of the Kunming-Vientiane route may soon render the project another white-elephant. Without a doubt, both financially and topographically, much stands in the way of the railway’s establishment. An astounding 154 bridges, 76 tunnels and 31 train stations will be necessary for the Lao leg of the track. The monumental proposals stands in stark contrast to Laos’ nearly complete lack of experience with railway construction. The land-locked country currently boasts only of a 3,5-kilometer train link, spanning the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

To make matters more complicated, the Annamite mountain range, which the railway will eventually need to cross, is infamous as a minefield littered with unexploded American ordnance dropped during the Vietnam War. These factors combined are likely to result in a final cost for the track much greater than the projected seven billion dollar price tag. Laos thus finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place — on one hand it desperately needs infrastructure for greater commerce, while on the other, current proposals may leave the country in an even more precarious financial situation than it currently faces.

This article was written by Richard Diehl Martinez and first posted here on GoKunming.

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Foreign policy, GMS, Laos, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Trade, Yunnan Province

Report Card on Education in Southeast Asia

 

vn primary school

Eager primary school students in Vietnam

As dawn spills on to Ha Thuong, Vietnam, Bui Thi Bich Phuong is preparing for a long day of collecting waste coal from the nearby Mo Me coal mine and catching crabs at the edges of the fields near her house. If she’s lucky, she’ll eek out $4 today. As she’s washing her face, soon to be covered with coal dust, her son Nam is getting ready for his day at school. There, he’ll study a new curriculum of mathematics and literacy in a new classroom, both of which are paid for by the Asian Development Bank, who hopes it’s dawn for education in Southeast Asia, too.

Governments and development agencies, along with the UN, hope for more examples of the younger Phuong in Southeast Asia—bright students preparing for jobs in the service sector—than the older, agrarian Phuong. There are billions of dollars in education aid flowing into the region, most of which comes in the form of ADB loans and implemented by local governments. Is education really critical to development in Southeast Asia? Will the ADB’s programs be successful? There are few resources that answer these questions; this post hopes to provide insight to both, as well as providing case studies in Cambodia and Vietnam.

How important is education for Southeast Asia?

By investing in education, Southeast Asian governments and the ADB hope to approach developmental parity with their successful peers to the northeast. South Korea and Taiwan are the darlings of Asian development as they have made the jump from low-end to high-end manufacturing and are now centers of service and entertainment industries. “Gangnam Style” came from South Korea for a reason: the song parodies the high-end lifestyle in a Seoul district that only exists due to Korea’s rapid development. Taiwan, once a hub of simple computer assembly a-la China, is now a hub of computer design and engineering. Most assembly now takes place around Shanghai.

The transition to high incomes in these countries was not serendipitous; they had laid the framework for development through heavy investment in education at all levels. In 1993 a World Bank report praised these High Performance Asian Economies (HPAEs): “The growth and transformation of systems of education and training … has been dramatic … the HPAEs’ enrollment rates have tended to be higher than predicted for their level of income … By 1987, East Asia’s superior education systems were evident at the secondary level … Primary education is by far the largest single contributor to HPAEs’ predicted growth rates … Physical investment comes second … followed by secondary school enrollment.” Physical investment is a story for another day, right now the focus will be on education: primary and secondary.

public spending on education

So far, the path to development in Southeast Asia seems clear: invest in education while the economy produces low-skill intensive goods so, after a decade or two, the economy can transition to high-quality manufacturing. The graph above shows that the poor Southeast Asian countries spend less than 4% of GDP on education, while Thailand, a more developed country, spends more. Moreover, the poorest countries often neglect to report data to UNESCO. Surely simply spending more money will solve Southeast Asia’s problems?

Not so fast. Due to two different types of competition, these economies might have to transition faster than Taiwan and South Korea did. First, as other developing countries clue in (on their own accord or via a friendly push by the IMF) to the famous/infamous export-based model of development, the rise in international arbitable labor supply will keep wages low, limiting welfare gains like Taiwan and South Korea enjoyed. Second, exploitation of natural resources, plentiful in Southeast Asia, could lead to comparative advantage-killing inflation, further reducing competition. It is important to note that South Korea and Taiwan have few natural resources that would lead to this pesky trend. Therefore, Southeast Asia needs to hit the books sooner rather than later.

Assessment: How is Southeast Asia doing on education?

Not so good. The 1997 economic collapse among ASEAN countries had at least as much to do with lower export levels as it did with currency appreciation. Southeast Asian countries were unable to transition to high-quality exports as other countries (read: China) took the region’s market share in low-quality exports. The region has since recovered, with sustained growth rates in the high single digits. Nevertheless, the region’s better-perming economies, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are arguably in the ‘middle-income trap’ of around ten thousand PPP-adjusted dollars per capita, years from becoming rich countries.

Southeast Asian countries as a whole will have to somehow leverage (read: educate) their substantial populations in order to develop past $10k per capita. There are three areas the region should focus on in order to improve their education prospects:

School Attendance: Somewhat surprisingly, the region, even including laggard countries like Cambodia and Laos, is almost at the worldwide average of 90% primary school attendance. Less surprisingly, survival rates, or the percent of school-aged children who complete primary or secondary school, are lower. In Cambodia, the Philippines, and the Lao PDR, primary school dropout rates are over 25%: poverty calls many students away from school in order to help out at home. In order for countries to improve their skill base, both enrollment and survival must increase.

primary school enrollment

3secondaryenrollment

Inequality: Like their counterparts in developed countries, urban children in developing nations attend school at higher rates than rural children. The gap in countries in Southeast Asia is larger, though, due to severe infrastructure constraints. Since many rural residents cannot afford a bicycle, let alone a car, children are limited to attending schools within a few kilometers of their house. This limits many children to a few years of primary school, which end when the grades offered in the local school do.

Besides economic inequality, Southeast Asian students have to deal with gender bias against both girls and boys. Girls face the more obvious bias: when pressured by resource limitations, many families call girls back from school before boys, who are assumed to be a more worthwhile investment. Many development agencies, especially the ADB, have remedied this problem to the point that in many countries more girls attend school than boys. The school gender ratio should match that of the population. Besides years of schooling, girls are also discriminated against when it comes to types of education, a problem that persists through secondary and vocational education. Responding to cultural stereotypes perpetuated in and out of school, girls self-select into traditionally female professions; employers respond by recruiting females to the same jobs. A comprehensive overhaul of education must include the systematic of gender stereotypes in classroom materials and instructor biases.

Skill Gap: Even students that complete tertiary education in many Southeast Asian countries often lack the skills needed by the companies that may hire these most educated workers. Vietnam’s own Ministry of Education reported that only 30% of college graduates had the skills demanded by the workforce. Other indicators of gaps in the quality of skills are a high education premium or a low unemployment rate, both of which indicate low high-skill labor supply. The latter indicator is produced below; Indonesia and the Philippines (more developed countries) have high unemployment rates, but the least developed countries with the greatest skill gaps have the lowest unemployment rates.

unemployment rates

The Philippines, however, serve as a warning of the effects of a reverse skill gap where high-skill supply is higher than high-skill demand. Until the 1990s, the Philippines had the highest tertiary education enrollment in the region. At the same time, macroeconomic fluctuations that discouraged fixed capital formation resulted in an unfriendly environment for professionals, leading to ‘brain drain’ where highly skilled workers went abroad to find work. As a result, remittances are now 13% of the Philippines GDP, exceeding FDI. The lesson is that graduates have to be able to find work quickly, otherwise educated, unemployed graduates will leave or worse: stay and start a revolution.

How is the ADB addressing education?

As Southeast Asia’s main development agency, the Asian Development Bank is providing the lubrication to meet the UN’s “Education for All” goal. Education is one of the ADB’s eleven focus sectors in development programs; in its Education 2020 report, the bank pledged $1.5 billion in education assistance between 2010 and 2012, 4% of its funds for loans and grants. There are three areas the ADB is focusing on specifically in the region: building new schools; increasing school and teacher quality; and decreasing the skill gap with vocational training.

Education for all

 

New Schools: A large, but shrinking, number of rural children in Southeast Asia do not have access to even primary education because their families can not get to the schools. Bicycles, motorbikes, and cars cost more than many families can afford, limiting the radius of education to a few kilometers. So, an easy area for the ADB to direct its loans to is building new schools, as the increase in enrollment is immediate and large. This solution, however, does not address the survival rate. Students will stay in school if they perceive education to be meaningful, which is largely dependent on teacher quality. Teachers that inspire students to achieve, and give them the intellectual tools to do so, are more likely to increase the survival rate than teachers who are not. Thus, the ADB must invest in school quantity and quality, though much of the focus is understandably on quantity, the lower-hanging fruit.

Indonesia is a cautionary tale for the ADB in this regard. Lush with oil money following a 1970s oil boom, the country built hundreds of new schools, but faster than teachers could be trained. Education quality subsequently decreased; some scholars say that quality is still decreasing. Consequently, the country lacks the high-quality development that HPAEs won in their own education investment. The difference is that investment in HPAEs was comprehensive, but investment in Indonesia was one-dimensional.

School Quality: Teacher and school quality must come at the same time as new school buildings, as well as permeate existing institutions. Unfortunately, as we will see, ADB reports mention construction of new schools much more often than they mention training new teachers. Education for All efforts have been remarkably successful in increasing the number students that want to attend primary school. Excellent. Now, the ADB and local education ministries must ensure that teachers will inspire students to at least complete primary school. One way to promote high-quality instructions is to vet teachers before they complete teacher training.

The ADB has been more successful in increasing the quality of curricula. The bank’s loans to education ministries usually require that education policy follow a decentralized approach, meaning tailoring curricula to local needs. Southeast Asian countries have the relatively unique characteristic of hosting a plethora of indigenous languages in addition to the official language. Classes taught in the national tongue can alienate ethnic minorities and discourage school completion. Fortunately, the ADB recognizes this problem and supports initiatives for local-language instruction. The bank could go further to ensure that more of classroom content is tailored to local conditions. While it is tempting to imagine every young villager going on to study at the national college and inventing a generator that runs on the sweat of foreign tourists, it is not realistic. Many students will finish primary school and forever remain in their village, so it is important to ensure that they are educated in the latest techniques to maximize their contribution at the local level.

Vocational Training: The ADB has also been successful in promoting vocational training. The skill gap in Southeast Asian countries exists because current curricula do not reflect the demands of employers at all levels. Existing state-provided vocational programs are insufficient because local governments cannot competently handle both vocation policy and program implementation. Further, women are often excluded from these programs, for reasons mentioned above. The ADB recognizes this opportunity for growth and ensures that some of its loans and expertise are directed to creating and reforming vocational programs.

For example, in Lao PDR the bank is implementing a Strengthening Technical Vocation Education and Training (STVET) that seeks to establish vocational programs in the employment-rich carpentry, construction, and maintenance industries. The program specifically includes a Gender Action Plan that requires women fill 20% of the spaces in these nontraditional training programs. The number might seem small, but it is much larger than the current 0-1% women enrollment in these areas. The STVET also has private sector programs in mining that require 40% of the students to be women, and has 50% quotas for programs that do include more traditionally female occupations. Overall, the ADB recognizes the need for vocational training that is accessible to all.

Cambodia at a glance

ADB programs in Cambodia include school construction and vocational programs. Since Cambodia lags the rest of the region in most educational indicators, these basic programs are important to establish a good educational foundation for the nation. For example, there are 48 students per teacher in Cambodia, higher than in 1990. A problem like this requires short-term focus on quantity rather than quality, which the ADB can easily address. In the future, though, the country will need to invest more heavily in teacher training programs in order to improve its educational prospects.

The ADB is laying the foundation for educational success in Cambodia by building new schools and information centers (or as non-development agencies call them, libraries). The $25 million Second Education Sector Development Project provides funds for 215 lower secondary schools, 15 upper secondary schools, and community development projects. The lower secondary schools incentivize children to finish primary school, which the World Bank cites as the most important reason for rapid development in the HPAEs, by providing further educational pathways. Previously, the children who did complete primary school were unable to attend secondary schools because there were too few within walking distance. The new schools will allow students to further explore their educational ambitions, overcoming the previous economic limitations. In addition to schools, the ADB and World Bank are building “public information centers” with books, internet access, and World Bank and ADB research (for aspiring development scholars), in order to allow poor people to access the internet and bright students to study beyond what their perhaps poor quality schools allow. The new infrastructure the ADB is building is admittedly the very first step to a well-educated society, but will solidify the currently unsatisfactory educational base.

Besides educational infrastructure, the ADB is also investing in vocational programs in order to educate people outside the Cambodian schools. A $45 million ADB loan for nonformal skills funded programs that help people like Thav Heat increase their productivity; instead of making one mat a week to sell to tourists, she can make 3-4 in a day. Similarly, Ley Leup, a farmer, learned how to use organic fertilizer to increase yields and decrease environmental damage. His income subsequently increased enough to buy more land, a motorbike, and a bicycle. This program also allows some, like Long Borin, to return home after working as migrant laborers due to higher income opportunities.

Vocational programs like these highlight the importance of education to low-income countries like Cambodia. With just a few weeks of training, these three individuals were able to use existing resources combined with new knowledge to improve their productivity and incomes. Education in general allows countries to become more efficient, using existing human and natural resources to their fullest extent.

Vietnam at a glance

Vietnam is an interesting case study because while the education system is more developed than lowest-income countries like Cambodia, it suffers from low quality and equality. ADB programs are generally focused on increasing marginalized peoples’ access to education while ensuring existing teachers reach the frontier of teaching methods. Vietnam is unique with respect to education in the region because in order for educational reforms to be fully effective, the state must also reform.

In 1996 the Vietnamese government launched a $71.5 million project, of which $50 million came from the ADB, in order to construct new schools and improve ethnic minority enrollment. The program was successful: the 366 new schools in 21 provinces and cities increased enrollment of ethnic minorities by 62% to 924,867 in the 2005/2006 school year. Further, all teachers were introduced to new curricula that included bilingual instruction. In a more recent project, the ADB targeted women and rural populations by constructing boarding schools with 50% female dormitories and ensuring that teachers are 50% women, compared to the national average of 10%. With respect to inequality, the ADB is ensuring that those at the left side of the Lorenz curve get access to not only basic education, but also high-quality basic education.

Higher education will lag, however, if the Vietnamese government does not change its state owned enterprise system. Now, state firms get cheap credit at the expense of the private sector, so state firms can hire the highest-quality labor. Since state firms are often not allowed to produce for the world market, output is constrained by insufficient domestic demand, meaning that the state companies cannot hire as many high-paying jobs as they would if they produced for the world market. As a result, these high-skill, high-paying jobs generate rents (the advantage workers gain from working at a state firm) that can be as high as two years of state sector salary. Meanwhile, the private sector has only low-skill jobs that offer low returns to high education. Further, the state sector jobs that do exist often demand credentials rather than actual skills, a problem so bad that Vietnam’s own Ministry of Education estimates that only 30% of college graduates with credentials actually have the skills they need to perform the jobs they want. This is a problem the ADB cannot address; change must come from within the Vietnamese government if it wants to develop in the long-term.

Concluding Thoughts

Education is important for development in the short term because export-focused industries require basic skills, and in the long term because high-income countries are powered by high-income, high-skill people. Southeast Asian countries for the most part meet world averages for basic educational indicators, but lag in teacher quality and educational equality. ADB programs have been more or less sufficient in meeting demand for schools in under-served regions, and should soon shift to higher quality teaching. Some easy targets are better teacher training and reforming the rote memorization practice so popular in Asian countries. In order to reach and overcome the middle-income trap, Southeast Asia must commit to high quality education in the decades to come.

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Filed under ASEAN, Education, Governance, Regional Relations, SLIDER

Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

This year, Jakarta earned the unsavory title of “World’s Worst Gridlock.” The city of 23 million is now reputed for having to most congested streets in the world. Another Indonesian city, Surabaya, took the number four spot. If you continue down the rankings to number eight, you will find yet another Southeast Asian metropolis – Bangkok.

The tendency for gridlock in these cities is more than a daily inconvenience for residents. These levels of traffic congestion are indicators of a trend in the wider Southeast Asian region. In this part of the world, urban populations are growing faster than municipal and national governments can handle.  When managed sustainably, cities can be a valuable vehicle for economic development and socio-demographic transition. For example, cities can facilitate productive trans-border connections and slow birthrates, which enables more women to enter the workforce. Nevertheless, urbanization is a double-edged sword.

Rapid, unplanned growth results in unsustainable development that threatens social, economic, and environmental stability.  In a landmark report that analyzes 10 years of urbanization data from East Asia, the World Bank suggests that urbanization in East and Southeast Asia will have “long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future.” Understanding the growth trends in Southeast Asia will boost the region’s ability to avoid the pitfalls associated with the rapid type of urbanization that has been observed over the past decade.  In other words, the region needs to pay attention to these changes if they don’t want to spend the rest of their down time stuck in traffic.

Dominant Urbanization Trends

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia increased its urban population by at least 12%, per United Nations estimates. The fact that Asian cities are growing is not a fresh realization, but few observers of these phenomena have questioned how these cities are growing, instead of just how big.

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For example, in the past 10 years, East Asia has experienced more urban growth in small- and mid-sized cities than in major metropolitan areas. This has several more nuanced implications for the region. Successful development in smaller metropolitan areas could relieve much of the pressure put on high-population areas. For example, a Thai development strategy used tax breaks to encourage people to take up residence in the regions outside of Bangkok . Unfortunately, the government failed to provide infrastructure and facilities to support business development in outlying regions. Bangkok remained the prime area for investment, and the program floundered.

Megacities like Bangkok often gain international reputations that afford them opportunities to advertise for foreign direct investment.Small and mid-sized cities, on the other hand, have to fight for attention and funding from national governments and lack the resources necessary to advertise to a wider range of investors. Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, two metro areas in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest city and Da Nang was only about an eighth of HCMC’s size in 2011. However, the rate of urban population change in Da Nang was 4.5% as of 2010 and HCMC was 3.9%. While this may appear to be a narrow margin between two cities, imagine the national impact when every mid-sized city in a country grows at this rate. The need for infrastructure would surely outpace the investment available to these smaller metropolitan areas.

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In addition to major growth in small- and mid-sized cities, the fastest growth of urban population was experienced in East Asia’s low- and middle-income countries, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand place far behind these countries in their rates of urban land and urban population increase.

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The less developed countries in the region face administrative and financial challenges on a national level, which creates an environment where a single city in the country, often times the capital city, experiences the majority of the urbanization. The massive, resource-hogging cities that result are known as “primate cities” in the vernacular of urban studies scholars. Concentrating an entire country’s political, cultural, and economic capital in one area creates national vulnerability if there is a crisis in that single city.

Urban primacy is especially detrimental for a country when there is massive migration to the core and a development lag in the country’s periphery. This phenomenon plays out the same way in developing countries across the globe: Rural poor migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, but financially and administratively inept governments cannot provide migrants with adequate resources for finding jobs and homes. Densely populated and amenity-poor settlements result as migrants join the informal economy of the city.

Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur have all reached primacy within their respective countries. As previously mentioned, Bangkok is one city that has acknowledged its primate city status and attempted to reduce its dominance of Thailand’s geography. Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar will also need to take steps to ensure that Phnom Penh and Yangon do not morph into unsustainable networks of unplanned settlements. The challenge lies in the fact that countries like Cambodia and Myanmar lack the administrative and financial capacity to shift rural to urban migration trends. However, it is promising that smaller cities in the region are doing most of the growth, even if they have a long way to go before they can compete with these metro areas.

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Finally, Southeast Asia’s urban populations are growing faster than the region’s urban land. At present, the main reason for dense urban growth in the region can be attributed to the lack infrastructure available on the periphery – a far cry from the smart growth policies that many cities implement to promote compact growth. Even so, high-density urban growth is associated with many positive outcomes when it is effectively provided for. Namely, high-density development tends to have fewer negative environmental consequences than urban sprawl. Kuala Lumpur is actually an exception to this trend in Southeast Asia, and has been criticized for failing to compact its urban growth. A heavy reliance on automobiles has been detrimental to the city, but other emerging urban areas in the region have the chance to get ahead of the car craze and promote smart growth that emphasizes efficient land use and practical transportation.

By and large, dense urban growth still has a number of caveats. As mentioned, the reason density in the region is high is due to a lack of amenities outside of core cities. If population growth outpaces the ability of the core to provide services, the quality of life in many cities will quickly degrade. Overcrowding is also a serious challenge that many cities in the developing world are faced with, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Comprehensive urban planning will be necessary to prevent overcrowding from becoming another major trend in the region.

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

When you combine all of the formulas for urban growth in Southeast Asia, the results are two-sided: There is potential for inclusive, sustainable urban areas, but there is also a chance for the region to mushroom into a clutter of poorly planned development. When planning is neglected, poverty, environmental degradation, and land use conflicts ensure. For Southeast Asian cities to avoid falling victim to, say, the level of air quality degradation that many Chinese cities now face, spatial planning and good governance are crucial.

A 2009 assessment of urban governance prepared for UN Habitat is grim: the report asserts that the capacity of both local and national governments in the region is fragmented and weak, with a serious lack of simple management skills and adequate budgeting for necessary infrastructure. “Good” urban governance requires transparency, political will, and funding, but many Southeast Asian governments underperform in all three categories. There is always a propensity for countries to urbanize, regardless of political stability. With that being said, Southeast Asia’s urbanization trends alone illustrate that not all growth is good growth. A solid political environment at least ensures that there is a structure for discussing urban needs when they arise, although definitive actions need to be taken if there is going to be any change.

Administrative fragmentation is another burgeoning obstacle for Southeast Asian boomtowns. This term refers to the spillover of growth from one municipality into neighboring jurisdictions. One example is Manila’s urban area, which spans 85 municipalities and seven provinces. The World Bank predicts that many of the growing small- and medium-sized cities will soon experience this type of administrative challenge, if they are not experiencing it already.  Different jurisdictions often struggle to coordinate plans for infrastructure development and management, leaving many areas underserved.

The ecosystems impact of such trans-boundary urban areas is also notable because rivers, lakes, and forests require cooperative management.  Overcoming administrative fragmentation appears daunting in a region where political stability is scarce, but regional planning associations have proved to be an effective way to manage fragmented urban areas. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one such organization tasked with monitoring urban development, but it struggles with a low budget and limited regulatory power. Even so, the future of many urban agglomerations in the region would look brighter if such organizations were widely utilized. Urban management organizations have the ability to pull multiple institutional actors together when questions arise about different stakeholders’ opinions.

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Urban Futures

Southeast Asia’s urban population has not yet reached 50% of total population, an indicator that more urban growth is still to come. The future of the region’s urban areas will in part be dictated by the trends that have been observed in the past decade, but also by events that remain to be seen. Climate change is one of the foremost worries in the region, but political stability and economic productivity will also play roles in the ability of the region’s cities to develop sustainably. Metropolitan areas in the region need to get ahead of urban growth and expansion in order to take some of the uncertainty out of the future.

Climatology experts maintain that no part of the world will remain unaffected by climate change, but Southeast Asia is actually a particularly high-risk area. A number of Southeast Asia’s urban centers falter in climate change scenarios that involve sea level rise, drought, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events, and famine. As metropolitan areas in the region continue to develop, resilience is a topic that needs to be kept in mind. Cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh need to have planes in place for flooding and typhoon events. Manila needs to ask itself how to feed a metropolitan area of 16 million if crop productivity plummets due to droughts or heat waves.

Besides the need for climate change adaptation measures, Southeast Asia also represents a large market for mitigation efforts. By reducing dependency on cars and carbon-based energy sources, the region can bypass being a part of the carbon problem. China and the West used coal to fuel their urban expansion, but Southeast Asia has the opportunity to exclude GHG heavy industries and develop using environmentally sound technologies. As new attempts at international climate treaties are rolled out, it will be interesting to see where many Southeast Asian nations fall on the spectrum of mitigation requirements.

Historically, developing countries have been held to lower emission reduction standards than countries in the developed world, but countries like Malaysia and Thailand have potentially reached a threshold where they will be counted among the world’s more developed countries, and thus required to reduced their emissions further. In any case, climate mitigation is good for Southeast Asia if it means that the impacts of climate change on the region will be softer than current predictions.

Political stability is also a recurring obstacle for a number of Southeast Asian countries. Years of stability and growth have been punctuated by sudden regime changes that have reduced the level of confidence both Southeast Asian nationals and outsiders have in the region’s governance. Urban planning is an intensely political process, so the status of a country’s national government directly effects urban development. If establishing effective national governments proves to be too much of a challenge for parts of the region, how can we expect urban management to get the attention that it requires?  Metropolitan development authorities and NGOs could potentially help cities weather the storm if political institutions fail, but finding consistent, effective governance is critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s cities.

Future economic development in Southeast Asia will also continue to shape urban areas in the region. Low-cost manufacturing has played a significant role in growing many of the region’s largest cities, but that may change as smaller urban areas take up lower-technology manufacturing as well. Some suggest that economic outcomes are better in regions where the largest cities take on service industries and high-tech manufacturing and the smaller cities concentrate low-tech industries. However, this is impossible if the infrastructure needs of smaller cities remain unmet. Investment in Southeast Asia’s small- and mid- sized cities is an important step that the region can take to move towards greater economic output.

Urbanization in Southeast Asia has reached a clear bottom line: In order to reap the benefits of healthy, innovative urban areas, the region needs to raise its expectations for planning and governance. If current regional urbanization trends continue to play out, there is potential for Southeast Asia to be the home of several highly productive urban areas. Investing in small and mid-sized cities will create robust national economies and capitalizing on dense growth will keep the environmental impact of cities to a minimum. However, if planning and coordination are left on the wayside, the region will be set on a course for vulnerability to any sort of crisis that should arise.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam

Southeast Asia’s Illicit Wildlife Trade: International Cooperation Necessary to Find Solution

On Wednesday March 25, immigration authorities confiscated 492 black spotted terrapin pond tortoises at the Tiruchirappalli International Airport in India. Identified as merely carriers, the five passengers with tortoise-laden luggage seemed unaware of their baggage contents and were merely promised 10,000 Rupees each for transportation, a sum of about $800 USD. Bound for Bangkok, this shipment of tortoises represents the largest attempted volume of wildlife trafficking at the Trichy Airport and highlights the trans-boundary nature of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

Preceded only by the arms and drug trade, illegal wildlife trafficking represents the third- largest illicit trade in the world. As a region, Southeast Asia remains among the most critical in terms of severity and volume of wildlife trafficking. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2013 Threat Assessment, China represents the leading consumer country in the East Asia and Pacific region, with consumption levels in South Korea and Japan on the rise. Driven by high demand in East Asia for animal products in the form of food, traditional medicine, and decoration, the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia is responsible for approximately 25% of the global industry, according to estimates made in 2005. Facilitated by expanding transportation infrastructure in Southeast Asia and the region’s porous international borders, the trans-boundary wildlife trade presents numerous governance challenges to the region’s developing nations. Not only does the illegal wildlife trade threaten Southeast Asia’s ecosystem biodiversity, but the industry also impedes economic growth and regional security because of its ties to drug trafficking and terrorism. While the role of each country within Southeast Asia is different regarding the illicit trade of live animals and their parts, the countries of the region must work together in order to develop viable governance solutions for the issue.

Facing the challenges presented by the illicit wildlife trade in Southeast Asia requires international cooperation, within the East Asia and Pacific region as well as globally. Ratified in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was among the first international efforts to mitigate the illegal wildlife trade. CITES establishes lists of species, the trade of which is illegal without proper documentation, and requires that its member parties regulate the trade of these species through national legislation.  Currently, CITES has 180 member parties, including all of the countries in Southeast Asia, China, and the United States. However, CITES merely provides a framework for enforcement and requires country cooperation to effectively reduce illegal wildlife trafficking.  Although putting an end to the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia remains an ambitious task, the efforts of CITES and ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) have generated legislative headway in the region. Recent collaboration between China, the United States, and the member states of ASEAN suggests that wildlife trafficking is a dilemma that, just as the trade itself, transcends national boundaries.

Overview of the Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia

Before introducing the various cooperation efforts in Southeast Asia aimed at combatting the illegal wildlife trade, we must first have an understanding of the unique set of ecological, economic, and security challenges that the industry presents to the region. Globally, Southeast Asia represents a hotspot for the illegal wildlife trade. Figure 1 presents data collected via a real-time, online surveillance system designed to track reports of illegal wildlife trade worldwide. Although these data do not reflect every instance of illegal wildlife trafficking, they provide a good base for comparing the trade between different regions.

According to the numbers I collected from the system on April 7, 2015, reports of illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia vastly outnumber every other region in the world. Because the region also contains numerous biodiversity hotspots, the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia threatens some of the most ecologically productive ecosystems on earth. Inextricably tied to economic development, sustainable agriculture practices, and natural resource bases, maintaining ecosystem services remains of utmost importance to developing nations. The United Nations Environmental Crisis Assessment agrees, stating, “Healthy ecosystems provide the platform upon which future food production and economies are ultimately based.” As the single largest threat to vertebrate species extinction in Southeast Asia, the illegal wildlife trade undoubtedly threatens ecosystem health as well as economic development within the region.

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Black market value of commonly-traded wildlife products in Asia-Pacific region. Measured in USD. Figure 1: Information gathered on April 7, 2015 from http://www.healthmap.org/wildlifetrade

 

The Southeast Asian illegal wildlife trade represents a lucrative business. Figure 2 shows maximum market value data for various commonly traded illegal animal parts, information collected by the U.S. Congressional Research Service in 2008. Currently, a kilogram of rhino horn is approximately worth as much as a kilogram of gold in Vietnam. In terms of the monetary value of the wildlife trade worldwide and regionally in Southeast Asia, the illicit nature of the industry prevents researchers from making completely accurate estimations. However, the UNODC suggests that the illegal wildlife trade in in the East Asia and Pacific region is, conservatively, worth around 2.5 billion USD annually, while a Brookings Institute report suggests that the value for Southeast Asia alone is closer to 8-10 billion USD.

The magnitude of and range between these values demonstrates that the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia represents a substantial economic problem, the scale of which is largely uncertain, due to a lack of regulation and research. The economic threats posed by the illegal wildlife trade range from a potential decrease in eco-tourism due to species loss to large-scale development impediment as the trade perpetuates a cycle of poverty within Southeast Asia’s rural regions. For example, the vast majority of those who illegally harvest wildlife in the East Asia and Pacific region happen to be rural individuals seeking to boost their low income levels. Therefore, as an enterprise born out of desperation and the lack of financial resources, the illegal wildlife trade, particularly the specialized traders at the top of the industry, benefits immensely from keeping rural individuals poor. Thus, the continuation of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia does not bode well for the region’s economic future.

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Figure 2: Information from U.S. Congressional Research Service on maximum market prices for commonly-traded animal products worldwide

 

Illegal wildlife trafficking also carries significant national security implications. In Africa, for example, ties between poaching and terrorist groups have proved particularly alarming. Although less is known regarding the connection between wildlife trafficking and other criminal organizations in Southeast Asia, the region’s illegal wildlife industry maintains strong ties with poaching throughout Africa. While this tie does not necessarily suggest that wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia is directly connected to African terrorists groups, the connection can generate security threats in the form of government corruption.

Vietnamese demand for rhino horn for use in traditional medicine spurred a sharp increase in rhino poaching in South Africa during 2013. The World Wildlife Fund recognizes government-level corruption as a contributing factor to the trade of rhino horn in the country, as officials allow free passage to select individuals transporting rhino horn. Not only does corruption in the illegal wildlife trafficking industry hinder enforcement efforts, but it also leads to political instability, as the national government loses the respect of its citizens as well as other nations.

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On a similar note, Vietnam’s ties with rhino poaching in South Africa demonstrate that Southeast Asia plays a diverse set of roles in the global wildlife trade. Because the countries of Southeast Asia simultaneously serve as source, transit, and demand points for live wildlife and animal parts, tracking the origin of species traded in the region proves incredibly difficult. Similarly, the trade itself encompasses a complex set of actors. As a relatively low-risk, incredibly lucrative crime, wildlife trafficking presents an appealing option for impoverished individuals at the poaching and transportation levels as well as for experienced criminals at the highest level of the trade, hoping to supplement other illicit industries. Those responsible for the transactions are rarely caught and the transporters generally take the blame, as in the black spotted tortoise case at the Trichy Airport earlier this year. The inability to identify ringleaders within the industry perpetuates the illegal trade, as the individuals caught in the process (poor transporters and poachers) are easily replaceable. Fundamentally, the illegal wildlife trade exploits low levels of law enforcement prevalent in Southeast Asia’s developing countries, and thus undermines existing legal efforts aimed at reducing the trade.

CITES and Southeast Asia

The illegal wildlife trafficking situation in Southeast Asia is dire and benefits no one but those at the top of the trade. Nevertheless, international attention to Southeast Asia’s illegal wildlife trade has undoubtedly increased since CITES was first established. The timeline below shows the location history of the CITES Convention of the Parties (CoP). Occurring every two to three years, these conventions essentially assess the progress of member countries in terms of illegal wildlife trafficking enforcement. Held in Bangkok, the 2004 convention was the first CoP held in Southeast Asia.

In 2013, Bangkok again served as the convention host, becoming the only city to host two CITES CoP’s. CITES’s focus on Bangkok reflects international recognition that the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand, is in desperate need of regulatory help. Last year, CITES issued a warning to Thailand, asserting that if the national government continued to let its ivory market go unregulated by March 2015, it would face wildlife trade sanctions. As of 2013, Thai laws permitted the trade of domesticated elephant ivory; however, due to a lack of market regulation, poached African elephant ivory could easily make its way into the market. There has been no word thus far as to whether Thailand met CITES demands by the March deadline.

Timeline

CITES is undoubtedly a useful international organization that provides information and baseline regulatory practices to its member countries; however, CITES framework must be implemented in national legislation and then carried out at major transportation centers in order to be effective. Refocusing on the recent wildlife trafficking case at the Trichy Airport, the black spotted tortoise (Geoclemys hamiltonii) falls under Appendix 1 of CITES, a list reserved for species threatened with extinction. While this listing did not deter those attempting to transport the tortoises to Bangkok, it did allow officials to halt this potential transaction and suggests that CITES protocol is being implemented, to some degree. Furthermore, a look at the CITES website news and highlights shows that ASEAN and China are making regulatory progress in the eyes of the international community regarding the illegal wildlife trade. For example, on March 11, “CITES commends leading Chinese courier companies’ zero tolerance towards illegal wildlife trade” was followed by an April 2 report titled “ASEAN member States discuss enhancing regional cooperation to combat poaching and illegal trade in wildlife.”

These positive reports regarding the illegal wildlife trade in the East Asia and Pacific region reflect CITES attention to and support of the region’s efforts. And CITES praise of China and ASEAN is not unwarranted. A group of courier companies thought to make up approximately 95% of China’s market agreed to a “Zero Tolerance” pledge with regard to the illegal wildlife trade at a World Wildlife Day symposium. The CITES website recognizes this action as a huge step because “courier service is being used as by far the most important means of transport…in the illegal trade chain.” On the ASEAN side of the equation, member states met from March 30 to April 1 of this year for a Regional Forum on Combatting Wildlife Trafficking. Held in Malaysia, the forum emphasized the importance of collaboration and cooperation in controlling the illegal wildlife crime that continues to plague the region. However, CITES openly recognizes that more work must be done on the part of national governments, listing China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam among eight countries of “primary concern.”

ASEAN-WEN’s Role in Halting Illegal Wildlife Trade

Although the process of ASEAN incorporation into CITES was gradual, all ASEAN countries were member parties by 2004. As CITES’ report suggests, recent cooperative strategies have been adopted to staunch the illegal flow of live animals and their parts throughout Southeast Asia, through the lens of ASEAN. Among these strategies include the formation of the ASEAN-WEN at the 2004 CITES CoP in Bangkok.

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Number of ASEAN countries that were also member parties to CITES over the past four decades

 

Self-defined as “a regional intergovernmental law-enforcement network designed to combat the illegal wildlife trade,” ASEAN-WEN maintains connections with CITES, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Justice. The inclusion of two U.S. federal entities signifies a strong link between the efforts of ASEAN-WEN and the United States. Member states of ASEAN, despite the organization’s strong tendencies towards non-interference, seem to welcome U.S. input with regard to the region’s fight to stop the illegal wildlife trade.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration designed a plan to track and target wildlife traffickers worldwide using American intelligence agencies. President Obama has recognized that the ivory and rhino horn markets in Asia have grown tremendously and the problem represents an “international crisis.” During the aforementioned Regional Forum on Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, the United States served as the symposium’s co-host. While the relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN-WEN is an important factor in slowing the trade, China’s role as the region’s largest consumer of illegal wildlife products makes its inclusion in cooperative enforcement efforts vital.

China-U.S. Cooperation: The Future of Tackling the Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia

ASEAN will not be able to combat the region’s illegal wildlife trade alone. With the majority of demand for wildlife and animal products coming from outside of the region, Southeast Asia’s wildlife trafficking problem fully includes China and thus requires Chinese cooperation in enforcement efforts. Joining CITES in 1981 shortly after its opening and reform, China’s cooperation in regulating the illegal wildlife trade is essential to reducing wildlife extraction in Southeast Asia as well as Africa. The International Fund for Animal Welfare praised China in 2014 for destroying six tons of ivory in an effort to discourage the trade and promoting several campaigns to dissuade Chinese citizens from buying items made with animal parts. The campaign photograph below utilizes a play on Chinese characters to grab the attention of Chinese consumers and decrease the demand for animal parts in luxury items.

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Image Source: International Fund of Animal Welfare http://www.ifaw.org/united-states/news/new-year-china-comes-new-campaign

 

 

While little cooperative action has taken place thus far, the illegal wildlife trade represents an issue in Southeast Asia through which the U.S. and China can effectively cooperate. Often viewed as competitors in the region, U.S.-China collaboration on the issue of the illegal wildlife trade could slow the flow as well as provide a common goal towards which the U.S. and China could work. Though somewhat vague in its direction, the 2013 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue generated conversation surrounding China-U.S. cooperation in combating the illegal wildlife trade worldwide. Both countries recognize that a thriving illicit wildlife trade bolsters organized crime and, therefore, severely threatens national security as well as legal economic enterprises. Jointly tackling the illegal wildlife trade could strengthen positive ties between the U.S. and China, particularly with regard to Southeast Asia.

Reducing Southeast Asia’s illegal wildlife trade not only enhances the region’s ecosystems, economic development, and regional security, but also unites national governments in the name of a common cause. Already the region has seen some progress: Vietnamese demand for rhino horn dropped by over 33% during 2014 after a series of public information campaigns disproving the effectiveness of its medicinal uses. Not only do these information campaigns seem to have been effective, but they also shows that the Vietnamese government responded to internal and external concerns regarding the country’s negative role in the global wildlife trafficking industry.

As other Southeast Asian countries as well as China continue in their efforts to regulate the wildlife trade within their own markets, international cooperation is vital in significantly reducing the trade and targeting the individuals responsible. With a large portion of illegal animal products coming into the region from Africa and then crossing multiple borders once arriving in the East Asia and Pacific region, controlling transit points in the region and developing effective law enforcement practices is key. Because animal products harvested and traded within Southeast Asia often end up China and the United States, the governments of the United States and China also have a responsibility to reduce demand and can work collaboratively to stop the supply.

The success of CITES strongly suggests that international cooperation and strict national enforcement are the keys to reducing the illegal wildlife trade. Yet, as demonstrated by the trade’s continued prevalence throughout the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, more work must be done. Cracking down on the illicit wildlife trade in Southeast Asia represents a significant cooperation opportunity for the U.S. and China, and taking this opportunity could bring positive results to relations between the two nations while also effectively reducing the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

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Myanmar fighting escalates, tens of thousands flee into China

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As fighting in Myanmar grew more intense near the Sino-Burmese border during Spring Festival, media reports became increasingly confused and alarming. Clashes between rebels and government forces in Shan State reportedly claimed the combined lives of more than 100 combatants on both sides. The ramp-up in hostilities has also forced tens of thousands of Burmese civilians to flee their rural villages for refuge in China.

Fighting that first broke out on February 9, and included air and artillery strikes by the Burmese army in Kokang, have led to protracted bouts of guerrilla warfare. Estimates place the number of dead in the violence between 70 and 130, and media reports are unclear how many of these are soldiers or civilians.

However, a spokesman for the Myanmar Defense Ministry, Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo, wasquoted in the Hindustan Times as saying “the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers and around 72 insurgents”. Red Cross officials have also said humanitarian workers in the region have been attacked twice in the past week. The Burmese military has declared three months of martial law in Kokang, although how well such a policy can be enforced remains unclear.

Skirmishes have been most intense near the Burmese town of Laukkai, or Laogai. The village, now described as a “ghost town”, is located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. The refugees sought shelter in Yunnan’s Lincang Prefecture and were first thought to number a few thousand. However, Red Cross workers in Myanmar now claim at least 30,000 people have made the crossing, raising fears both inside and outside China of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The embattled Kokang region is a semi-autonomous part of northeastern Myanmar. Although the national government in Naypyidaw asserts titular control of the area, 90 percent of the local population claim Chinese descent and identify ethnically as Han Chinese. The rebel army now fighting Burmese troops is called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and is headed by former members of the country’s defunct Communist Party.

No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence in Kokang, although it seems likely connected to December ambushes by guerrillas that killed at least seven Burmese soldiers and injured 20 others. As the conflict continues, both sides have presented their own narratives. Burmese military spokesmen have gone so far as to accuse the rebels of employing Chinese mercenaries in an attempt at complete self rule — a charge the guerrillas and Beijing have vociferously denied.

Also at stake for both the Kokang and Burmese authorities are lucrative, if unofficial, trade routes in the area. China’s border with Myanmar is extremely porous, and around Kokang is notorious for booming illicit trafficking of illegally logged timber, rare animals, jade and narcotics.

This article by  was first posted on the GoKunming on 

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Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

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It is now 36 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime that all but destroyed the Cambodian nation, decimated its most educated people, and reduced the country to year zero.

Amazingly, the young foreign minister who emerged from the debris in 1979 is still in power.

Hun Sen, then a gaunt-looking 27-year-old, was drafted from the obscurity of a Vietnamese camp for Cambodian dissidents and defectors to serve in the newly installed Heng Samrin government. His parents were poor rice farmers. He entered politics without any diplomas or degrees. From the world’s youngest foreign minister in 1979, he currently ranks as the region’s longest-serving prime minister.

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world's youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world’s youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

 

Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio, a former journalist with the Phnom Penh Post, helps to fill a number of historical gaps in charting the rise of Hun Sen through the 1980s to the 2013 elections. The young foreign minister was a fast learner. Appointed prime minister in 1985, Hun Sen soon boldly charted an end to the civil war. In 1989 he gave the country a new name — the State of Cambodia — as well as a new flag and constitution, and shrewdly paved the way for an eventual peace settlement in Paris.

Unfortunately, Strangio’s attempt to record recent Cambodian history is marred by an obsessive desire to view every topic through same prism: the legacy of UNTAC — the UN peacekeeping mission (1991-93). Also pervasive is the author’s conviction that in every field Cambodia’s achievements are nothing more than a “mirage.”

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than  25km away.

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than 25km away. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Cambodian Reform

Cambodia has clearly made great progress in the last 30 years.

The nation was reborn in the 1980s. Peace returned in 1999. Cambodia long ago lost its regular place on TV news as one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. The magic of the ancient temples of Angkor and the nation’s cultural revival now once again captivate visitors. Both tourism and the garments industry have fueled economic growth.

Moreover, Cambodia is less repressive than many ASEAN governments, including Thailand and its cycle of military coups. Yet, according to Strangio, multiparty elections offer only a “mirage of democracy.”

In Cambodia’s last election, Hun Sen’s ruling party suffered a stunning loss of 22 seats, with the united opposition coming in a strong second with 55 seats in a national parliament of 123 members.

It’s too soon to dub this a “Phnom Penh Spring,” but Cambodia’s political diversity is more than just a mirage, particularly in comparison to the long-serving prime ministerial reigns ofMahathir Mohamad in Malaysia (22 years) and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (31 years). Malaysia and Singapore have never tolerated the strikes, protest rallies, and vociferous opposition that are all welcome features of Cambodian political life.

Cambodia, according to Strangio, was the nation where the UN and Western aid lavished billions of dollars on peacekeeping, implanting liberal democracy and human rights. The author assumes that Cambodia could make a smooth and rapid transition from the genocide and cruel deprivation of the 1980s to a shining beacon of democracy today. Of course that fantasy has not happened. The author concludes that the ruthless intransigence of Hun Sen and his ruling party, abetted by a traditional Cambodian resilience to foreign mentors of all ideologies, thwarted the allegedly benign, well-meaning Western efforts since the end of the Cold War to create a democratic success story.

In so doing, the author fails to detect a “mirage” of a different nature that did not come from any Cambodian failures, but can be squarely laid at the door of Western nations sitting in the UN Security Council.

Flaws of Peacekeeping

The UNTAC peacekeeping operation has been widely hailed as a great success story that ended the Cambodia conflict and ushered in a putative new democracy.

The UN-run election in 1993 did help implant democracy in Cambodia. However, the author glosses over the failure of UN peacekeeping and Western nations to get rid of the Khmer Rouge bases sustained and supported by the Royal Thai Army in blatant violation of the 1991 Paris Peace treaty.

From 1993-1998, the Pol Pot nightmare continued to haunt the fragile new state. The Khmer Rouge still controlled the gem-rich border province of Pailin and Anlong Veng to the north. They still planted landmines and burned down remote villages that defied them.

The war continued because the United States, France, and the UK all gave a much higher priority to preserving their deep military and trading ties with Thailand than putting pressure on this important ally and its military to sever the supply lines to the outlawed Khmer Rouge.

It was an elected Cambodian government led by Hun Sen — and not the UN — that finally eliminated the Khmer Rouge insurgency. On this point the book accepts that many voters in the 2003 election felt relief the war was finally over and rewarded the government with a strong mandate. Having secured the peace where the UN had failed, Hun Sen reached the zenith of his popularity at home.

In 2003, I wrote that if Hun Sen had retired around this time, his achievements and his legacy would have outweighed his dark side. But since peace and stability returned to Cambodia, corruption and looting of natural resources have boomed, with the prime minister’s close associates as the main beneficiaries.

The book rightly points out that 20 years of Western aid has only spawned an aid-addicted dependency. But Hun Sen hardly invented crony capitalism, corrupt patronage, or the skimming off of foreign aid.

The World Bank’s neoliberal development model of sweeping privatization and starving the public sector of any significant aid has also encouraged or tolerated cronyism in the scramble over newly privatized assets and the mass eviction of the urban poor. The opposition has failed to offer a real alternative to Hun Sen’s adoption of the neoliberal model of development designed by the World Bank. Neither side has come up with policies that could narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Hun Sen must take a lot of responsibility for the ugly side of Cambodian development. But the book’s depiction of Western government aid as always benign and benevolent suffers from a lack of critical questioning.

Transitional Justice

Strangio dismisses the landmark trial of a few surviving leaders from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime — Asia’s first case of international justice — as just another deception.

But the complex UN-backed tribunal brought together local and international lawyers and judges based on a UN partnership with the Cambodian authorities. Many cynics predicted that the trial would never take place. Whatever the shortcomings of this legal process, millions of Cambodians belatedly experienced a very real justice. They finally saw Pol Pot’s chief accomplices held to account, given a fair trial, and convicted of crimes against humanity.

According to UN legal expert Lars Olsen, Cambodian participation in the process exceeded that for all previous international justice courts. In addition to the 500 Cambodians who filled the public gallery day after day, they also participated as victims and litigants known as “civil parties.” Most victims have expressed some satisfaction that the tribunal brought a sense of accountability, closure, and justice.

That Cambodia was brave enough to face its tragic history should alone command international respect. Indonesia is still afraid to document and investigate the skulls in its own cupboard: the massive bloodbath in 1965-66, with an estimated 900,000 dead, and the subsequent atrocities in East Timor.

If the United States and its allies had not helped the Khmer Rouge hang on to Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly and blocked the credentials of the Heng Samrin government, this genocide tribunal could have taken place more than 25 years ago, as Hun Sen proposed in 1986. As it is, the ongoing tribunal is a case of far better late than never.

Why has Hun Sen, a leader from such humble origins, subsequently turned his back on the poor majority of Cambodians and their cry for land and justice? What kind of egomania has driven him to want to remain prime minister until the age of 72?

Strangio should have put these questions to Hun Sen in an interview.

Yet despite five years of commendable research, Strangio’s book doesn’t rely on any interviews with his prime subject. So we never get any of the answers that might have truly illuminated Hun Sen’s character, or any deeper insights in why he has chosen the path of electorally sanctioned authoritarianism and feudal-style patronage — a hallmark of the 1960s under the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Tom Fawthrop is a frequent contributor to ExSE.  He directed a Cambodian film Dreams and Nightmares broadcast on UK Channel 4 in 1989 and has interviewed Hun Sen on three occasions. He is also co-author of the book ‘ Getting away with Genocide?”  Pluto Books 2004.

This review was originally posted here on the FPIF website on February 15, 2015 and is reposted with the permission of the author.  

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