Category Archives: Current Events

Regional Roundup for Week of 7.8.16

News this week seems overly gloomy, continued trouble in the South China Sea, attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslims seeking refuge in Burma, brutality in the Philippines…so let’s end the digest on a positive note. Who doesn’t want to see an elephant getting a new prosthetic limb?  And cheers to China for getting in on the search for our extraterrestrial neighbors because after all, The truth IS out there.

LEADERS

Body count rises as new Philippines president calls for drug addicts to be killed – Asian Correspondent – Newly-installed Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has reiterated his tough stance on crime by urging the public to not only kill drug dealers, but addicts as well. /// Who needs rule of law when you have President Rodrigo Duterte? Following up on his promise to be tough on crime, it’s been reported that around 30 ‘drug dealers’ have been killed since he has taken office. Eliminating ‘drug dealers’ isn’t enough for macho man Rodrigo Duterte, though. While speaking to a crowd in a Manila, he exhorted the crowd to kill drug addicts if they knew any. That’s scary. It’s sometimes easy to poke fun at the bombastic Duterte, but statements that ask citizens to murder each other reveal the true character of the man leading the Philippines.

China offers Philippines talks if South China Sea court ignored: China Daily – Reuters – China is ready to start negotiations with the Philippines on South China Sea-related issues if Manila ignores an arbitration ruling expected next week on their long-running territorial dispute, the official China Daily reported on Monday.

Keeping friends close, Thailand Closer – The Myanmar Times – It says something profound about the region that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s first international trips as state counsellor and foreign minister have required photo ops with Southeast Asian dictators.

Hostile Takeover: How Cambodia’s ruling family are pulling the strings on the economy and amassing vast personal fortunes with extreme consequences for the population – Global Witness – Few prime ministers have served for as long as Cambodia’s Hun Sen, in power for 30 years. Even when democratically voted out he has refused to step down, and has systematically quashed political opposition including through the murder, torture and arbitrary imprisonment of his critics.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Thailand to Build Biomass Plan for Phnom Penh – The Phnom Penh Post – Thailand’s Sahacogen (Chonburi) Pcl, an independent producer and distributor of electricity and steam, will form a joint venture with Saha Patthana Inter Holding Pcl, the investment arm of Thailand’s Saha Group, to invest in biomass power plants in Cambodia and Myanmar, according to online business intelligence platform DealStreetAsia.

Visiting PM Thongloun to meet with Prayut – The Nation – Visiting Lao Premier Thongloun Sisoulith will meet with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha today to discuss further cooperation in many facets of the bilateral relationship.

Thailand and Myanmar agree to push long-delayed Border Demarcation Talks – The Nation – Myanmar and Thailand have agreed to resume long delayed land boundary demarcation between the two countries, the Myanmar Foreign Ministry has said.

Burma, Thailand agree to Boost Trade – The Irrawaddy – The Burmese and Thai governments have agreed to boost bilateral trade volume to reach US$20 billion in 2017, Burma’s President’s Office announced on Wednesday.

UQ develops ASEAN poultry welfare standards to further global trade – Asian Correspondent – The chicken and duck industries in 10 Asian countries will benefit from new poultry animal welfare guidelines proposed by The University of Queensland for ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations).

Cambodia and Laos: Toward a New Era – The Diplomat – Recent signals suggest that there might be a new era of better ties between the two Southeast Asian states.

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

International Reports warn about disintegration of Mekong River Delta – Vietnam Net – A research work by the National University of Singapore (NUS) on the impact of the Manwan hydropower dam in China in the Mekong Delta showed that 160 million tons of sediment flowed to the delta each year in the past, before the dam was built. /// A study conducted by NUS has found that sediment flows have declined from 160 million tons to 75 million tons. The study predicts that once further dams are constructed in Laos, sediment flows could decrease to 42 million tons. As noted in previous digests, Vietnam is one country that will receive little benefits from hydropower dams while absorbing many of the costs. The importance of sediment flows to the Mekong Delta is paramount as it provides rich soil for rice farmers. As dams are built or proposed, how Vietnam responds will be central to regional cooperation.

 Sun, Partnerships Power Thailand Solar Project – The Asian Development Bank – Thailand’s first large-scale solar power plant demonstrates the feasibility of large, private sector solar farms, and leads the way to a greener future.

Nineteen Solar Farm License Revoked – The Bangkok Post – The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) has revoked the solar farm development licenses of 19 holders who failed to start operations by June 2016.

No more coal power plants needed – The Bangkok Post – Last Thursday, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) confirmed that it will construct six new coal-fired power plants by 2025. On many levels, building these new power plants seems not to be a well thought-out plan.

Regional Journalists examine impacts of Don Sahong Dam on Dolphins, Fisheries, Villagers – Mekong Eye – Journalists from across the Mekong region met villagers, government officials and NGOs to understand and write stories about the costs and benefits of the Don Sahong dam.

Sustainable energy in Asia by 2050 – CSR Asia – A new report from WWF argues that South East Asia’s energy needs could be met from non-polluting sources by 2050. Nations such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are all relying heavily on environmental damaging coal as an energy resource. But according to WWF’s studies the massive coal consumption and associated pollution could be exchanged with sustainable energy.

Mekong Basin Stirs up Region – Thai and Cambodian Water Projects bring Risks – The Mekong Eye – While Laos utilizes water from the Mekong River for hydropower dams to become “the battery of ASEAN,” Cambodia and Thailand are following a different trend by keeping and diverting water to expand rice farming. /// The drought in Thailand coupled with water mismanagement could have lasting effects for water policy in Thailand. Diverting water from the Mekong is not a solution but a gigantic band-aid. Rather than divert water, Thailand would be wise to improve irrigation techniques, grow less water-intensive crops, and have contingency plans in place for droughts.

CHINA

China Environmental Press Awards Winners in Pictures – The Guardian – From exposing environmental crimes to a campaign to save a wildlife reserve, the awards, created by chinadialogue and the Guardian in 2010, recognize journalists making outstanding contributions to the field in China.

Chinese, Japanese Warplanes in Close Encounter – The Nation – Beijing and Tokyo were at loggerheads Tuesday over accusations Japanese warplanes locked their fire control radar onto Chinese aircraft, as state-run Chinese media said the country needed to be ready for “military confrontation” elsewhere.

China’s White-Collar Blues – The Bangkok Post – Lower labour costs in Thailand and emerging Southeast Asian economies have eroded China’s competitiveness, prompting a growing number of businesses to relocate their production from the mainland to Asean.

China top polluter Hebei province promises to clean up act – Reuters – Northern China’s Hebei, home to seven of the country’s 10 smoggiest cities, has pledged to double up its efforts to tackle hazardous pollution following an environment ministry report accusing the province of failing to rein in law-breaking industries.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

Philippines offers China talks on maritime Disputes – The Bangkok Post – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday offered China conciliatory talks on a long-awaited international tribunal ruling over Beijing’s maritime claims, a week before the verdict.

 China to hold drills in South China Sea ahead of court ruling – Reuters – China will hold military drills around the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the maritime safety administration said on Sunday, ahead of a decision by an international court in a dispute between China and the Philippines.

Vietnam urges ‘fair’ ruling from court handling South China Sea case – Reuters – Vietnam has called for an international tribunal in The Hague to deliver a “fair and objective” ruling in an arbitration case lodged by the Philippines that challenges China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

Indonesia and the South China Sea: Jakarta’s war on illegal fishing – Asian Correspondent To an uninterested observer, the lines on the map of territorial claims in the South China Sea looks like the work of a child with a box full of crayons.

Vietnamese Fisherman versus China – New Mandala – Tensions in troubled waters see more and more attacks and the undermining of precarious livelihoods. 

NGOs ‘lend support’ to PM’s stance on South China Sea – The Phnom Penh Post – Buffeted by international criticism over his stance on the South China Sea dispute, Prime Minister Hun Sen this week found support for his position on the home front, albeit from a source analysts were quick to question.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Vietnam Blames Toxic Waste Water from Steel Plant for Mass fish Deaths – The Guardian Taiwanese firm Formosa Plastics that owns the plant says it will pay $500m towards clean up and compensation.

Plastic buckets, broken printers shine light on Hanoi’s poor –  Reuters – Vietnamese families living in slums along the Red River in Hanoi are using red plastic buckets and old printers to help light homes, cook meals and slash electricity costs by as much as a third. /// It’s heartwarming to see innovation reaching some of Vietnam’s poorest. Kudos to Le Vu Cuong and his group at Hanoi University!

WB, Singapore-based fund invests in Vietnam’s hydropower – VietnamNet Bridge – IFC and Armstrong, with a combined stake of 36 percent, will take a 16 and 20 percent equity stake in GEC, respectively. For both it is their first investment in Vietnam’s power sector. The investment will help the company expand its hydropower portfolio and invest in other renewable energy segments, such as wind and solar power.

Related: IFC, clean energy fund to invest in small hydropower developer in VietnamHydroworld – IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, and Armstrong S.E. Clean Energy Fund are investing in Gia Lai Electricity Joint Stock Company (GEC), which is a small hydropower developer in Vietnam

Clean energy prices fall as more enterprises enter field – VietnamNet Bridge – More foreign conglomerates have expressed their desire to develop clean energy projects in Vietnam, but the number of investors remains modest.

Malaysia ruling party VP quits, says ‘no justice’ amid 1MDB row – Reuters – A senior leader of Malaysia’s ruling party quit on Monday, the latest among several party officials to leave or be sacked after criticizing Prime Minister Najib Razak over a multi-billion dollar financial scandal involving a state-owned fund.

Malaysian nightclub bomb attack linked to Islamic State, police say – Asian CorrespondentMalaysian police have confirmed that a grenade attack at a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur last week is linked to terrorism activities in what could be the first attack to be carried out by the Islamic State in the country.

Thirty killed in four days in Philippine war on drugs – Reuters – Thirty “drug dealers” have been killed since Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as Philippine president on Thursday, police said, announcing the seizure of nearly $20 million worth of narcotics but sparking anger from a lawyers’ group.

Manila Bay reclamation to destroy environment – The Manila Times – Senator Cynthia Villar warned against the implementation of more reclamation projects in Manila Bay, saying it will adversely affect communities and the livelihood of fishermen.

Manila gets US Upgrade on Human Trafficking – The Nation – Philippines has finally moved up to Tier 1-the highest rating by the US State Department in its annual report on countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking, including prostitution and forced labor.

‘Rubber Stamp’ Congress emerging, warns lawmaker – The Manila Times – Returning Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman of the Liberal Party (LP) has called on his party mates to stop what he said was a sinister plot to turn Congress into a “rubber-stamp” with a company-union style administration and opposition bloc.

Burma: Thousands of Buddhist monks hold anti-Muslim rally in Rakhine Asian Correspondent – Buddhist Monks in Burma gathered on Sunday in the thousands in the strife-ridden Rakhine State to hold a fresh round of protests against the Rohingya Muslim community. /// Intolerance reigns supreme in Burma. With the government refusing to acknowledge the Rohingya, the combination of nationalist fervor and religious discrimination will inevitably continue. One can only hope that international pressure or a change in domestic attitudes will prompt the government to change its tune, but every week it seems like we take another step down the rabbit hole as over a million people are continually denied basic human rights while religious fanatics seek more punishment.

Mob burns down Muslim Prayer Hall in Hpakant Township – The Irrawaddy – A Muslim prayer hall in Lone Khin village of Hpakant Township, Kachin State was burned down by a mob on Friday afternoon.

After Protests, State Government to use only ‘Arakanese’ Race – The Irrawaddy –The Arakan State government has bowed to the demands of Arakan nationalist groups by issuing a statement on Monday that it would refer to the Buddhist majority as the “Arakanese Race,” instead of “the Buddhist community in Arakan State.”

After a year, Rohingya Family Still Separated and stranded – The New York Times – For Hasinah Izhar, it seems a lifetime since she scrambled onto a boat on a muddy shore of Myanmar, clutching three of her children, and joined the exodus of the persecuted Rohingya minority, hoping for a better life in Malaysia.

Township tells famers not to protest over land – The Myanmar Times – A group of farmers in Rakhine State’s Kyaukphyu township are hoping for negotiations with the Southeast Asia Gas Pipeline (SEAGP) company, after being told by local authorities not to sue the firm over damage to farmland.

Cambodia’s Rice Industry needs New Strategy – New Mandala – Without a dramatic change in policy and direction, the industry could collapse in two to seven years. 

Cambodia’s Economic Status raised to Lower-Middle Income – The Phnom Penh Post-The World Bank has officially revised the status of Cambodia’s economy, moving it up a rung from the low-income bracket into lower-middle income territory – a reclassification that economists expect will lead to a scale-back of foreign aid and preferential trade access over the coming years.

Outgoing USAID Cambodia Director Reflects on Achievement – The Phnom Penh Post –It goes against the purpose of many, but for Rebecca Black, former mission director for USAID Cambodia, eventually working herself out of the job would mark a measure of success.

USA and the Kingdom’s Continued solid Relations – The Phnom Penh Post – As the United States of America celebrates its independence day today, Post Plus highlights some of the U.S.’ most notable contributions to the Kingdom of Cambodia within the past year.

Cambodia’s Factories Improving, report finds – The Phnom Penh Post – The latest Better Factories Cambodia report has found that 47 per cent of 381 assessed factories complied with its most important working conditions – up from 28 per cent in 2014.

Government will start chipping away at Protected Areas – The Cambodia Daily – Between 2009 and 2012, the Ministry of Environment went on nationwide leasing spree, signing over vast swaths of the country’s nominally protected areas to private companies for rubber plantations and other agribusiness ventures.

UN does not want to Monitor Referendum: CDC – The Nation – Charter drafter spokesman Norachit Sinhaseni says the United Nations has not requested being allowed to observe the upcoming referendum on the constitution but believes the public should be allowed to participate in the process.

Thai Delegation offers UN assurance on Referendum – The Nation – A Thai delegation has met a senior United Nations official in New York to promise that the referendum on the draft constitution will take place on August 7, as scheduled.

Government aims to improve on tier 2 Ranking – The Bangkok Post – The police chief has vowed to intensify a crackdown on those blacklisted for being involved in human trafficking in a bid to help the country secure an improved ranking in the US State Department’s Trafficking.

Thailand sets-up security centers ahead of referendum – The Irrawaddy – Thailand’s military government has set up security centers around the country ahead of an August referendum on a new constitution, a spokesman for the government said on Monday.

Police Investigate site of Surakarta Attack – The Jakarta Post – Central Java Police Indonesia Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (Inafis) personnel continue to investigate the scene of a suicide bomb attack at the Surakarta Police headquarters on Tuesday morning.

China to Hunt Alien Life – The Bangkok Post – China on Sunday hoisted the final piece into position on what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, which it will use to explore space and help in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, state media said.

WATCH: Elephant injured by mine near Thailand-Burma border gets new prosthetic limb – Asian Correspondent – Mosha, the world’s first elephant to receive a specially-designed prosthetic limb, has to switch to a new prosthetic every few years due to wear and tear, as well as physical growth.

This week’s news was authored by Pete Telaroli.

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Regional Roundup for Week of 6.30.16

It’s about time to head up to the poop deck to keep watch for the ruling on the Philippines case against China over the South China Seas. If this summer isn’t hot enough already, the temperature is about to increase by about 9 dashes.

Leaders

U.S promotes Thailand out of tier 3 – Bangkok Post The Foreign Ministry says Thailand has worked tirelessly over the past year to improve its human trafficking situation and stands by its efforts even if the country doesn’t budge from its low ranking in the US State Department’s upcoming report. /// An important ruling for Thailand as it has been working hard to get itself off the list. Moving from tier three to tier two will enable Thailand to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) just as the same move enabled Malaysia to join last year. General Prayut Chan-Ocha has signaled his willingness to join TPP, so it appears Thailand may be positioning itself to join when the second round of accession opens up. That said, there is still plenty of work to be done in the fishing industry and with other migrant labor communities, so the U.S. would be wise to monitor Thailand closely to ensure that the work it has done wasn’t all for naught.

US to downgrade Burma in annual Human Trafficking ReportThe Irrawaddy The United States has decided to place Burma on its global list of worst offenders in human trafficking, officials said; a move aimed at prodding the country’s new democratically elected government and its still-powerful military to do more to curb the use of child soldiers and forced labor. /// As Thailand goes up, Burma goes down. While the U.S. wants to curb the use of child soldiers and forced labor, this may also be a case where the U.S. is using the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report as a political tool. The U.S. can use the tier three status either as a stick or a carrot in encouraging economic, social, and legal reforms in Burma. The use of existing sanctions can encourage the military elements of the government to reform, or act as a deterrent against future bad behavior. This is most likely one reason why Aung San Suu Kyii has not asked for sanctions to be lifted.

Thailand must end trafficking of all migrant workers – New Mandala Slavery in the seafood industry is just one part of a broader problem. And here’s how it can be addressed.

China slams South China Sea case as court set to rule – Reuters An international court said on Wednesday it would deliver a hotly anticipated ruling in the Philippines’ case against China over the South China Sea on July 12, drawing an immediate rebuke from Beijing, which rejects the tribunal’s jurisdiction. /// Surprise! Well, not really. This has been the expected response from China as the decision draws near. While China has repeatedly disregarded the Hague’s jurisdiction on the case, it’s still unclear how it would act if the court rules against it. If it continues its island building and militarization of the Sea after the ruling, how the U.S. and ASEAN countries react will be critical to maintaining peace and positive relations in the region.

 

SOUTH CHINA SEA

After the South China Sea Arbitration – The Diplomat Where do we go after the panel has spoken?

Vietnam’s ‘Soft diplomacy’ in the South China Sea – The Diplomat Ly Son Island is a living museum documenting Vietnam’s claims to the Paracels and Spratlys.

China’s Curious South China Sea Negotiation Policy – The Diplomat What would China expect to achieve with bilateral negotiations on maritime disputes?

The South China Sea Moment of Truth Is Almost Here – The National Interest The Philippines’ law fare strategy in the South China Sea disputes is inching closer to a moment of truth

 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Seven Indonesian Sailors Kidnapped in the Sulu Sea – Bangkok Post Seven Indonesian sailors have been kidnapped at sea in the southern Philippines, the government in Jakarta said on Friday, the latest in a spree of abductions by armed gangs in the strife-torn region.

Related: Indonesian Government asks Philippines to Guard Barges in its Regional Waters – Jakarta Post

Government Prohibits Indonesia Vessels from Sailing to Philippines – Jakarta Post

In wake of repeat kidnappings, Indonesia, Philippines boost defense cooperationThe Jakarta Post Indonesia and the Philippines have agreed to boost defense cooperation in the wake of another hostage-taking incident, with seven Indonesian crewmen abducted by armed militants in the waters off the southern Philippines.

Cambodia and Laos to boost trade, open more checkpointsThe Bangkok Post Laos has asked Cambodia to increase trade and investment in its northern neighbor as bilateral trade between the two countries is small and has plenty of room to expand.

ASEAN to Form Ecotourism Clusters – Jakarta Post Tourism chiefs of the 10 ASEAN member countries have approved a declaration manifesting their common desire to boost tourism growth and align regional ecotourism destinations during a roundtable in Champasak, Laos on Wednesday as part of the first-ever ASEAN Ecotourism Forum.

ASEAN can’t afford hollow regional Tensions – The New Mandala Southeast Asian states need to maintain unity or risk irrelevance in the face of growing tensions and rivalry in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN experiment – The New Mandala Nicholas Farrelly and Kishore Mahbubani on the organisation’s past, present and future.

What Brexit means for ASEAN – The New Mandala The split between the UK and EU will have economic, political and psychological repercussions for Southeast Asia.

SUSTAINABILTY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Egat reaffirms coal-fired power plants – The Bangkok Post The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand has confirmed it will complete six new coal-fired power plants by 2025 and boost its share of the power supply market to 50% from 37%. /// EGAT continues its strategy to make Thailand less reliant on natural gas, but increasing its reliance on cheap coal could prove to backfire as civil society organizations push back against coal plants as they have in Krabi. The military government has said it will not use section 44 of the constitution to override environmental impact assessments or community rights, so how it deals with possible opposition to the plants will be something to watch.

Thailand’s nuclear plans inch forward with new bill – Nikkei Asian Review  Advocates of nuclear energy in Thailand, like their counterparts around the world, were given pause when a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan five years ago triggered a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — the worst such accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Petroleum Bills Sail through First Reading – The Nation The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) yesterday passed the amended drafts of two controversial petroleum bills by an overwhelming majority in the first reading.

LPG import to stop next month – The Bangkok Post The Energy Business Department has reaffirmed Thailand will stop importing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from next month for the first time in eight years because of sufficient domestic supply and falling demand, says Witoon Kulcharoenwirat, the department’s director-general.

Murdered while Defending Thailand’s Environment – NYT Bangkok-based photographer Luke Doggleby showcases his work highlighting the danger of working as an environmentalist in Thailand. The exhibition uses photos of 37 people who have lost their lives protecting Thailand’s environment.

Dam displaced villagers protest Chinese firmThe Cambodia Daily Nearly 100 villagers protested at the site of the under-construction Stung Treng 2 irrigation dam in Od­dar Meanchey province on Thursday, demanding replacement plots for the farmland they lost to the project.

Koh Kong Fisherman Struggle in the Shadow of Sand Dredgers – The Phnom Penh Post Phen Sophany cuts the motor as the boat nears the centre of a mangrove-lined estuary in Koh Kong province, near the isolated fishing village of Koh Sralav. “This is where the island used to be,” the 38-year-old member of environmental activist group Mother Nature says, the village visible in the distance.

Solar’s Future looks a bit Brighter – The Phnom Penh Post For a country drenched in sunshine, Cambodia has made remarkably little effort to harness the abundant energy of the sun. The Post’s Kali Kotoski sat down with Jim Gramberg, CEO of Solar Partner Asia, to discuss what is holding back solar energy initiatives, and recent baby steps toward private sector involvement.

The Myitsone Dam: China’s three optionsFrontier Myanmar As China steps up the pressure for a resumption of work on the controversial Myitsone dam, Myanmar is told it faces three options over the project’s future.

Indonesia faces environmental time bomb after coal bust – Reuters  Thousands of mines are closing in Indonesia’s tropical coal belt as prices languish and seams run dry. But almost none of the companies have paid their share of billions of dollars owed to repair the badly scarred landscape they have left behind.

Vietnam drought leaves one million in urgent need of food aid – EU – Thomson Reuters Foundation An El Niño-induced drought in Vietnam has left 1 million people in urgent need of food assistance and 2 million people lacking access to drinking water, Europe’s humanitarian aid agency said.

Chinese giant paper plant claims not a threat to Mekong River – Vietnam Express In response to concerns about the possible environmental damage a $1.2 billion paper plant could do to the Mekong River, Chinese investors say they will use a high-tech treatment system to purify waste water from the plant.

Mekong Delta loses $210 million to drought and salinity – Talk Vietnam Vietnam’s Mekong Delta has suffered losses worth more than VND4.7 trillion ($210 million) due to the severe and prolonged drought and saltwater intrusion during dry season, Malaysian National News Agency Bernama cited the Southwest Region Steering Committee as saying.

Mekong Delta should learn from Weaknesses to grow Further – Talk Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has asked Mekong Delta localities to be aware of the region’s weaknesses, carry out appropriate measures to address difficulties and pursue sustainable agricultural restructuring to ensure locals’ stable livelihoods.

Laos Speeds up Hydropower Plant on Mekong River despite Concerns – Thanh Nien News

Construction work on the Don Sahong Dam in Laos is progressing at a rapid pace, amid urgent questions about its impacts on the food security and livelihoods of those near the site as well as up and downstream the Mekong River.

Damming the Nam Tha in Northern Laos – The Diplomat This photographic essay by Scott Ezell showcases dam construction on the Nam Tha River in Northern Laos. The photo essay starts with the Nam Tha as he experienced it in 2014, then switches to the way he encountered it in 2016.

Related: A companion piece from New Mandala (from Nov 24, 2015): The Silenced River

South China Sea reefs ‘decimated’ as giant clams harvested in bulk – Reuters Ornaments made from the shells of endangered giant clams, renowned in China for having auspicious powers and the luster of ivory, have become coveted luxuries, a trend which has wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of the South China Sea.

 

CHINA

Chinese Firm floats proposal for rail link to capital’s portThe Phnom Penh Post A Chinese state railway construction contractor has approached the [Cambodian] government with a bid to conduct a feasibility study on connecting the capital’s river port to the Kingdom’s sole operating railway line, a state official said yesterday.

China-Led Development Bank Starts with $509 Million in Loans for 4 Projects – NY Times A new Chinese-led international development bank announced its first four loans on Saturday, pledging to lend $509 million for projects to spread electric power in rural Bangladesh, upgrade living conditions in slums in Indonesia, and improve roads in Pakistan and Tajikistan.

China’s Xi urges caution over U.S. missile deployment in South Korea – Reuters Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday urged South Korea to pay attention to China’s concerns about the deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system to the country and “cautiously” address the plan.

China dam water release captured by drone – The Straits times A photographer used a drone to capture spectacular images of cascades of water gushing from a dam in central China, an annual event attracting thousands of tourists.

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Thai PM Supports Delayed Burmese Refugee Return – The Irrawaddy Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha announced ahead of his meeting with Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu-Kyi that Thailand is open to repatriation of the roughly 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand, but that Myanmar must be given more time to prepare for their arrival.

Related: PM Proposes Joint Working Group to Study Repatriation – The Nation

Related: Nearly 200 Burmese refugees to be repatriated from Thailand – The Irrawaddy The Burmese government plans to repatriate 196 Burmese nationals displaced by conflict from refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, according to Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The two countries agreed to cooperate on refugee returns during the visit of Burma’s State Counselor/Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi to Thailand last week.

Thailand defeated in UNSC bid – The Bangkok Post Kazakhstan easily defeated Thailand’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, with just 55 countries backing Thailand against 138 for Kazakhstan.

Ethnic Strife Flares again in Myanmar as Buddhists ransack Mosque – The Nation Violence erupted in the village of Thuye Thai Mein in Bago province as 200 Buddhists attacked Muslims and a mosque. The violence was triggered by an argument between a Muslim man and Buddhist woman about a school being constructed in the village. Around 70 Muslims sought refuge in a police station overnight and others have fled the area.

Related – Burma: Officials hesitate to take action after Buddhist-Muslim dispute, fearing further violence – Asian Correspondent It has almost been a week since an angry, 200-strong mob in a Burmese village assaulted a Muslim man, ransacked his home, and destroyed the village mosque and Muslim cemetery, and yet police have yet to launch an investigation into the matter.

Observers Urge Govt To Create New Export Markets, Boost Trade VolumeThe Irrawaddy A recent World Bank report says that trade growth in Burma could reduce poverty and boost prosperity, but local observers say in order for that to happen the government must implement economic policies that increase export markets.

Malaysia PM sacks party deputy, still considering cabinet reshuffle – Reuters

Prime Minister Najib Razak sacked his former deputy from the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), along with Mukhriz Mahatir, the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. /// Prime Minister Najib Razak continues his consolidation of power after promising election results for the dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in Sarawak , Kuala Kangsar, and Sungai Besar. Having dismissed himself of any wrong doing in the 1MDB corruption case, Prime Minister Razak has set himself up with an eventual confrontation with his former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, who has left the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and the BN coalition.

Related: Malaysia PM reshuffles cabinet in anticipation of snap election – Bangkok Post

Malaysia: Top opposition leader Lim Guan Eng charged with graft – Asian Correspondent A prominent Malaysian opposition leader and critic of Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged by authorities for corruption on Thursday.          

Malaysian ex-PM claims former party ‘bought votes’ in recent polls – Asian Correspondent Malaysian ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has accused his former party United Malays National Organization (UMNO) of vote-buying after it won two by-elections in landslide victories earlier this month.

Duterte in, Aquino out – The Manila Times President-elect Rodrigo Duterte will formally assume office today [June 29] to start his six-year term as the country’s 16th President. /// Often (wrongfully) compared to Donald Trump, President Rodrigo Duterte’s first days in office will be closely watched to see if his actions match his rhetoric. I, for one, don’t see this as likely because Duterte will run into the same problem that other popularly elected presidents like Obama and Jokowi have run into: institutions. While he does hold a majority in parliament, Duterte will still have to work with the land-holding elite who he has been openly hostile to. Given that, it’s unlikely that Duterte will be able to unilaterally solve problems like the South China Sea, in which he once stated that he would “ride on a jet ski” to take on China himself.

As Duterte takes over in Philippines, police killings stir fear – Reuters Two things catch the eye in the office of Joselito Esquivel, a police colonel enforcing a national crackdown on drugs in the Philippines’ most crime-ridden district: a pair of boxing gloves in a display cabinet and an M4 assault rifle lying beside him.

Incoming Cabinet and other incoming senior government officials – The Manila Times President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed 23 cabinet secretaries and 18 other officials to key government bureaus and agencies.

 China, Japan to impact Philippine Exports – The Manila Times Slowing growth in China and continuing tepid growth in Japan will continue to provide headwinds against the Philippines’ trade position, but the impact on the overall current account will be limited, Fitch-owned BMI Research said.

This week’s news digest was authored by Peter Telaroli. Welcome to Stimson Pete!

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Kunming’s Twin Expos, Bigger, More Important Than Ever

kunming expo grounds

Kunming’s expo grounds; photo: Sina

In a mark of the spring city’s growing importance, both on the domestic and international stage, 5,000 businesses and nearly as many officials from eighty-nine countries converged on Kunming. This is, of course, in reference to the fourth annual China-South Asia Expo (CSAEXPO) and twenty-fourth Kunming Import and Export Commodities Fair (KIEF), which concluded with much fanfare, as well as some highly negative press, this past weekend.

The twin exhibitions are held jointly each year with the express purpose of promoting Yunnan and China-based companies. While the expos advance provincial businesses and inject capital into the local economy, they also serve to broaden China’s economic soft-power sphere, particularly in those countries sharing the same geographic neighborhood. These nations not only include major trade partners India, Thailand and Vietnam, but also smaller ones such as the Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan.

In years past, the paired events have been enormously successful. Last year, 785 billion yuan (US$127 billion) was generated in newly signed contracts, and some 740,000 people attended. The 2016 version saw increases over last year, although by expo standards, they were modest. The total value of all new contracts signed — which includes non-binding memoranda of understanding — hit 861 billion yuan (US$132 billion). Over the course of the week-long event, some 800,000 people took part, with vendors conducting combined on-site sales of 338 million yuan (US$51.9 million).

Many high-ranking officials attended the convention, among them the vice president of Nepal and the deputy prime ministers of Cambodia and Vietnam. Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng ( 李纪恒) specifically welcomed the diplomatic entourage from Vietnam, which was named the ‘country of honor‘ at KIEF.

Trade between Vietnam and China has been on the upswing despite sometimes faltering bilateral relations. Along the countries’ shared border, improved shipping and logistics capabilities — a focus of Yunnan’s current five-year development plan — have been upgraded to the point that an estimated 87 percent of all trade is scanned and inspected electronically, shortening once laborious customs routines.

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung (left) meets with Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung (left) meets with Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng Photo: Dangcongsan

South Asian nations also maintained a strong presence at the expos, with India taking the lead. Small independent businesses from the subcontinent exhibited a wide range of products including handicrafts, handlooms and carpets, while representatives from larger Indian businesses such as Tata and Infosys were also in attendance. Countries from further afield were also represented. Shylar Bredewold, who attended on the final day to do some shopping and network for his business Centreal International Investments, shared the following impressions:

I felt the Expo was a living, thriving example of the ballet of chaos endemic to China and to Kunming in particular. There was a relentless flow of people in absolutely all directions, some more friendly than others. Among the pieces I enjoyed most were the lovely Persian rugs from Afghanistan and Iran, Afghan lapis jewelry, and some embroidered wall hangings from Nepal. As was expected and owing to the nature of my business, I had relatively few meaningful interactions which might prove useful to further my own professional interests, [but] would I go again? Most certainly.

India was not the only South Asian country to make a splash, as Pakistan used more exhibition stalls than any other country. In a statement regarding the expos, Pakistan’s minister of commerce emphasized his country’s eagerness to do business with China. As with Indian representatives, the minister voiced his support for China’s Belt and Road initiative and the long-term prospects of the BCIM trade corridor, while also stressing the need for economic reciprocity.

Huge business deals and southwest China’s slow-growing importance on the international stage notwithstanding, CSAEXPO and KIEF did contain some drama this year. A high-profile meeting held by the foreign ministers of China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states made international headlines when a joint statement regarding the South China Sea was retracted just three hours after being issued to the press. The situation took some of the expected shine off the otherwise well-organized and executed expos, and somewhat perfectly revealed both the positive and negative aspects of Yunnan’s current growing pains.

kunming expo 3

Image: V4

 

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Not a Repeat, but an Echo: ASEAN’s Retracted Statement and the Specter of the 2012 Joint Communique Failure

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN foreign ministers at special foreign ministers' meeting in Kunming / AFP PHOTO

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN foreign ministers at the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Kunming / AFP PHOTO

The South China Sea was anticipated to be one major topic of discussion during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming on June 14, but the outcome—the retraction of an ASEAN statement only three hours after being sent to the media—has made divisions over the South China Sea the only talking point emerging from the meeting on broader ASEAN-China bilateral relations. The statement was stronger than most previous commentary from ASEAN, including specific references to land reclamation and an implied reference to the Philippines’ ongoing legal case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The statement also notably confirmed that the issue is relevant to ASEAN-China bilateral relations, countering the long-time stance of China that South China Sea disputes are a bilateral issue between claimants. Since the retraction, there have been a plethora of contradictory statements and no revised statement has been released.

While divisions over the South China Sea are not new to ASEAN, the lack of a coordinated response raises serious questions about ASEAN’s ability to effectively respond as tensions over the South China Sea continue to rise. The emergence of numerous reports that consensus on the statement was withdrawn after-the-fact due to China pressuring Laos appears to many observers a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to reach consensus on a joint statement during the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s failure to cajole consensus from the group in 2012 was also due to disagreement over how to handle the South China Sea disputes, the first time that such a thing happened in ASEAN’s then 45-year history. The failure was blamed squarely on Cambodia’s for allowing its close relationship with China to challenge ASEAN centrality and interfere with ASEAN policy decisions. The question moving forward is whether this will be a repeat of 2012’s failed joint communique or whether Laos as ASEAN Chair for 2016 will be able to successfully coordinate a joint statement from this year’s ASEAN Summit.

The differences in China and ASEAN’s characterizations of the meeting are stark. Where China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi noted in his public remarks that “this [the South China Sea dispute] isn’t an issue between China and ASEAN” and emphasized that there had been few disagreements, the ASEAN statement was clear that “[ASEAN] also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting in Kunming, failed to appear alongside Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a planned press release in Kunming and instead echoed the retracted statement’s language in a separate press release in Singapore. On June 16, spokespeople for Indonesia and Vietnam stated that there had been consensus over the contents, though Indonesia noted that the statement was intended to be a media guidance statement rather than an official joint statement. The Philippines seconded that there had been consensus among ASEAN foreign ministers when their meeting ended and that Malaysia’s release of the statement had not been in error.

Like Cambodia and Myanmar, Laos is a least-developed country and is considered one of the region’s most vulnerable to Chinese pressures over the South China Sea given its non-claimant status and relative economic dependence on Chinese investment, trade, and loans. And unlike Myanmar, Laos has not recently received an influx of economic assistance from other countries that provide it with development alternatives if China’s assistance were taken away due to political disagreements.

At first glance, it seems that China has “won” by once again disrupting a unified ASEAN statement on the South China Sea. Prashanth Parameswaran’s excellent Diplomat piece on the fiasco correctly questions this conclusion, pointing out that the statement’s release and the following media frenzy show that China successfully blocked an official statement but failed to establish its preferred narrative framework for debate on the issue. Blocking a unified ASEAN statement is not as ideal for China as preventing ASEAN from forming a consensus in the first place, but it may be good enough to prevent action on the issue for the rest of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship.

After all, China’s activities in the South China Sea are only partly about changing the short-term narrative; the more central goal is to slowly alter the status-quo in China’s favor. This is visible in China’s establishment of military bases on created islands and regular presence of its Coast Guard vessels in the region, which change the on-the-ground calculus and make it increasingly hard for other claimants to push back against Chinese intrusions.

This episode has shown us two things: first, that China’s aggressive behavior has in fact pushed countries in the region that previously preferred to stay away from conflict, such as Singapore and Indonesia, to take a stronger stance against disruptive behavior and in favor of international law. Second, that China is still fully capable and willing to use its role as a regional financier, trading partner, and neighboring behemoth to ensure that the ASEAN bloc cannot effectively act against its interests even in the face of growing regional discomfort over China’s behavior.

The most important question moving forward is not which side has “won” or “lost” in this round of discussion over the South China Sea, but what will happen during the latter half of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship in 2016.

Prior to this incident, indications were that Laos would follow the steps of Malaysia (Chair in 2015) and Myanmar (Chair in 2014) in balancing between meeting Chinese pressures to avoid the issue and meeting pressures inside ASEAN from other claimant states to address it. Laos Prime Minister Thammavong indicated to US Secretary John Kerry in January 2016 that he sought a unified ASEAN stance and would seek to counter Chinese militarization and assertiveness on the South China Sea issues.

Earlier ASEAN statements expressed concerns over recent developments on the South China Sea issues without being overly specific. The outcome of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit—while failing to specify concerns over China’s activities—hinted at China’s role by highlighting the principle of ASEAN centrality and the need for countries to respect diplomatic processes in the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. China’s announcement in April 2016 that it had reached consensus with Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei, while criticized due to Laos’ role as ASEAN Chair, was ultimately not a great departure from Laos’ previous statements on the issue.

Laos has many motivations to balance between ASEAN and China: for one, Laos’ recent leadership transition led to the ouster of leaders viewed as particularly pro-China, likely linked to numerous investment deals with China that are now recognized as having few benefits for the country as a whole. The installation of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, who is considered to be relatively pro-Vietnam, opens the door to a foreign policy that will better balance China’s influence. Second, there is significant pressure from other ASEAN claimants to avoid giving China’s position too much deference. Cambodia’s failure in 2012 reinforced outside views of the organization as a talk-shop unable to stand up to pressure from China and raised serious questions about the region’s real commitment to ASEAN Centrality.

Despite being (by most measures) less developed than Laos and having only recently emerged from being a regional pariah, Myanmar was fairly successful at maintaining the balance during in its 2015 Chairmanship. For Lao elites’ who are seeking to graduate beyond the label of a least-developed country and who are eager to avoid being viewed as less capable than their neighbors, Myanmar’s success poses an additional motivation for Laos to avoid a similar failure.

Based on the ire poured on Cambodia after its 2012 failure to get a joint communique, it is likely that the emerging debate over the retracted media guidance statement will only add to the pressure on Laos to ensure that there is a joint communique from the ASEAN Summit later this year. By flexing its muscles to force a retraction after the Special Meeting and raising the specter of its influence over individual ASEAN states, China may well have primed other ASEAN members to spend more time and diplomatic capital fighting for the inclusion of something similar in the ASEAN joint statement later this year.

The recent statement fiasco raises questions about how effectively Laos can stand up to pressure from China, but the leadership transition means that greater engagement from Vietnam and other ASEAN countries on controversial issues ahead of time may be welcome. China may have attained its goal to dissuade a joint ASEAN statement critical of China’s behavior emerging from a meeting hosted on its own ground, but in doing so it may have reminded ASEAN countries of their need to stick together in the face of powerful neighbors and made it harder to win future battles on the subject.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, FEATURES, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas

Improving the US-Laos relationship through UXO cleanup

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement.  This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong.  To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles.  Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War.  In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority.  Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside.  Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development.  Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal.  The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.

Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue.  USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020.  Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism.  Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.

Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies.  Nutrition is a major problem.  44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight.  Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30.  At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition.  Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies.  However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.

The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant.  From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008.  The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field.  Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent.  UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose.  At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008.  Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development.  UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy.  The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources.  Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country.  Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder.  UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires.  A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development.  The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development.  Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.

Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement.  High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations.  Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.

President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September.  In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education.  During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits.  Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong.  Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance.  If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN.  Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.

In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals.  Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO.  As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains.  In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia.  By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.

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Filed under Cold War, Current Events, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Uncategorized, USA

From Savannakhet to Somerset: United by controversial EDF megaprojects

Two controversial energy infrastructure megaprojects located on opposite sides of the world, one in Western Europe and the other in Southeast Asia, are linked in more subtle ways than the most obvious bond i.e. they share the same main project developer. Hinkley Point C (HPC) nuclear power station, proposed to be built in the English county of Somerset and the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) Hydropower Project in operation since 2010 in central Laos are both megaprojects awarded to the French state-owned power utility, Électricité de France (EDF) as the main developer and shareholder in the respective project consortia.

Both projects are touted by their proponents as low-carbon energy alternatives to fossil fuel burning power plants that are designed to economically supply perceived unmet energy demands; both represent the biggest infrastructure projects the respective host nations have built at the time of construction; both projects have considerable externalities not being shouldered by the developers due to taxpayer subsidised risk guarantees; and both are mired in complex multi-stakeholder debates over their socio-economic and environmental sustainability credentials.

Beyond these similarities, both HPC and NT2 share a common pattern of politicisation at the highest levels of government, both at home and abroad, as vested interests clamour for each project to proceed at whatever the cost (both financially and politically). This situation inevitably leads to some serious political and economic distortions and inherent risks that emerge with time, that could have been avoided had less high profile, cheaper, smaller, more accountable, devolved and transparent energy projects been developed. Thus, it might be an interesting exercise to compare these two megaprojects and see if any wider lessons can be drawn from the common linkages discernible, despite the significant physical distance and domestic development context that separates them.

Nam Theun 2 – a dam too far for EDF and the Banks?

As the historically older case, this hydropower project had an extended period of gestation between initial development plans being proposed and eventual construction many decades later. A pre-feasibility study was first conducted in 1986, although basin planners with the multi-lateral river basin organization, the Mekong Committee, had already identified the dam site as holding potential for hydropower generation in the 1960s[1]. With the Indochina War being expedited across Laos (as “the other theatre”) and eventual 1975 regime change in Laos ushering in a one party communist state, geo-political conditions were not conducive for the project to be resurrected until the early 1990s, when the plans were dusted off once more by international actors.

The 39 m high Nam Theun 2 dam under construction in 2008. Much of the work was sub-contracted out to Thai construction companies and the cement was sourced from over 600 kms away in Saraburi, Thailand (Source: International Rivers)

The 39 m high Nam Theun 2 dam under construction in 2008. Much of the work was sub-contracted out to Thai construction companies and the cement was sourced from over 600 kms away in Saraburi, Thailand (Source: International Rivers)

It took ten years in the appraisal and preparatory stage from 1995 before final approval by the World Bank’s Executive Directors in lending countries was granted, thereby rubber-stamping the proposed social and environmental safeguards to mitigate and compensate for project impacts. This approval followed a year long period of “public consultations” and “participatory workshops”, conducted both internationally and domestically (though it was widely acknowledged that no meaningful participation was possible in the Lao context). In no reasonable sense could the developer claim to have gained broad public acceptance or employed a “fair, informed and transparent decision-making process”, according to World Commission on Dams principles, given the depth of opposition expressed by civil society globally.

I attended the Bangkok leg of the “technical consultations” held in August 2004, at which numerous civil society actors and dam-impacted villagers from Thailand, including a handful of impactees from the World Bank-funded Pak Mun dam, gave a series of heartfelt and well-reasoned arguments why it was an ill-conceived idea to build the NT2 dam project. The Pak Mun dam in Northeast Thailand became infamous for the multiple impacts it caused to fisheries and aquatic resources based livelihoods, sparking local protests and wider social conflict that still simmers today. But the Bank officials brushed off the objections with their own technocratic arguments as to why constructing the project was Laos’ only option to deliver it from abject poverty through electricity revenue generated and develop economically based on a rational utilisation and export of its natural resource asset base. At all the other consultations worldwide, voices of opposition outweighed those in support both in terms of numbers and credibility of the arguments presented. However, it was clear the decision to proceed had been taken long before the consultations were held and the World Bank was more interested in issuing a “blank cheque” to the developers, as maintained by David Hales of the Worldwatch Institute who chaired the public workshop on NT2 in Washington in September 2004.

The NT2 Hydropower Company (NTPC) that built, owns and operates NT2 is itself a consortium of three main shareholders, namely EDF International (40 %), the Electricity Generating Public Company of Thailand (EGCO) (35 %), and the government of Lao PDR’s Laos Holding State Enterprise (25 %). NTPC sell 90 % of the power generated from the 1,070 MW installed capacity plant to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), with the remainder consumed domestically in Laos.

Construction officially began in November 2005 and NT2 was commissioned in March 2010, having cost about $1.45 billion, with funding derived from multiple sources, including France’s Coface, Sweden’s EKN, Norway’s GIEK, the ADB, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand, Nordic Investment Bank, nine international banks and seven Thai banks. The Lao government’s equity share in NTPC was financed chiefly by a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), with the multi-lateral banks providing political risk guarantees to the developers and private lenders, in effect, thus placing the main burden of risk on taxpayers in the contributing countries and into the future, with the Lao people.

Due to its size, prestige and symbolic nature, NT2 neatly embodied for all representatives of the temporarily thwarted dam building industry (domestically and internationally) a significant step towards the realisation of the popular narrative created that Laos could become the “Battery of Asia” or “Kuwait of Southeast Asia”, if the slumbering nation could only maximise the development of its hydropower potential. Technically, the dam project appears to have performed reasonably, but socially and environmentally the dam has been a predictable disaster, with the impacts falling particularly heavily on the downstream riparian people living along the Xe Bang Fai river in Khammouan and Savannaket provinces.

The downstream channel constructed below the power station takes 350 m3/s of turbinated water down to the Xe Bang Fai river, adding significantly to its normal background flows and seriously impacting the aquatic ecology and river-dependent livelihoods (Source: Aurecon Group)

The downstream channel constructed below the power station takes 350 m3/s of turbinated water down to the Xe Bang Fai river, adding significantly to its normal background flows and seriously impacting the aquatic ecology and river-dependent livelihoods (Source: Aurecon Group)

A significant, but invariably overlooked, historical feature of NT2 and the manner in which funding approval was granted by the multi-lateral banks, relates to the highly politicised nature of the campaign pushing for its development,  that included being able to harness the support of national leaders at critical moments. At one point in late 2004, it seemed like commitment was wavering from several crucial parties to backing the project, including some ambivalence on the French and American sides as to whether this was a worthy project to be involved in, given the patently high social and environmental impacts that would result and rising voices of opposition. Seemingly in a carefully calculated bid to sway any doubters of the project’s strategic importance, proponents started playing the “China card”, suggesting that if the Western institutions failed to back it, then China would fill the gap in a trice and takeover the project. This scare tactic seemed to do the trick, because French President Jacques Chirac was understood to have intervened and secured European loans and grants to secure EDF’s central involvement, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the French Ambassador to Laos at the project’s powerhouse construction inauguration ceremony in November 2005. The ceremony was also attended by the Lao Prime Minister, Bounnhang Vorachit and then Thai PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, representing the country likely to benefit most from the project in terms of immediate construction contracts, subsidised imported energy and externalisation of socio-ecological costs. Building large dams in Thailand has been controversial since the early 90s, thanks to an active civil society and relatively free media.

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos and relative position of Savannakhet, where the bulk of the project’s power leaves Laos for the Thai market (Source: Baird and Quastel, 2015)

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos and relative position of Savannakhet, where the bulk of the project’s power leaves Laos for the Thai market (Source: Baird and Quastel, 2015)

There were strong suspicions amongst civil society observers and energy analysts that the World Bank doctored its figures and used incorrect assumptions in order to make the economic argument for the dam stack up, prior to final appraisal in March 2005. Civil society critics had always argued that there was no credible economic case for the NT2 project going ahead, above and beyond its poor social and environmental score sheet, as the amount of electricity it was supposed to produce for export could easily be covered by demand side management in the Thai energy market. At least 153 NGOs recorded their opposition to the dam project going ahead during the evaluation phase.

In 2011, the World Bank published a report entitled “Doing a Dam Better: the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the story of Nam Theun 2”, in which it is claimed the story of NT2’s development would provide “valuable insights and lessons that can be applied in future projects of similar size, scope, and complexity”. It was also held up as “strong evidence” of the Bank’s re-engagement in and commitment to supporting the large hydropower sector, after a decade-long hiatus prior to and after the seminal World Commission on Dams (WCD) report. Thus, the NT2 project fulfilled many functions for the dam lobby, not only in terms of Laos but worldwide, as a harbinger of renewed lending for “high risk, high reward” hydraulic development projects. And sure enough, it did open up a flood of cheap finance, subsidies and externalisation of risk for the ever-thirsty industry across Asia, Africa and Latin America.  The World Bank’s storyline of success with the project has continued since, despite the many reports issued that challenge this stale narrative with compelling evidence, including those from the project’s own Panel of Experts (PoE), but also numerous civil society studies conducted.

The project is expected to generate total revenue of $1.9 billion over the course of its 25 year concession period, of which some 25 % should, in theory, make it into Lao government coffers to help fund rural poverty alleviation programmes. However, because the project’s financial arrangements are so murky, particularly on the Lao government side, there is no guarantee in place that the funds generated will be spent where they were originally intended. Due to a culture of intense secrecy and unaccountability within the heart of Lao state governance, it is uncertain to what extent dividends, taxes and royalties from NT2 have been directed towards social security, education or health programmes. Without an independent audit, suspicions remain that revenues are just co-mingled with other public resources or even mis-appropriated, calling into question any claims by the Banks of a “model project” in water or energy governance. Tellingly, a spate of subsequent hydropower projects in Laos have ignored the long list of “safeguards” touted as the new standard by the NT2 proponents and fast-tracked dam construction without even basic public consultations. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Laos was ranked 139th out of 168 nations worldwide.

Children bathe in the dam’s 450 km2 Nakai reservoir near a resettlement village. Despite assurances by the developers to remove all vegetation prior to flooding, much of it was left and is slowly rotting in the water (Source: FIVAS)

Children bathe in the dam’s 450 km2 Nakai reservoir near a resettlement village. Despite assurances by the developers to remove all vegetation prior to flooding, much of it was left and is slowly rotting in the water (Source: FIVAS)

Meanwhile, most of the goals of the social and environmental mitigation programme remain unmet, while many of the impacts identified by critics (and some additional ones) have been borne out in practice. Resettled families have not been made demonstrably better off and many are still reliant on dwindling material handouts from the NTPC and Lao government to survive, while downstream along the Xe Bang Fai recipient river in Khammouan and Savannakhet provinces, fish populations have crashed and riverside vegetable gardens lost amongst a catalogue of impacts, impoverishing the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people that once relied on them. Rainy season flooding has been exacerbated by the power station additional flows, further eroding the sustainability of local livelihoods through destruction of rice crops. Meanwhile natural forests have been destroyed and wildlife decimated in the “protected area” in the headwaters of the NT2 reservoir, despite the assurances of the dam proponents that the project’s development would ensure their protection.  As Professor Thayer Scudder, an eminent global expert on the social impact of dams, Commissioner for the World Commission on Dams and one of the three person Panel of Experts for the NT2 project, commented in a New York Times article in August 2014, after nearly two decades spent closely monitoring the dam’s development process, “Nam Theun 2 confirmed my longstanding suspicion that the task of building a large dam is just too complex and too damaging to priceless natural resources”.

 

Hinkley Point C – more economic madness?

Nuclear power was first developed in the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 60s with the somewhat cornucopian promise of abundant clean, cheap and reliable energy for present and future generations to benefit from. The British public generally believed the claims made by the industry and politicians, so little overt opposition to nuclear energy (unlike nuclear weapons) appeared until the first large-scale nuclear accident occurred at Three-Mile Island in 1979 followed six years later by nuclear meltdown disaster at Chernobyl. These events and various setbacks within the industry prompted a much wider debate about the technology with a resulting fall in public support. At its peak in 1997, nuclear power generated 27 % of the nation’s electricity, but this has subsequently declined to about 18.5 % (in 2012) from 15 nuclear reactors, as the original fleet of power stations has been gradually retired for decommissioning and not been replaced. Based on rhetorical concerns about future energy security and pressures to reduce national emissions of carbon dioxide, the UK government announced in 2008 that it had given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be constructed, with eight potential sites announced the following year, one of which was Hinkley Point.

This move proved controversial, with many NGOs, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the World Wildlife Fund opposing the shift back to nuclear power solutions, on the basis of uncertain cost-benefit appraisal, the opacity of the planning process and environmental concerns. By marked contrast with NT2, nuclear plants like HPC do not require the resettlement of 6,500 households nor do they have the same direct negative impacts on the livelihoods of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, so the short term social and environmental impacts could be said to be more limited and manageable. However, the long term environmental and health impacts and risks posed are less favourable, due to the problems of nuclear material transport to and from site, safe disposal of radioactive waste and plant decommissioning issues passed on to future generations to resolve.

After a long period in the consultation and planning stages, a third reactor is scheduled to be built alongside two existing plants at the Somerset coastal site, namely Hinkley Point A (Magnox reactor) and B (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor). The landscape-dominating plants occupy a low-lying, rural spot barely above sea-level next to the Bristol Channel, famed for having the second highest tidal range in the world after the Bay of Fundy, eastern Canada. This fact is material, when considering the United Kingdom’s energy futures in an era of awareness of the need to build alternative, safe and sustainable energy sources to mitigate predicted climate change. The UK government is legally committed to a gradual decarbonisation of the nation’s energy production mix up to 2050.

A view across Bridgwater Bay to the Hinkley A and B power station site. HPC will be developed alongside, at an estimated cost of £ 18 billion (David J.H. Blake)

A view across Bridgwater Bay to the Hinkley A and B power station site. HPC will be developed alongside, at an estimated cost of £ 18 billion (David J.H. Blake)

While the original A plant closed in 1999 and is being decommissioned, Hinkley B is still operating under EDF ownership and is not expected to cease operations until at least 2023. The entire site is vulnerable to future increases in sea levels, something that was not well understood when Hinkley A and B were built, but should be a high priority for HPC planners. In 1607, a major tsunami is recorded as engulfing much of this coastline and killing an estimated 2,000 people, but neither this historical event nor future predicted sea level rises of at least two metres by the end of this century and more severe weather events precipitated by climate change seems to have dampened the appetite of the proponents to push ahead with HPC, regardless of potential risks. When I visited the site in early April 2016 at high water on a spring tide, the sea was already lapping over the first line of concrete defences around the existing reactors (see picture). I can foresee extra marine erosion and flood protection measures, adding further to the costs of the project in the foreseeable future.

The coastal perimeter of the HPC site is threatened with coastal erosion, expected to worsen in future under conditions of rising sea levels, stormier weather and an underlying soft geology (David J.H. Blake)

The coastal perimeter of the HPC site is threatened with coastal erosion, expected to worsen in future under conditions of rising sea levels, stormier weather and an underlying soft geology (David J.H. Blake)

HPC was originally proposed by the government as an ideal solution to “keeping the lights on” in a climate change challenged world, able to supply 7 % of the UK’s present energy needs at a single location, through a 3,200 MW installed capacity and reliably high plant load factor[2]. The trouble is, the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) design EDF have proposed to use is thus far unproven technology and at the four other sites where a similar nuclear reactor type is being constructed in France, Finland and China, the projects have been dogged by unforeseen technical problems leading to steep cost and time overruns.

During a spring tide in early April 2016, the sea breached the first line of sea defences near the plant. In 1607, this coastline was struck by a major tsunami that swept many miles inland and drowned thousands (David J.H. Blake)

During a spring tide in early April 2016, the sea breached the first line of sea defences near the plant. In 1607, this coastline was struck by a major tsunami that swept many miles inland and drowned thousands (David J.H. Blake)

As a political party, the incumbent Conservatives have traditionally offered strong support for nuclear power, although up until a few years ago the leadership insisted that it should not be subsidised by the taxpayer but subject to normal market forces and open competition. However, this stance shifted under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (2010-15), when ministers decided that the UK should pursue a nuclear-fuelled future, with the provision of state subsidies to sector investors, riling both free-marketeers and renewable energy campaigners alike. This policy position remained unchanged even after the sobering wake-up call of the potential dangers surrounding nuclear power delivered by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. Yet the British public have proven far less averse to nuclear power than the German population, perhaps partly because the former have been fed a regular line from the government that without further nuclear development the UK may be looking at future brown-outs. Such a fear-invoking narrative was recently admitted to be a myth by the government’s own Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, when Amber Rudd publicly stated that the nation’s lights would not go out if it was not developed, as had been claimed by her predecessors.

Such admissions are grist to the mill for the national and local civil society opposition to Hinkley, movements like Stop Hinkley which have doggedly campaigned against the project for many years, long before HPC was proposed. Although such citizen groups are ideologically opposed to nuclear power development in principle, their economic arguments against the project have been given added weight in recent years by a number of studies by financial and economic analysts, such as Liberium Capital which described the strike price as “economically insane” and “as far as we can see this makes Hinkley Point the most expensive power station in the world.”

Despite the generous government guarantees provided by a strike price (at £92.50 per MW/h) for the electricity produced of over twice the current wholesale price for electricity in the UK, the parlous state of EDF’s finances and massive debt mountain mean that HPC is a risky proposition for the utility. Its own workers’ union opposes the project and in February 2016, Thomas Piquemal, EDF’s chief financial officer resigned, warning that building HPC could ruin the company. As a result, the French government has said it plans to provide financial support to EDF, a move that will likely fall foul of EU legislation to ensure fair competition in the energy market and disallow unfair state aid to individual companies, something that the UK government is already being challenged on in the European courts by the Austrian government. With national pride and the reputation of French nuclear technology potentially at stake (EDF is also looking to invest in China and other countries), a decision from the French government on whether to bailout EDF has been delayed time and again, and a decision is not now anticipated until at least September 2016.

One remarkable point of difference between NT2 and HPC is that with the former, China was portrayed by some as a threat to EDF and Western venture capital’s regional interests, had it been allowed to gain a stake in the dam project. With the benefit of hindsight, China was poised to build dozens of other dams in Laos, with or without EDF’s involvement. But now China is actively courted as a nuclear investment partner, both for the injection of funds it can offer, but also, potentially for its technological expertise. Indeed, the China General Nuclear Power Corporation has taken a one third stake in HPC, with the deal inked just hours before the state visit of President Xi Jinping to London in October 2015. Much to the chagrin of human rights groups, the President was afforded the red carpet treatment for his visit, with PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne hoping HPC would be the springboard for further Chinese investment in nuclear power stations in Essex and Suffolk.

With the latest twist in the Hinkley saga looking like a legal challenge will be launched against the UK and French governments, one Southwest region Green MP referred to HPC as an uneconomic “white elephant” which is being pushed regardless, because there is “now a political battle where the stakes for both the UK and France are just too high to admit failure”.

Both NT2 and NPC would qualify as prime examples of what Danish economist Bent Flyvbjerg refers to as “Machiavellian Megaprojects”, which are shown to follow a time-honoured formula:

(underestimated costs) + (overestimated revenues) + (undervalued environmental impacts) + (overvalued economic development effects) = (project approval)

As Flyvbjerg stresses in his analysis of such megaproject development by a relatively few societal elites, the monomaniacal pursuit can frequently lead to the deception of “parliaments, the public and the media about the costs and benefits of the projects”.

It seems there is more linking the development paradigm of Savannakhet and Somerset than citizens in both the U.K and Laos may fully appreciate. There is still a glimmer of hope, however, that commonsense may prevail in London and Paris, and the HPC case of folie de grandeur may be stopped in its tracks. In the case of NT2, Laos has now been locked into a project with multiple negative social and environmental consequences, many irreversible such as permanent loss of valuable terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, that will ultimately cost its citizens and the wider Mekong basin populations dearly into the future.

[1] Interestingly, in the address given by Pierre Lellouche, Minister of State with responsibility for Foreign Trade at the Nam Theun 2 project’s inauguration ceremony on 9 December 2010, he claimed that the site was first identified back in 1927 by an engineer, presumably of the French Indochina colonial government.

[2] The plant load factor is the ratio between the actual energy generated by the plant to the maximum possible energy that can be generated with the plant working at its rated power over the duration of a year.

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An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 1

This article is the first in a three part series looking at dams in the Mekong. 

Damming the Mekong: Unprecedented threats to the river and its people

The lifeblood of the region, the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and its many tributaries flow through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its resources affect the lives of over 70 million people who rely on it daily for food and/or work, but these livelihoods are facing growing threats.1,2,3 Today, the mighty Mekong is at an unprecedented juncture in its ongoing survival, particularly from hydropower dam development.

Much of the focus of the Mekong is divided between the upper Mekong, which includes China and Myanmar, and the Lower Mekong, encompassing the remaining four states. Eleven dams are being planned or built on the Lower Mekong Basin’s mainstream with many more anticipated along its extensive tributaries.4,5 Most of these dams come with significant social and environmental impacts.

Source: WWF

Most dams trap fluvial sediment, creating erosion and reducing nutrients in the river, directly affecting agricultural production, so each additional dam means less rich soil downstream.11 Agricultural outputs from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, particularly rice, have already been severely impacted via China’s Lancang dams scheme.12 The situation has become so critical that Vietnam recently went to the extent of asking China to discharge water from the Jinghong Dam on the Lancang in Yunnan Province to help alleviate conditions in the Delta and seems intent on requesting other upstream states to do similarly regarding river flows.13,14 Thailand’s need for water during the current drought has led it to set up temporary pumping stations to divert 47 million cubic metres of water from the Mekong, causing concern for other downstream countries.26 Additional Mekong dams, compounded by ongoing drought and rising sea levels due to climate change, will only exacerbate these issues.11,15

While some riverine communities may be displaced as their fishing or farming lifestyles become unsustainable, other communities, often indigenous peoples with a strong cultural connection to their ancestral land, are being relocated to make way for dam reservoirs.16,17

Thus, it is no wonder that disputes have emerged between various Mekong basin states as to the domestic, transboundary, environmental, and social impacts of certain dams. Part 1 of this three-part article examines the existing legal framework for regulating dam development in the Mekong and how its legal gaps and ambiguities have led to ongoing disputes, specifically regarding the Xayaburi Dam under construction in Laos.

1995 Mekong Agreement and MRC

Entering into force on 5 April 1995, the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) for the Lower Mekong Basin states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam was the celebrated river basin treaty of its time and a major legal milestone.

Divided into six chapters, the Mekong Agreement’s provisions broadly set out the roles and responsibilities of riparian – being ‘of the river’ – states in governing the seasonal flows and major uses of the Lower Mekong Basin. It is accompanied by the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which sets out key timeframes, standards, and processes for states regulating dam development. It contains separate procedures for projects on Mekong tributaries, plus intra-basin uses on the mainstream (proposing states are only required to notify fellow riparians of planned projects) versus inter-basin and other mainstream developments (proposing states must submit the project for prior consultation with MRC member states with the aim of reaching an agreement on any contested aspects). The PNPCA Guidelines elaborate further on implementing these processes. Both the PNPCA and Guidelines are not ‘international treaties’ in the strict legal sense as they are supplementary to, and thus sit outside of, the Mekong Agreement ratified by MRC member states.18,19

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

As Bearden (2010)18 aptly suggests, the Mekong Agreement and the MRC have successfully epitomised what a transboundary watercourse agreement and river basin commission should be in many respects, especially given the ever-changing geo-political and environmental contexts of the basin and its member states. However, twenty years later, the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA have collectively shown identifiable legal weaknesses.The Agreement also established the MRC as an inter-governmental institution with the aim to foster cooperation between basin states to effectively manage river usage. Having not yet decided to join, China and Myanmar hold official observer status as MRC ‘Dialogue Partners’.

Legal gaps and limitations for governing dams

The following critical legal gaps in the Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA have led to varying interpretations on its basic standards, timeframes, and processes for dam construction thus fostering subsequent disagreements among MRC states:

  • Lack of clear specifics for key processes under the Agreement and PNPCA’s standards, timeframes, and procedures thus leading to inconsistency in their practical application;
  • Exclusion of tributary dams from ‘prior consultation’ regulations under the PNPCA; and
  • PNPCA and Guidelines being widely perceived as not legally binding on states.2,18,19,20,21

Another significant limitation of the Mekong Agreement and the MRC is its circular mechanism for dispute resolution. As it stands, the Agreement requires states to peacefully resolve disputes or, when necessary, to refer the dispute to the MRC for further negotiation. However, the MRC refers unresolved matters back to states to use diplomatic means unless, as a last resort, they chose to invite third party involvement. Eventually, if no resolution is reached, states can essentially ‘agree to disagree’ as has occurred with the Xayaburi Dam and its PNPCA process (explored in Parts 2 and 3 of this article). Such stalemates often leave the disputing parties dissatisfied and can breed distrust for future processes.

Frustrated at the perceived inability to efficiently resolve disputes and clarify processes for dam developments, including the PNPCA, bilateral ‘Development Partners’ have considerably reduced their funding to the MRC for the 2016-2020 budget.22,23 Large-scale restructuring is scheduled and relocation of the Secretariat headquarters from Laos has even been suggested as a possibility.22,24 After years of calls for greater transparency and improved efficiency, the MRC is currently undergoing such significant changes that its ability to effectively govern the river’s resources long-term is at stake.24,25

Mekong in 2016: A basin under threat, agreement under scrutiny, institution undergoing change

As dam construction on the Mekong rapidly accelerates, states’ legal obligations under the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA, as well as the mandate of the MRC to help guide and resolve disputed procedural matters, need clarifying and strengthening to evolve and cope with these challenges.

Given the issues outlined above, Part 2 of this three-part article will next investigate the practical implementation of the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA via the Xayaburi Dam ‘prior consultation’ process, examining the specific contested procedural and legal elements. The potential benefits of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) – the most authoritative global treaty concerning management of international rivers – being applied to the Lower Mekong Basin are subsequently explored.

References:

  1. Vidal, J. (2015, November 26). Mekong: a river rising. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/26/the-mekong-river-stories-from-the-heart-of-the-climate-crisis-interactive
  2. Hirsch, P. (1999). Nature beyond the nation state symposium: beyond the nation state – natural resource conflict and “national interest” in Mekong hydropower development. Golden Gate Law Review, 29, 399
  3. Osborne, M. (2004). River at risk: The Mekong and the water politics of China and Southeast Asia. Lowy Institute for International Policy Paper 02. Longueville Media, New South Wales, Australia
  4. Goichot, M. (2016, January 14). UN convention could help solve Mekong pact’s weaknesses. Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/analysis-and-op-ed/un-convention-could-help-solve-mekong-pacts-weaknesses
  5. International Rivers (2015, November 15). Guest Blog – Dams: Don’t Risk What You Can’t Afford To Lose. Available from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/263/guest-blog-dams-don-t-risk-what-you-can-t-afford-to-lose
  6. Than, K. (2011). New Mekong Dam a Go, and a Blow to Megafishes? National Geographic. Available from:http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110324-mekong-river-endangered-megafish-xayaburi-dam/
  7. Gaworecki, M. (2016, January 12). Scientists sound alarm over hydropower’s impacts on tropical fish biodiversity.Mongabay. Available from: http://news.mongabay.com/2016/01/scientists-sound-alarm-over-hydropowers-impacts-on-tropical-fish-biodiversity/
  8. Turton, S. (2015, October 22). Mekong dams will wipe out fisheries, study says. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-dams-will-wipe-out-fisheries-study-says
  9. WWF (2012, August 27). Mekong dams could rob millions of their primary protein source. Available from:http://cambodia.panda.org/news_cambodia/press_releases/?uNewsID=206032
  10. Henderson, S. (2013, December 3). Mekong Dams a Long-Term Risk to Food Security. Cambodia Daily. Available from: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/mekong-dams-a-long-term%E2%80%88risk-to-food-security-48415/
  11. Khadka, N.S. (2015, October 20). Climate Change: Mekong Delta heads for troubled waters. BBC News. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34407061
  12. Gillet, K. (2011, August 21). Vietnam’s rice bowl threatened by rising seas. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/aug/21/vietnam-rice-bowl-threatened-rising-seas
  13. Tiezzi, S. (2016, March 16). Facing Mekong Drought, China to Release Water From Yunnan Dam. The Diplomat. Available from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/facing-mekong-drought-china-to-release-water-from-yunnan-dam/
  14. Viet, D. (2016, March 16). Vietnam takes urgent action to rescue Mekong River Delta. VietNamNet Bridge. Available from: http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/environment/152461/vietnam-takes-urgent-action-to-rescue-mekong-river-delta.html
  15. Choonhavan, K. (2014, April 30). Vietnam screams for halt to Mekong dams as delta salts up. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Vietnam-screams-for-halt-to-Mekong-dams-as-delta-s-30232520.html
  16. IRIN. (2011, July 29). LAOS: Villagers brace for relocation as dam project moves forward. IRIN. Available from:http://www.irinnews.org/report/93355/laos-villagers-brace-for-relocation-as-dam-project-moves-forward
  17. Titthara, M. (2016, January 7). Trapped between two dams. Mekong Eye. Available from:http://www.mekongeye.com/2016/01/26/trapped-between-two-dams/
  18. Bearden, B.L. (2010). The legal regime of the Mekong River: a look back and some proposals for the way ahead.Water Policy. 12, 798
  19. Rieu-Clarke, A. (2015). Notification and consultation procedures under the Mekong Agreement: insights from the Xayaburi controversy. Asian Journal of International Law. 5(1), 143
  20. IUCN. (2016). A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation (A legal analysis of how the UN Watercourses Convention complements the Mekong Agreement): IUCN. 27pp. Available from: http://www.3sbasin.org/publication/download-documents.html?download=99:a-window-of-opportunity-for-the-mekong-basin-the-un-watercourses-convention-as-a-basis-for-cooperation
  21. Kinna, R. (2015, November 24). UN Watercourses Convention: Can it revitalise the Mekong Agreement 20 years on?. Mekong Commons. Available from: http://www.mekongcommons.org/un-watercourses-convention-can-it-revitalise-mekong-agreement-20-years-on/
  22. Cox, J. (2016, January 13). Forecast Stormy for Mekong, Commission Says. Khmer Times. Available from:http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/19880/forecast-stormy-for-mekong–commission-says/
  23. Turton, S. (2015, June 25). Mekong body risks losing funds: donors. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from:www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-body-risks-losing-funds-donors
  24. Hunt, L. (2016). Mekong River Commission Faces Radical Change. The Diplomat. (22 January, 2016). Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/mekong-river-commission-faces-radical-change/
  25. International Rivers (2008, March 27). MRC’s crisis of legitimacy and relevancy challenges new CEO: Regional Groups. Available from: https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/mrc-s-crisis-of-legitimacy-and-relevancy-challenges-new-ceo-regional-groups-3177
  26. Lee, G. & Scurrah, N. (2009). Power and responsibility – The Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong mainstream dams. A joint report of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre, Sydney University and Oxfam Australia. Available from: http://sydney.edu.au/mekong/documents/power_and_responsibility_fullreport_2009.pdf
  27. Cochrane, Liam. (2016, March 17) Mekong River diverted into Thailand’s waterways, worrying drought-stricken neighbours like Vietnam ABC News. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-18/mekong-river-thailand-diverts-worries-neighbours/7256678

This article was first published here on the website of the Global Water Forum. It is reprinted with permission of the author and Global Water Forum. 

Rémy Kinna is an Australian international water law, policy and governance specialist and Principal Consultant with Transboundary Water Law (TWL) Global Consulting (www.transboundarywaterlaw.com) currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is an Honorary Research Associate with the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an Expert – International Water Law and Policy with the London Centre of International Law Practice’s Centre for International Water Law and Security. Rémy can be contacted via email (remy@transboundarywaterlaw) or found on TwitterAll views and errors remain those of the author and do not represent those of the states, organisations and individuals mentioned in this piece.

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Clouds Gathering as Obama Hosts Southeast Asian Leaders at Sunnylands

ASEAN leaders gather for a family photo with U.S. President Barack Obama (5th L) after a US-ASEAN meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 21, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Photo courtesy aseanmp.org

On Monday and Tuesday, February 15-16, President Obama will host eight leaders and two senior alternates from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) at Sunnylands, the former estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, CA.

The Sunnylands summit will be an historic development in US-ASEAN relations and a significant testament to the positive impact of the Obama administration’s Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and its broad all-of-government reengagement with ASEAN. But amidst the bonhomie many if not most of the leaders are likely to have more questions than answers about future US initiatives towards the region.

Obama and most Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have used the Sunnylands conference center for retreats and to host high-level foreign visitors.  Obama hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in 2013.

But even as relations with ASEAN have never been stronger, clouds are gathering over arguably the world’s most successful developing region. The most serious are blowing from China, which has followed an erratic course almost since Xi Jinping became Asia’s “man-in-a-hurry” since he took office in March 2013.

Since 2000 the ASEAN countries have averaged GDP growth of more than 5 percent, though per capita income and living standards still vary widely.   McKinsey & Company judged ASEAN collectively to rank the lowest among the world’s largest economies in GDP growth volatility from 2000-2013.

Still, economic cooperation has generally not lived up to the hopes and aspirations of most member countries.  Over nearly five decades the rhetorical bar regarding intra-ASEAN trade and investment has always been set significantly higher than actual performance.

At the time of the initiation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the ten countries were still trading much more with the rest of the world than with one other, especially if trade figures are adjusted to separate intraregional trade among Japanese and Chinese corporate shipments of parts and components for their regional supply chains.

Relations with the US have been warm throughout ASEAN’s expansion and evolution, though US preoccupation with the Middle East after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq created significant anxiety in some capitals about the strength of American interest and staying power.   Relations have been on the upswing since the beginning of the Obama administration, though some important moves such as the Rebalance to Southeast Asia and closer engagement with Vietnam had bureaucratic if not high level political roots in the last year or so of the George W. Bush administration.

To date, nervousness about China’s increasingly assertive efforts to solidify its claim to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea—including parts of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of five ASEAN countries—has been the single most important reason for the positive reception in the region to the US military rebalancing to East Asia and the US’s its broader political and economic reengagement with Southeast Asia.

China’s effort to create a modern mare nostrum in the South China Sea through bullying and the deployment of overwhelming numbers of maritime police vessels, Coast Guard and PLA warships remain a continuing threat to regional peace and stability and drive other claimants closer to the US, but in recent months China’s fast slowing economy and unsettling blunders by the Central Bank have created even more imminent dangers to both to ASEAN economies  and regional stability.

The main reason has been China’s emergence little more than five years ago as the single largest market for ASEAN exports of commodities and manufactured goods. Chinese imports and fast growing American investment were twin engines of growth that supported ASEAN throughout the global recession.

Now China’s rapidly slowing growth and questions about its financial stability are imposing a serious and unexpected drag on ASEAN’s largest economies, where massive Chinese investment in mines as well as deforestation in order to create rubber and oil palm plantations and transportation infrastructure have left communities adrift in a wasteland of environmental devastation.

The falling Yuan and the Xi administration’s surprisingly clumsy handling of its financial turmoil have shaken investor confidence throughout the world.  China’s economic slowdown is likely to continue until policymakers finally make well recognized but politically difficult reforms and the economy purges itself of excess capacity and non-performing debt.  Meanwhile, the rapid fall in imports of commodities coupled with a weak and still tenuous recovery of the global economy pose a serious short and medium threat to the wellbeing of most of the ASEAN countries.

Several non-military moves of the Obama administration, including the 2009 Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have been strongly welcomed by the relevant countries—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam in the case of the LMI and Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam in the case of the TPP talks. But Thailand and one or more other countries have reason for concern that their own exports and attractiveness to multi-national investors will suffer as a consequence.

How Washington responds to the situation in the South China Sea and its overall policy towards Beijing are certain to be high on the list of talking points for the ASEAN leaders, as will a range of multilateral and bilateral development and capacity building programs under the framework of the new US-ASEAN Strategic Partnership and the LMI.

Equally if not more important will be the TPP agreement and its uncertain fate in Congress. If approved by Congress, the far-reaching agreement  will almost certainly have significant economic, financial and even domestic political impacts on both the four ASEAN signatories, as well as the six who are not. Non-signatory ASEAN countries as well as China will be disadvantaged by restrictions on third party content.  The most likely short-term disadvantage will fall on Thailand, the largest ASEAN economy after Indonesia, because of its deep integration in regional supply chains and geographic centrality astride major regional transportation networks.

In addition TPP discussions and the South China Sea tensions, concern that ISIS is establishing a foothold in the region and the best means to counter its recruitment efforts and the establishment of terrorist cells will be high on the Sunnylands agenda.  Economic and security concerns, particularly those where the root cause emanates from China, continue to drive several ASEAN states closer to the US, openly in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines and quietly in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is unsurprising that these issues will drive the conversation at Sunnylands. The Obama administration and ASEAN would also be wise to begin give equal weight to conversations on climate change resilience and energy governance, two areas which ASEAN countries are lagging but are beginning to articulate the need for external partnerships.

 

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Regional Roundup for Week of 1.10.16

East by Southeast is in full gear and ready to dive into 2016. Southeast Asia’s issues are still numerous and complicated, which will give us much to ponder and analyze in the next 12 months. If you want to check out what we’re expecting for 2016 in Southeast Asia, read our predictions here

EXSE FOCUS

What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016-East by Southeast 

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time. 2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened.

A Preview of China-Southeast Asia Relations in 2016-The Diplomat

China’s ties with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remain stable and bilateral cooperation will likely deepen in the coming year. China is likely to accelerate its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy, which will inevitably require cooperation with ASEAN countries. Meanwhile, China is willing to keep the South China Sea disputes stable.//China has quite the balancing act to pull off in SE Asia – striking the right foreign relations balance in order to implement OBOR would be hard enough. Doing so while maintaining sovereignty claims in the SCS might prove to be too much to handle. 2016 may be the year that China realizes that it’s over-committed to the SCS. 

Related: China’s 2016 Strategy Towards Southeast Asia-Asia Unbound

Rethinking US Asia Policy: 3 Options Between Appeasement and War-The Diplomat

The unifying theme of U.S. Asia policy has been the maintenance of a stable, liberal regional order. Yet a number of regional trends now militate against that goal: trust among regional neighbors is low; military modernization investments are rampant; territorial nationalism is growing in salience; and China continues to press its peripheral claims in ways that risk inadvertent conflict. The current configuration of U.S. policy does nothing to arrest any of these problems, yet their continuation threatens longstanding U.S. interests in Asia. So what can be done? Today, there’s still time to pursue options that eschew either war posturing on the one hand or unreciprocated conciliation on the other.

China, Laos agree to $500 million railway loan-GoKunming

Following years of inconclusive negotiations, China and Laos have finally hammered out a financing agreement for a railway project connecting Kunming to Vientiane. Although terms of the deal have yet to be made public, representatives of both countries announced this week they are now ready to move forward on the multi-billion dollar endeavor. Negotiations undertaken throughout 2015 hinged on the loan interest rates China offered its smaller, landlocked neighbor. Railway officials in Laos objected to the original figure of three percent interest on a proposed US$500 million line of credit extended by a consortium of Chinese investment banks.

 

China needs to pave ‘One Belt One Road’ with green finance, say experts-The Third Pole

China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to further the country’s influence and trade links with almost 60 countries, mainly in Asia and Europe, could be a major source of environmental damage unless projects are backed by green banking, experts have told thethirdpole.net.//…Wouldn’t it be nice. This goes back to the argument of high/low standards for Chinese investment – incorporating green finance would certainly be a big step forward but it’s unlikely because it runs contrary to the trend. China’s investments abroad are typically done no strings attached (keeping in line with China’s principle of non-intervention) and with so many developing countries involved in OBOR, it’s unlikely that a high-standard, green approach will be used. 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Chinese civilian jet airliners land at disputed South China Sea island – state media-The Guardian

China Daily newspaper says test flight by two planes proves runway on Fiery Cross reef is able to safely handle large aircraft. A pair of Chinese civilian airliners have landed at a newly created island in a disputed section of the South China Sea in a test to see whether its airstrip is up to standard, according to state media. The China Daily newspaper said the jets made the two-hour flight to Fiery Cross reef from Haikou on the southern island province of Hainan on Wednesday.//A travel agent friend of mine has been posting on WeChat about new Haikou to SCS flights that he wants to organize. 

Related: China Defends Airstrip Construction in the South China Sea-The      Diplomat

         Related: South China Sea: The Story of the Tanmen Fishermen-The Diplomat

         Related: Vietnam protests after China lands plane on disputed Spratly islands-The

            Guardian

 

Everything You Wanted to Know About the USS Lassen‘s FONOP in the South China Sea-The Diplomat

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter finally comes out with a comprehensive account of the USS Lassen’s FONOP. 56 days. That’s how long it took for a senior U.S. government official to come out on the record and clarify the precise nature of the October 27 freedom of navigation operation undertaken by the USS Lassen in the South China Sea.//Look for more FONOPs this year coming to a reef near you!

Chinese share trading halt sends cold ripples across Asian markets-The Guardian

Asian markets slide to three-month low and currencies falter after China cuts market trading and devalues the yuan. Asian markets fell to a three-month low on Thursday after Chinese shares tumbled more than 7% and triggered a market closure while Beijing accelerated a devaluation of the yuan, raising the spectre of a regional currency war. The MSCI index of Asia-Pacific shares, which provides a rough overview of market performance across the region, dropped 1.4% to its lowest level since September.

Shades of Southeast Asia Among Hong Kong’s Missing Book Sellers-The Diplomat

Five people who are linked to a Chinese book shop in the well-known Causeway Bay shopping precinct have gone missing amid speculation they have been taken by mainland authorities. One is a British citizen another is Swedish-Chinese. The forced disappearance – a euphemism for state-sponsored kidnappings – of critics, political opposition or just plain irritants is another. Nor are those disappearances uncommon in Southeast Asia. The disappearance of agriculturalist and reformer Sombath Somphone in Laos, labor protester Khem Sophathin Cambodia and lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in Thailand are three of the more notable examples in a region mired in human rights abuses.//As China grows closer to authoritarian Thailand and Lao PDR, disappearances in those countries will increase, especially in Thailand. However, the case of Sombath teaches us that these disappearances will not go ignored, even though it has led to few answers in the Lao activist’s case.  

Where China and the United States Disagree on North Korea-The Diplomat

The recent nuclear test has exposed a deep Sino-U.S. gap over North Korea. The “artificial earthquake” in North Korea caused by its fourth nuclear test has set off geopolitical tremors in U.S.-China relations, exposing the underlying gap between the two countries that has long been papered over by their common rhetorical commitment to Korean denuclearization.

Legacy of unexploded ordnance in Indochina: Whose responsibility? Whose cost?-Mekong Commons

In late November, in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia, a tragically common incident happened. A woman was killed and three of her family members injured by a grenade that remained from the Second Indochina War. The death was the 63rd by unexploded ordinance (UXO) in 2015 in Cambodia, according to the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. Forty years have passed since the Second Indochina War, but still hundreds of people in the region die or are injured each year by the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that remains. Many people, especially those who live in the region’s more remote areas, live with daily fear. What is the international community doing about this legacy, and why is it taking so long?//Siem Reap’s Cambodian Landmine Museum and Vientiane’s COPE Center are two places in the region doing important work on UXO issues. 

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Beijing air quality improved in 2015 despite pollution alerts, authorities say-The Guardian

Environmental authorities in Beijing say the Chinese capital’s air quality in 2015 was better than the year before despite the city’s first two red alerts for pollution late in the year. China has been setting national and local targets to reduce its notorious air pollution as citizens have become increasingly aware of the health dangers. Beijing’s municipal government has been replacing coal-fired boilers with natural gas-powered facilities, forcing older, more polluting vehicles off the road, and closing or moving factories that are heavy polluters.

What’s in store for China and the environment in 2016?-China Dialogue

This year will see the beginning of China’s 13th Five Year Plan (FYP), and it need to be a good start. That means policymakers will have to apply the central government’s idea of “ecological red lines” when formulating plans, due for completion by June, for the energy sector over this period. There are several key parts of the 13th FYP that the outside world should be watching.

Thailand’s forest rangers step up training in violent ‘blood wood’ war– The Guardian

The forests of the Mekong region have become a battleground as rangers try to stop poachers from driving the Siamese rosewood tree to extinction. It’s dawn in Thailand’s Eastern forest, and the sound of combat boots echoes through the jungle mist at Ta Phraya national park’s headquarters. The stomping boots belong to forest rangers on a counter-poaching tactics course. They are training with Hasadin, a team of elite rangers formed in June 2015, whose mission is to stop the Siamese rosewood tree from being driven to extinction by poachers.

What Is the Value of the Mekong River?-The Diplomat

Putting a value on the Mekong River and measuring the impact it has on the gross domestic product (GDP) of downstream countries has for a long time been a strategic target of bureaucrats and non-governmental organizations seeking to measure and protect the world’s twelfth longest river and its contribution to regional growth. Now scientists with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) have gone much of the way in answering that. According to recent estimates, fisheries alone from the Lower Mekong Basin are valued at a whopping $17 billion a year, contributing three percent to the combined GDP of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.//What is the value of assessing the monetary worth of ecological resources? How can this number be used to influence decisions regarding dam construction along the Mekong?

Related: Wonder of the aquatic world under threat from plans for Mekong dams      The Guardian

Severe drought could be the biggest concern for this year-The Nation

Natural disasters and more severe drought brought on by climate change should be one of the biggest concerns for Thailand in 2016, |academics said. “With the weather pattern shifting more than before, seasons and weather will become more unpredictable. This is due to climate change, which will most certainly have the worst effect on our food production as it relies heavily on weather,” Tara Buakamsri, Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s campaign director, said.

CHINA 

Wall St. Slides After Chinese Stocks Plunge-NYT

Global stock markets tumbled on Monday, as further fears about a slowdown in China’s economy reignited concerns about global growth. The selling on Monday started after China released a weak manufacturing report, and continued after the United States did the same. Chinese stocks lost nearly 7 percent of their value, although they appeared to stabilize Tuesday morning. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, the main benchmark for the United States stock market, posted a decline of 1.5 percent, while European stocks fell.//This is a stock plunge that will likely repeat many times in the coming years. China’s slowdown is not finished.

Related: Relatively Stable Trading in Stocks a Day After Sell-Offs-NYT

North Korea’s Hydrogen Bomb Claim Strains Ties With China-NYT

North Korea’s announcement that it had completed a test of the weapon infuriated China, which had recently sought to forge closer ties with its reclusive neighbor. North Korea’s test of a nuclear bomb on Wednesday seemed aimed at antagonizing a familiar adversary, the United States. The army spoke of the need to ward off the “imperialist aggressors,” and a television commentator warned that foreigners were intent on destroying the country’s way of life. But North Korea’s decision had a more surprising target: China, its neighbor and chief ally for six decades, which had recently sought to forge closer ties.

Related: U.S. Prods China on North Korea, Saying Soft Approach Has Failed-NYT

Tibet in Limbo: An Exile’s Account of Citizenship in a World of Nation-States-The Diplomat

The international community needs to address the plight of Tibetan refugees. Tibet is a prime example of this 21st century phenomenon of statelessness in a world of nation-states. In fact, many parallels have been drawn between the troubled Himalayan region and stateless peoples from the Palestinians to the Kurds.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Cambodia Marks Milestone in UN Peacekeeping Contributions-The Diplomat

It is the tenth year the ASEAN state has sent peacekeepers abroad. According to Cambodian government estimates, since 2006, Cambodia has dispatched 3,372 troops, 108 of whom were female, to join UN peacekeeping operations in Chad, the Central African Republic, Cyprus, Lebanon, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and Syria. The country currently has a total of 869 personnel deployed globally, with 853 troops and 16 military experts, according to UN contributor statistics. Like many other contributing states, Cambodia’s involvement in peacekeeping is shaped by various factors, including the pursuit of regional and international recognition.//This is certainly a nice accomplishment for Cambodia – hopefully it will be able to contribute more in the future. 

Thailand, Cambodia Could Finish New Rail Link By End of 2016-The Diplomat

Cambodian local official reaffirms desire to complete railway line within the year. Cambodia and Thailand have long sought to complete a railway line connecting them which would boost tourism and business. For Cambodia, the link would be part of a broader rehabilitation of its rail system, much of which was destroyed during civil war beginning in the 1970s. And for Thailand, it would serve as another project within the current government’s ambitious infrastructure plans.

In Myanmar, A Simple Verdict on a Flawed Election-The Diplomat

Myanmar’s November election—a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) – was a procedural success. Turnout was high, the voting process went smoothly, and there was little electoral violence. These are impressive results for a nation ruled under military dictatorship for half a century, until the country began introducing modest democratic reforms over the last few years. The November 8 election, however, has elicited a fair amount of criticism from the international community. And it’s easy to understand why.//This authors are correct – if you’re a Buddhist Bamar living in Yangon, then the November 8 elections were a great achievement for your country. If you’re a impoverished Rohingya trapped in Rakhine state, then Myanmar might not be a country that you want to live in anymore, as evidenced by the thousands who risk their lives to get to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc every year. The elections are certainly a laudable achievement from one perspective, but Myanmar has much work to do if it wants to attain ‘national reconciliation’.

Related: Myanmar: Fahrenheit 436-The Diplomat

Former Lao Finance Minister Named in Corruption Probe-Radio Free Asia

Authorities in Laos have taken into custody a former finance minister and four colleagues in connection with a scheme in which private companies cashed government bonds issued in promise of payment for work they never performed, according to a source in the one-party communist state. Phouphet Khamphounvong, Lao finance minister from 2012 to 2014 and formerly a governor of the Bank of the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), was arrested “at the end of December 2015 while attending a party,” a finance ministry source told RFA’s Lao Service.//Knowing the high levels of endemic corruption present in the Lao government, this arrest is more likely to be about politics than any pursuit of justice for the Lao people. The real questions – what did he do and who did he piss off? 

This week’s news digest was compiled by Brooke Rose, with added analysis by Will Feinberg.

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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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