Regional Roundup for Week of 5.27.16

Obama’s visit to Vietnam rightfully overshadowed all other news coming out of the region this week as the US Rebalance to the Asia Pacific transitions into a gift that keeps on giving to Southeast Asia in terms of security and non-security support. Even though he’s a political rock star, rarely has Obama been received abroad with such mirth. This is no surprise as a recent poll said 92% of Vietnamese said the US is Vietnam’s best foreign friend. For this we should say “Thanks China” instead of “Thanks Obama.”

While the US Rebalance is deepening in the Asia Pacific, real dividends be paid when the US shifts its focus from security support to that of development support, particularly that which solves economic, social, and environmental challenges faced in Southeast Asia. On Obama’s scorecard in Vietnam, we saw much of this approach utilized this week. Lifting of the decades old arms ban is security focused, but in addition to this, Obama signed a joint statement on climate change, opened the Fulbright University, and established a Peace Corps program among other development focused initiatives. These outcomes are the result of decades of tireless support from war legacy groups in the US and Vietnam joining together to get the US back on track in Vietnam – but again wouldn’t happen without China’s mucking around in the South China Sea.

Of other news, ExSE turns 300 with this post! Big thanks to our supporters, loyal readers, and most importantly to the core group of writers who keep this website afloat and maintain its presence as a thought leader in the regional dialogue. Our hats are off to all of you. ~The Editors.

LEADERS

Southeast Asia’s Dance With China NYT As Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia face their own developmental challenges, they must also contend with maritime friction with China.//From ex-Kunminger Chris Horton with quotes from ExSE’s own Brian Eyler.

Obama’s Warm Welcome in Vietnam – The Diplomat Vietnamese people greet Obama with a frenzy, but the change they seek remains far-reached.

Excerpts From Obama’s Speech in Vietnam – AP President Obama addressed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the South China Sea and human rights in a speech in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Tuesday.

US lifts decades-long embargo on arms sales to Vietnam – Guardian Barack Obama announces removal of ban on first visit, saying there is a new level of trust and cooperation with former enemy. The US has lifted a decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam in a historic move that follows the country’s growing assertiveness against China’s influence in the region.

Will Vietnam Buy F-16 Fighter Jets and US Sub Hunting Planes? – The Diplomat With the lifting of the arms embargo, Vietnam is purportedly mulling the purchase of U.S. military aircraft.

A Look Back at Obama’s Visit to Vietnam – NYT President Obama made a three-day trip to Vietnam to improve the United States’ relations in Asia, addressing trade, China and civil liberties.

Despite Obama’s Moves, Asian Nations Skeptical of U.S. Commitment – NYT The American political mood has darkened toward longtime alliances and international trade. For Asian allies, this means the U.S. might pivot away//Again, it’s about the US doubling down on development support. This means more money, more human resources dedicated, and better coordination within US institutions – but slight improvements here will bring big gains.

The Guardian view on Obama’s Vietnam visit: human rights have been marginalised – Guardian The visit to Vietnam was a good opportunity to emphasise two overarching themes that Mr Obama has placed at the centre of his diplomacy: his willingness to turn the page on old grievances inherited from the cold war, and his focus on rebalancing US strategic priorities towards Asia, the region to which global power is shifting. But deciding how those choices could be squared with a message on fundamental values and human rights quickly became more complicated than he perhaps expected.

Vietnam jails four asylum seekers returned by Australia – Reuters – Human Rights Watch says action violates defendants’ right under international law to leave their own country. A court in Vietnam has jailed two men and two women for “organising others to flee abroad illegally” after Australia sent back a group of asylum seekers, their lawyer said.

Pull the other one – Economist BARACK OBAMA fooled no one this week when, having announced that America was lifting its embargo on selling weapons to Vietnam, he denied that the decision was “based on China or any other considerations”. It was a tactful fib, to portray the move as merely part of Mr Obama’s legacy-building mission of reconciliation with historic enemies, to be followed days later by a historic visit to the site of America’s atom-bombing of Hiroshima.

Obama backs Vietnam in South China Sea dispute with Beijing – Guardian In a speech in Hanoi, US president does not refer to China by name but says ‘big nations should not bully smaller ones.’Barack Obama has said Washington supports Vietnam’s territorial claims against

Barack Obama stops off at streetside restaurant in Vietnam for $6 dinner – Guardian President Barack Obama pops in for a low-key meal at Hanoi’s famous Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant with chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain, who picked up the $6 bill for dinner. Crowds gather outside to get a glimpse of the US president.//The running joke in Vietnam is how Vietnam bought USD 100million worth of airplanes and Obama spent 6 bucks. Aside, I’m looking forward to my next visit to Bun Cha Huong Lien!

Mekong region could rely on 100% clean energy by 2050: WWF – The Nation The study conflicts with a government plan that discounts renewables.//Great thinkpiece, but the report unrealistically downplays hydropower and coal. Energy mixes in the region need to include hydro and coal, because regional governments will not abandon these resources – however, if convinced, these governments will minimize the use of these resources.  

China and the Mekong: The Floodgates of Power – The Diplomat China now has a chokehold on the Mekong River, the lifeline for the Indochina peninsula.//What’s needed between China and Southeast Asia is a water-sharing compact guaranteeing minimal flows during the dry season.

Small is worrying: tributaries, ‘small’ hydro and the Mekong hydropower debate – WLE Mekong  When decision-makers decide upon whether or not to go ahead with a dam, I argued, they tend to think about the pros and cons of the individual dam. In the dam illustrated (an irrigation dam in Central Laos), I imagined that they would have thought about the irrigation values, the water supply values (for domestic consumption), and perhaps fisheries and wetland values. But when one small dam is one of 2,492 other small dams and weirs in the Xebang Hieng catchment, then it is not so innocent. Combined, these dams send out immense vibrations across the system.//From Kim Geheb, arguably the region’s most knowledgeable water-energy expert.

Cambodian Police Raid Opposition Party Headquarters – RFA – Cambodian security forces raided the headquarters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on Thursday as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government appears to be ramping up its efforts to prosecute CNRP members.//Sad to see these antics play out to this degree. We’ve visited the complex many times to talk to CNRP officials, hope to continue doing the same in the future.

In Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima, a Complex Calculus of Asian Politics – NYT The president’s visit to Vietnam and particularly Japan highlights old grievances as well as the current power struggles among nations big and small in Asia.

Two years since Thailand’s military coup, country heading for turmoil – SEAGlobe This Sunday marks two years since a military coup in Thailand, and the junta’s promised stability seems a long way off.//What happens when Thailand’s democracy dream is deferred? Tick tick tick

Advancing Gender Advocacy in Myanmar: Beyond False Promises & Deep Divides East by Southeast Women living in Myanmar’s conflict areas face enormous pressure from ethnic autonomous organizations to support a war effort that does not necessarily serve their interests. These pressures are subtle, and often invisible to development actors who focus on tackling intersections of gender and conflict that are more overt. As a result, advocacy efforts do not always reach women who need them most at the ground level.//3rd part of a critically impactful series.

Tra Su wetlands in the Mekong delta losing its biodiversity due to drought – Mekong Commons Three large rivers flow through the Mekong delta province of An Giang in Vietnam: the Hau, Tien and Vam Co Rivers. The entire province is dotted by a number of seasonally flooded small islands. The delta province’s rivers, canals, and rich wetlands forests have proved attractive for tourism with about 6.2 million people visiting An Giang every year.// The circle dykes in An Giang probably have more to do with this. Historically, An Giang was the cistern of the delta – now it flushes all of its water out at the beginning of the dry season. This is a solvable problem.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

East Timor Hopes for ASEAN Membership by 2017 – The Diplomat Admission into the regional grouping finally looks within reach for the country.

Tsai Ing-wen Sworn In as Taiwan’s President, as China Watches Closely NYT The island’s first female leader takes power with the economy in a slump and the region watching her first moves with a juggernaut neighbor.

Benigno Aquino Says U.S. Must Act if China Moves on Reef in South China SeaNYT The Philippine leader said that if Beijing decided to develop the Scarborough Shoal, the United States would be forced to defend the Philippines or risk losing credibility.

US, Thailand Launch Naval Exercise in Andaman Sea – The Diplomat

India takes part in joint Mekong drug suppression push as seizures increase – The Nation INDIA JOINED the discussion about the Mekong memorandum of understanding (MoU) on drug control for the first time at a special session on the inter-regional flow of drugs and precursor chemicals in Thailand yesterday.//Putting the Indo back into Indo-China

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Hydropower surges across the Himalayas – The Third Pole Tajikistan is leading the way in Asia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is providing concessionary financing to upgrade the Qairokkum dam in northern Tajikistan is bolster its resilience to climate change.  Tajikistan relies on hydropower for 98% of its electricity from rivers fed by glaciers and snowmelt. In recent years, lower river levels in winter have reduced power outputs and led to significant power cuts.

Electricity Rates Spike in Laos, the ‘Battery’ for Southeast- RFA Asia Electricity rates are skyrocketing in Laos, just as the hot season tightens its grip on a country that aims to be the “battery” that powers Southeast Asia with hydropower from river dams. Some people have watched as their rates for electricity have more than tripled, and they are scratching their heads as to why they are suddenly paying so much for power when Vientiane has been touting the country’s power generating ability as a way to bring Laos out of poverty.//Laos needs to build a better battery.

China’s environmental journalists shine despite dark times for local media -ChinaDialogue It’s a common view that standards in mainstream Chinese journalism have been deteriorating for some time now.  But when disaster strikes – for example, as in theTianijn explosions – it is not just firefighters rushing towards the scene. Journalists follow close behind. The public know that their most reliable source of information during these fast moving events are the reports filed from the scene by professional reporters.

Vietnam’s New Environmental Politics: A Fish out of Water? – The Diplomat Are Vietnam’s recent protests really about the environment, or are there deeper issues at play?

Drone footage captures Cambodian canal overrun by rubbish – Guardian Drone footage shot by Khmer Times shows mass pollution in the Cambodian Phnom Penh waterways, with the canal system blocked by rubbish ranging from plastic to sewage. The canals and waterways in Phnom Penh are some of the most polluted in the region, leading environmental activists to call on the government to immediately take action

Tourist hordes put strain on Luang Prabang’s heritage – SEAGlobe  Sea Globe Editorial The enthusiasm of tourists for Luang Prabang’s heady charms has brought prosperity to the Lao town, but is the visitor influx damaging its cultural treasures? //The jewel of Southeast Asia begins to tarnish after reaching critical mass? See it while you still can folks!

Landslide at Myanmar Jade Mine Kills at Least 12 – NYT The landslide, in Kachin State, came after heavy rainfall in recent days, and as many as 100 people were feared missing, an official said.

Murdered After Defending Thailand’s Environment – NYT A series of photos enshrine Thai activists at sites where they were killed after opposing powerful economic interests.

British woman among three killed after speedboat capsizes in Thailand – Guardian Speedboat carrying 28 passengers overturns in rough seas off Koh Samui, killing Briton as well as German woman and Hong Kong woman

CHINA

Rocking boats, shaking mountains – Economist – THE “China dream” of the president, Xi Jinping, is of a rejuvenated, rich and strong country that will once again enjoy the respect and fealty in Asia commanded by the empires of old. That last part is not happening: from a recalcitrant young despot, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, on its north-eastern border, to those ungrateful Vietnamese Communists to the south, flirting with America, insolent insubordination abounds. And perhaps most alarming of all, the people of “inalienable” territories wrested from the motherland by predatory imperialists—Hong Kong and Taiwan—show no enthusiasm at all for a return to its bosom.

China and the End of Reform – ChinaFile Is the Chinese Communist Party putting an end to the decades-long process of China’s opening to the outside world? Is the era of liberal reform over? Consider the latest piece of evidence: on April 28, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the long-awaited Foreign NGO Management Law.

China Needs Market Reforms Now – The Diplomat The writing is on the wall for Beijing.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Is ASEAN the next big growth play for global bond investors? — by Donghyun Park The external vote of confidence in ASEAN bond markets seems to be driven by the region’s strong medium- and long-term growth prospects, which bodes well for their future beyond the short term.

Demystifying Rodrigo Duterte – CFR  Philippines’ new president, former Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte, won last week in a five-way vote. His tough-talking style, effective social media campaign, and vows to reduce the power of the country’s elite and crack down on crime resonated enough to deliver him the win. Promises to give political autonomy and fiscal resources to peripheral regions also helped with many voters, especially in the central and southern Philippines. //Follow closely the work of Richard Javad Heydarian. We hope to see him to DC later this year.

Peace in Suu Kyi’s time? – DVB Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in her role as state counsellor, is taking concrete steps to kick-start the country’s beleaguered peace process and will address a newly appointed peace committee later today. Everything has been in abeyance, since eight ethnic groups signed a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the Thein Sein government last October, but some eight others refused to participate.

John Kerry and Aung San Suu Kyi: A Milestone Meeting in Myanmar, Tempered by Questions – NYT Topics included Myanmar’s brutal treatment of a Muslim minority group and on the delicate question of whether Burmese military leaders once had a program in place to build a nuclear weapon.

Cambodia’s ‘Black Monday’ Protests Enter Third Week – RFA Authorities in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh stepped up their crackdown on anti-government protests on Monday, clashing with villagers in the capital’s Boeung Kak Lake district after ordering over the weekend that so-called “Black Monday” campaigners must obtain government permission before posting their views online, sources said.//Boeung Kak lake villagers were evicted five years ago and this is still going on. Real estate development has halted, from my understanding – an ongoing testimony to why it’s important to engage with the public in development projects – ignore affected stakeholders and pay the consequential reputational damages and costs of delay…

Cambodia PM Sets 2018 Election Date, Opposition Faces Legal Charges –Irrawaddy Cambodia’s next election will be in July 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Wednesday, as leaders of the opposition face legal charges they say are politically motivated to stop them challenging the veteran premier in the vote. Long before the Southeast Asian nation goes to the ballot box, political tension has risen. The last election in 2013 marked self-styled strongman Hun Sen’s toughest challenge in three decades of rule.

Call for UN to investigate beating of Cambodian opposition parliamentarians – SEAGlobe A new Human Rights Watch report says the trial of men accused of beating opposition politicians “only scratches the surface” of involvement by high-ranking political and military figures

Drought and government inaction hit Cambodia’s rice industry hard – SEAGlobe The effects of Cambodia’s recent drought will serve to exacerbate existing structural weaknesses in the rice sector, say experts

Burmese Everest climbers reach peak – DVB Mountaineers Pyae Phyo Aung and Win Ko Ko made climbing history this morning by becoming the first Burmese nationals to scale the world’s highest mountain.

Thailand’s Junta and the Southern Insurgency – CFR Earlier this month, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha lamented the ongoing bloodshed in southern Thailand and implicitly criticized his own government’s feeble attempts to restart talks with the insurgents.

YUNNAN

China May Shelve Plans to Build Dams on Its Last Wild River | National Geographic Springing from Tibetan glaciers and flowing to the Andaman Sea, China’s Nu River sluices around a horseshoe bend near Bingzhongluo in Yunnan Province. Plans to build a cascade of dams down the river now appear to be on hold.

China’s two-legged goat becomes minor celebrity – GoKunming It’s a bit of a slow news week around Yunnan apparently. Dominating headlines — and conveniently burying a few small-time corruption cases — is the story of a two-legged goat. That’s right. The animal, born south of Kunming in Xinping Yi and Dai Autonomous County (新平彝族傣族自治县), has been swept up in a minor media storm, and is fast becoming known internationally.

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