Regional Roundup for Week of 9.15.18

EXSE FOCUS

Kem Sokha, Cambodia’s Jailed Opposition Leader, Is ReleasedNew York Times Cambodia’s imprisoned opposition leader was freed on bail Sunday night after spending a year locked up on charges of treason widely seen as designed to neutralize his political power during a crucial election year. His bail was granted on grounds of ill health, according to a statement released by a Cambodian court. The opposition leader was arrested at midnight on Sept. 3, 2017, and subsequently accused of conspiring with the United States in a plot to bring down Cambodia’s government. Mr. Kem Sokha has maintained his innocence and said he was only trying to take power through legal means, by winning elections.

Cambodian Politics Enters Its Post-Election Phase – Council on Foreign Relations The July election appears to have ended Cambodia’s flirtation with some kind of hybrid regime, and the country now is fully a one-party state. The few small opposition parties that contested the election won no seats, and had little following. But, in the wake of the election, Hun Sen appears ready to try to co-opt some leading opposition members, while also offering gestures of goodwill that are probably designed to prevent leading democracies, which are considering imposing new sanctions on Cambodia, from going forward.

Related: Interview: Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program – VOA Khmer

Energy-hungry Cambodia shows no sign of backing down on coal – Eco-Business As Cambodia’s economy goes through a rapid expansion with foreign investments pouring in, the country is turning to polluting coal power to meet growing energy demands, risking the health of the people and the welfare of the environment. In 2017, Cambodia consumed up to 8.15 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, with 30 per cent of it from fossil fuels. While energy consumption hikes, the government now considers hydropower and coal power plants as the most preferred and reliable sources of energy for the country’s sustainable future.//Cambodia’s current energy policies do not provide a very clear signal for investors, and with the exception of one pilot solar project, renewable energy projects are still not allowed to connect to the national grid.

Related: Cambodia juggles energy need V risk new Chinese dam could ‘kill the Mekong’ – AECNews 

Welcome to ‘Tourism Vacation Town’: China to build $1.2bn holiday hotspot in Cambodia – The Guardian A $1.2bn Chinese-built “luxury city” is being built in Cambodia, accelerating what critics concerned about Beijing’s influence in the south-east Asian country call the region’s “Chinafication”. Chinese developer Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG) says Tourism Vacation Town will feature high-end hotels, offices and theme parks on 1,200 hectares of land in Cambodia’s southwestern Koh Kong province. Details are scant, but building work is expected to begin next year.

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative meets resistance in Southeast Asia – Southeast Asia Globe There’s talk of China essentially colonising Cambodia economically, which could lead to physical “colonisation” as more Chinese people are expected to settle in Cambodia in the coming years. This is the latest headline concern about Chinese people settling in the Asean zone. Cambodia has the $3.8 billion Koh Kong port/airport/city project on 45,000 hectares (0.25% of the land area), with a significant 20% of the country’s coastline [with an expected capacity of 10 million tourists a year]. There are questions about [this and] several [other] large-footprint China-related projects.

Laos to keep building dams despite negative impacts – Al Jazeera Laos is pushing ahead with plans to build more dams along the Mekong River in spite of a deadly collapse in July and the negative impact dams have had on the environment and people who make their living off the rivers.

Related: Laos considers future hydropower plans after dam burst – Reuters 

China Debates the Belt and Road – The Diplomat The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is hailed by Chinese officials and academics as an unprecedented panacea for global needs, a multilateral proposal to upgrade infrastructure, improve China’s bilateral ties, and international institutions, as well as drive much needed global development. On the other end of the spectrum, Western and English language sources discuss BRI with suspicion and mistrust, raising accusations of “debt diplomacy,” neocolonialist ambitions, or that China is undertaking a “new Marshall Plan.” What is lost in these extremes is the diversity of voices within China that express nuanced thoughts on implementation of the BRI, its strengths, weaknesses, and ideal next steps.

        Related: Beijing insists its generosity over Belt and Road is genuine – Nikkei Asian Review

Related: China’s belt and road project can’t cover Asia’s infrastructure needs by itself, never mind the world’s – South China Morning Post   

Myanmar President Requests Approval of $298M Loan to Improve Electricity Network – The Irrawaddy Magazine President U Win Myint has asked Parliament to approve a $298.9 million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to be used to improve the electricity network in seven of the country’s states and regions. Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy, U Tun Naing, told lawmakers during the parliamentary session on Tuesday that the loan is expected to fund a six-year project (2019-2025) that will be implemented in Yangon, Irrawaddy, Tanintharyi and Bago regions and Mon, Karen, and Rakhine states. He said the project aims to meet an increasing level of power consumption, to electrify rural areas, as well as to improve the existing system. //Myanmar has planned to double its electric power capacity by 2021 and achieve universal access to electricity by 2030. Currently, only one-third of the country’s 60 million people have access to electricity. 

Related: Electricity subsidy is wrong, Pun tells minister – Myanmar Times

  

REGIONAL RELATIONS

ASEAN and the challenge of a multipolar world – East Asia Forum At no time since the Cold War has there been a greater demand for an effective, functioning ASEAN. Yet today’s ASEAN seems far from able to live up to its full promise at a time when its members need it most. In a more contested world, the group is one of the few channels that can enable Southeast Asian states to stand their ground. New uncertainties over the trajectories of the United States, the PRC, India and Europe mean that the conditions to which ASEAN members are accustomed may no longer be reasonable to expect. ASEAN needs to adapt or it will atrophy.  

When Asean just isn’t Asean enough – Bangkok Post  China’s bullying may be the first of Asean’s headaches to come to mind, but its weakest links are those that have been gnawing away at its insides — and undermining its members’ own “Asean-ness”. So while Asean’s 50th birthday bash was just a year back, it might as well have been a decade ago. These days, there is talk, among believers and sceptics alike, of Asean being rather rudderless against the backdrop of big powers’ rivalry outside it, and lack of Asean leadership, and the mix of authoritarianism, narrow nationalism and populism within its ranks.

ASEAN and China should seize the opportunity in the South China Sea – East Asia Forum ASEAN and China–US relations in the South China Sea have trended in opposite directions since 12 July 2016. On that day, the Philippines and ASEAN set aside the near-term implementation of the South China Sea arbitration award supporting the case against China’s maritime infringements and opened a new chapter in relations with China. China–ASEAN ties have gradually improved as the two sides have matched word with deed.

‘Limited’ progress at Bangkok climate talks – The Guardian An international meeting in Bangkok fell short of its aim of completing fruitful preparations to help an agreement be reached in December on guidelines for implementing the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. The six-day meeting, which ended on Sunday, was scheduled to step up progress in the battle against rising global carbon emissions by adopting a completed text that could be presented at the COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland, three months from now.

Environmental Defenders Under Pressure Across Southeast Asia – The Diplomat A lack of U.S. engagement is contributing to a “declining, dictatorial and more dangerous environment” in Southeast Asia, where the abuse of fundamental rights is increasing alongside the killing of land activists, Human Rights Watch says.  A recently released report by NGO Global Witness documented the killing around the world last year of 207 environmental defenders – the term includes ordinary citizens, often from indigenous or ethnic minority groups, who peacefully protect their land, together with more organized activists or advocates.  It was the sixth such annual report by the organization and shows numbers which continue to climb – in the last four years doubling from an average of two to four deaths per week as a “global rush” for land and resources gathered pace, Global Witness said.

Redundancy and Risk Management: Lessons from Japan’s Disasters for Southeast Asian Infrastructure – The Diplomat Japan’s sophisticated rail networks demonstrate the value of redundancy during post-disaster recovery, whereas the recent closure of the Kansai Airport, and lack of adequate alternative options, serves as a cautionary tale. In both cases, Japanese experiences with infrastructure development and disaster planning can be helpful for Southeast Asia.

The Key to Securing the Indo-Pacific: Japanese Constitutional Reform? – The Diplomat The legal structure governing Japan’s use of force continues to evolve, albeit slowly. The process deserves more attention, especially in light of the uncertainty of U.S. policy toward the Indo-Pacific, and of the growing power and assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China. The increasingly expansive scope of Japan’s military authority is both the reflection of changes in the regional strategic environment, and potentially a driver of those changes in the future.

Related: Japan adds Malaysia to list of Indo-Pacific security partners – Nikkei Asian Review 

US economic exclusiveness should encourage Asian inclusiveness – East Asia Forum Asia needs to adjust to US protectionism by introducing appropriate and effective counter-measures. More specifically, Asia must rebuild international trade via the promotion of regional integration and reduce its dependency on the US dollar. To promote regional integration, Asian countries need to harmonise regulations and standards in trading, banking and accounting to create larger markets. Free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) should be advanced to help Asia remain competitive in global value chains and to replace the United States as the global consumer market.

 

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT 

Technological innovation is a game-changer for agricultural statistics – Asian Development Blog  Improving the welfare of Asian farmers depends on strategically investing in collecting “good data”. Most of Asia’s poor live in rural areas and rely on agriculture as their main source of income. Enhanced agricultural productivity will go a long way toward reducing rural poverty and boosting incomes of small-scale farmers – it is key to achieve Sustainable Development Goal no. 2. This will require major investments in new types of data collection. This year’s Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2018 Special Supplement includes new research demonstrating how technological innovations can improve the quality, timeliness, and granularity of agricultural statistics, while reducing overall collection costs.

How China’s plastic ban has Southeast Asia scrambling for solutions – Southeast Asia Globe With China refusing to accept the low-grade plastic waste that the West once poured there, the developing nations of Southeast Asia are buckling beneath the weight of the world’s redirected refuse. And while mobilising hordes of waste pickers may hold back the tide, experts say sustainable waste management can only come by abandoning our throwaway culture. From the start of 2018, China has no longer been accepting the low-quality waste that once laid the foundation of its own flourishing plastic goods industry – a decision that, by some estimates, may leave as much as 111 million metric tonnes of plastic bags, food packaging and single-use straws struggling to find a place in this world outside the gullet of a seagull by 2030.

Rich Nations Vowed Billions for Climate Change. Poor Countries Are Waiting – New York Times When industrialized nations pledged in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help the poorest countries deal with climate change, it won over some skeptics in the developing world who had argued that rich nations should pay up for contributing so much to the problem. But the money has been slow to materialize, with only $3.5 billion actually committed out of $10.3 billion pledged to a prominent United Nations program called the Green Climate Fund. President Trump’s decision last year to cancel $2 billion in promised aid did not help.

New tariffs could recharge Vietnam’s wind power projects  – VN Express Higher tariffs for Vietnam’s wind power projects will make investments more commercially viable, experts say. However, even with the latest feed-in-tariff (FIT) increase approved by the Prime Minister, the rates are lower than in other ASEAN countries. The Prime Minister approved the amendment and revision of the wind tariffs as per Decision No. 37/2011/QD-TTg issued on September 10 on support mechanisms for the development of wind power projects in Vietnam. Under the revision, the FIT for wind power projects will be increased to 8.5 US cents/ kWh for onshore and 9.8 US cents/kWh for offshore respectively. As of now, Vietnam has just 200 MW of installed wind power capacity and another 100 MW is under construction.

Related: Hanoi to host ASOCIO Smart City Summit 2018 this month – Vietnam News 

Waste energy – an opportunity wasted – Mekong Eye Every year, Vietnam’s 27 million pigs generate emissions equivalent to around 4.3 million tons of CO2, with strong smells and negative effects on human health. What many do not know, is that these pernicious emissions could be used to generate electricity. “Up to now, Vietnam has not had a comprehensive mechanism for supporting the development of renewable energy, aside from the subsidies for wind power and waste-generated electricity, approved in 2011 and 2014 respectively,” Tran Van Khai, Vice Chairman of the Vietnam Biogas Association (VBA), wrote in a biogas energy report from 2014. “Biogas energy is an attractive investment, if we have appropriate policies for it.

Enercon enter Vietnamese market – Windpower Monthly Enercon has entered the Vietnamese wind market with two orders for projects with a combined capacity of 77MW. The German manufacturer will also establish a “service station” in the south-eastern province of Ninh Thuan and is currently in talks with the same customers for a further 152MW of orders, the company added. It had previously set up a national subsidiary in the south-east Asian country, Enercon Vietnam Company, with an office registered in the country’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh.

Related: Renewable Energy Integration Faces Challenges – Vietnam News  

Thailand seeks to lure more electric vehicle makers – Investvine Thailand’s Board of Investment (BOI) has announced new packages and privileges for electric vehicle companies to establish operations in the Eastern Economic Corridor, a new economic priority zone for the country’s manufacturing and industry. Electric vehicle production is one of the Thai auto industry’s fastest growing subsectors. According to analysts, the number of electric cars to be produced in Thailand is expected to grow to 1.2 million by 2036, the BOI said in a release.

In Posh Bangkok Neighborhood, Residents Trade Energy with Blockchain – Voice of America Residents in a Bangkok neighborhood are trying out a renewable energy trading platform that allows them to buy and sell electricity between themselves, signaling the growing popularity of such systems as solar panels get cheaper. The pilot project in the center of Thailand’s capital is among the world’s largest peer-to-peer renewable energy trading platforms using blockchain, according to the firms involved. The system has a total generating capacity of 635 KW that can be traded via Bangkok city’s electricity grid between a mall, a school, a dental hospital and an apartment complex.

Climate mitigation has an ally in need of recognition and land rights: indigenous peoples in tropical countries – Conservation News As global warming continues to outpace the tepid international response, a range of environmentalists are raising their collective voice to demand full rights and recognition for those long associated with land stewardship connected to climate mitigation: indigenous peoples. On Monday, September 10, researchers released what they called “the most comprehensive assessment to date of carbon storage” on forested lands occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities in 64 tropical countries. One of the main findings of the research is that indigenous peoples are far better stewards of the land than their countries’ governments.

  

CHINA

 China’s belt and road projects ‘narrow economic inequalities within countries’ – South China Morning Post Beijing’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to expand China’s trade routes around the globe, has attracted accusations of “white elephant” projects that are politically motivated and economically unsustainable. However, amid international scrutiny of how cost-effective the Chinese projects are, AidData – a US-based project that tracks development assistance – has said Chinese government-financed connective infrastructure projects have been able to narrow economic disparities within a country in a way that traditional Western donors may have failed to achieve.

China ‘may let provinces set own winter pollution curbs’ – South China Morning Post China is considering allowing its northern provinces to decide individual output cuts by heavy industry to rein in emissions during the winter, ditching an earlier plan for blanket cuts, a source said. Talk of the move drove down prices of steel and steelmaking raw materials and comes as Beijing looks to end its “one size fits all” fight on pollution, devising more nuanced policies reflecting local conditions to limit economic disruption.

China Expands Its Footprint in Sri Lanka – The Diplomat China’s role in Sri Lanka, which has grown remarkably in recent years, is poised to expand geographically as well. Hitherto, Beijing’s projects were confined to the southern parts of the island. It is now making inroads into the Northern Province and the rubber, tea, and coconut plantations of the central highlands. In April, state-run China Railway Beijing Engineering Group Co. Ltd. won a more than $300 million contract to build 40,000 houses in Jaffna district in the Northern Province, which suffered extensive damage during Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war.//Despite these developments, as well as the transfer of control of the Hambantota Port, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that Sri Lanka is not falling into a debt trap with China, nor is the country under threat from US-China trade tensions. 

As trade war escalates, China intensifies role of state-owned enterprises – South China Morning Post Beijing has affirmed the leading role of state firms in China’s technological and economic progress amid the escalating trade war with the US with a major nationwide conference planned for the end of September. Two sources have confirmed to the South China Morning Post that the conference will be chaired by China’s top economic adviser and showcase Beijing’s strong support for state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Washington’s strong objection to the prominent role of SOEs in the Chinese economy is at the heart of the trade conflict.

SOUTHEAST ASIA 

Mekong River faces a damming issue – TTG Asia As part of Laos’ bid to be the “battery of Asia”, the government has been constructing dozens of dams across the landlocked country to export to its power-hungry neighbours like Thailand. In Cambodia, several more hydropower plants are under construction or being planned, including the country’s largest dam at Sambor in Kratie. A leaked report of a study commissioned by the Cambodian government and carried out by the US-based research and consultancy firm National Heritage Institute states that “a dam at this site could literally kill the river, unless sited, designed and operated sustainably. Sambor is the worst possible place to build a major dam.”

Has Thailand’s deep south insurgency reached a tipping point? – East Asia Forum Recent reports of a leading insurgent surrendering to the Thai military authorities have raised hopes that the insurgency may be reaching a tipping point in favour of the government. Yet one expert on the situation in southern Thailand, Don Pathan, suggests Thailand’s Muslim insurgency has roared back to life. So which way is it really heading?

Thai king passes last bill that paves way for election by end-May – Nikkei Asian Review Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun endorsed the last two bills that were required for the country to hold a general election which is now expected to take place between February and May next year. Initially, the junta had promised to hold an election by October 2015. But the dates have repeatedly been pushed back and it is remains to be seen if the latest promise will be kept. Prayuth said earlier said that the election will be held only after the coronation ceremony of King Vajiralongkorn but that date has not yet been announced. Some political experts say that Prayuth could even resort to using his special powers provided under the constitution to delay the election if he sees more time is required to establish a solid support base for a pro-military party.

Thailand’s PTT seeks bidding partner for $7bn rail project – Nikkei Asian Review Thai oil and gas group PTT is in discussions with potential partners about a joint bid for an estimated $7 billion high-speed train project linking three major airports, as part of the country’s Eastern Economic Corridor plan to promote high-value manufacturing. The move would pave the way for Thailand’s largest company by market value to make its first investment in railway operations.

Malaysia: Public protests force Chinese builder to live up to its eco-friendly tag – Asian Correspondent On Jan. 1, 2014, fishermen near Kampong Pok, a village on Malaysia’s southern shore, were alarmed to find a fleet of barges and dredgers dumping sand on their fishing ground. Up until that moment, they’d heard nothing about land reclamation planned for their neighborhood. Over the next few months, they would begin to learn about the scope of the development scheme planned for this shallow expanse of shellfish beds and seagrass. Country Garden Pacificview, a unit of one of China’s largest real-estate developers, had quietly partnered with the Johor state government and Ibrahim Ismail, the sultan of Johor, to build a “21st century city” on a 19-square-kilometer (7.3-square-mile) man-made island in the Strait of Johor.

How sand dredging in Koh Kong bled the fishing community dry – Southeast Asia Globe After about a decade of heavy sand dredging in the waterways of Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, a fishing community once recognised internationally for its rich ecosystem is struggling to fill its nets and crab cages. In response, villagers have been forced to find new work or leave their homes behind in what is now a daily fight to feed their families. According to UN records, Cambodia reported exporting 5.9 million tonnes of sand in 2008, compared to less than 20,000 tonnes three years prior. Nearly 16 million tonnes of sand were reported to have been exported from Cambodia between 2007 and 2016, the last available UN records from Cambodia. //Despite a 2016 ban on sand dredging, researchers and villagers say that the practice has continued and could escalate following Hun Sen’s re-election in July. 

Floods to slam seven Cambodian provinces – Khmer Times The Water Resources Ministry yesterday warned that seven provinces will face floods again this week. In a statement, it said that the provinces of Oddar Meanchey, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat and Kampong Chhnang will experience heavy rain throughout the week. “These provinces will face floods again from the rain,” the statement said. “The Mekong river will also cause floods.”

Investor Interest Remains Steady as FDI Drops: MIC – The Irrawaddy Magazine The Rakhine issue has no impact on foreign investors’ interest in Myanmar, said U Aung Naing Oo, the secretary of the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC). The interest of potential foreign investors in Myanmar has not declined, U Aung Naing Oo told reporters, citing the record turnout at the Myanmar Global Investment Forum 2018 held in Naypyitaw on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Rakhine issue, however, did impact foreign direct investment, which declined by some US$900 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year compared to the previous year. Lawmaker U Aung Kyaw Kyaw Oo, secretary of the Lower House Investment and Industrial Development Committee, said that the investment of EU countries has declined primarily due to the Rakhine issue and that Myanmar must look to the east to attract investors.

Four Dead in Magwe Coal Mine Explosion – The Irrawaddy Magazine At least four people are dead, one seriously injured and four are still trapped after an explosion in a coal mine in Saw Township, Magwe Region, on Thursday. According to police, a methane gas explosion trapped 12 coal mine workers on Thursday morning at Htun Yarzaw coal mining company in Kyauke Myaung, a village in Saw Township about 130 kilometers north of the city of Magwe. According to the police, the incident is under investigation and a lawsuit has been opened against U Min Min Oo, the manager of the coal mining company, for the negligence of safety at the mine and for the death of the miners. //Despite holding the title as “the most polluted country in Southeast Asia” (WHO) coal features prominently in Myanmar’s future energy plans. Amid local and international protests, a 1,280 MW Japanese and Thai funded coal plant is still underway in Kayin State. 

Is Indonesia the Next Emerging-Market Domino to Fall? – Wall Street Journal Indonesia is no Turkey or Argentina. That doesn’t mean bottom-fishing is a good idea, juicy government debt yields aside. Investors who gorged themselves on Turkish delight and Argentine beef have had a rude awakening in 2018—the two countries are at the heart of a broadening crisis that has sent emerging-market currencies tumbling. In Asia, one name keeps coming up: Indonesia, which also has a growing trade deficit – and lots of foreign debt. // Indonesia’s growing debt is a big issue in the upcoming 2019 national elections with opposition leader Prabowo Subianto claiming that the rising debt is likely to bankrupt Indonesia by 2030.  

Duterte claims opposition planning coup based on tip from a foreign power – South China Morning Post Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday revealed what he said was a plot to unseat him hatched by the opposition, Maoist rebels and a group of former soldiers who had mounted failed coups in the past. In a conversation with his lawyer, shown on national television, Duterte said he had asked the military to “declassify” information about the plot which he said was gathered by a third country he did not identify. “We have the evidence and we have the conversation provided by a foreign country sympathetic to us,” Duterte told Salvador Panelo, presidential legal counsel, in an hour-long conversation.

  

YUNNAN  

Weekend earthquakes shake Yunnan’s Pu’er Prefecture – GoKunming Residents of Mojiang County (墨江县) in southern Yunnan’s Pu’er Prefecture continue to dig out and clean up following multiple damaging earthquakes over the weekend. The most intense was a 5.9 magnitude temblor that shook the region on the morning of September 8. Although a few dozen people sustained injuries during the tremors, no one was killed. The original quake shook products from supermarket shelves, shattered windows and collapsed walls in homes made from mud bricks. Emergency response teams say more than 5,000 people have been relocated as inspectors assess the damage to determine if structures remain inhabitable or need to be reinforced or demolished entirely.

This week’s news digest was curated by Michael Di Martino Jensen

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