Regional Roundup for Week of 9.27.18

EXSE FOCUS

Capital of Laos Seeks Stronger Ties to China – NYT In recent years, Chinese investment in resource-rich Laos has strengthened the country’s economy, which is projected to grow by 7 percent this year. Vientiane’s hot property market reflects this trend. Hoping that China’s Belt and Road Initiative will improve connectivity with its neighbor, Laos is preparing for a new wave of Chinese investment in its property sector. Crucial to these hopes is a 260-mile, $5 billion rail line that Beijing seeks to extend through Laos to Thailand, a much larger market. //How’s your Mandarin? With the railway scheduled to open by 2021, the number of Chinese tourists is expected to skyrocket.  One city that will feel the increase is the ancient capital of Luang Prabang which currently attracts 66,000 Chinese tourists every year. This may rise to hundreds of thousands once the railway is in operation, which presents an economic opportunity but also a serious challenge to the hospitality infrastructure and the city’s population of only 450,000 people.

Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha confirms he is ‘interested in politics’, with one eye on next year’s election – South China Morning Post The head of Thailand’s military government declared Monday he is “interested” in participating in politics, in a new indication he may seek to remain in office after elections scheduled for early next year. Prayuth disavowed political ambitions when he led a May 2014 coup that ousted an elected government. The military declared it would reform politics to get rid of corruption, and banned political party organising until earlier this month. “I can say right now that I’m interested in political positions,” Prayuth told reporters at Government House.

Related: Gen Prayut’s clumsy foray into politics – Bangkok Post

Related: Pheu Thai, Dems gather to brainstorm – Bangkok Post

Vietnam has first female president, but activists are unimpressed – Bangkok Post Vietnam’s appointment of its first female president belies a deep gender imbalance in the communist country’s politics and society and will do little to improve women’s rights, advocates said on Monday. Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh was named acting president on Sunday following the death of Tran Dai Quang, a former chief of internal security appointed to the presidency in 2016. “I think while Ngoc Thinh’s appointment is symbolically important, its wider significance is limited to some women who are Communist Party members,” said activist and dissident Do Nguyen Mai Khoi in an email.

Solar and wind power get a boost in Vietnam – Asian Power Investment in the country’s utilities is rising, marked by B.Grimm Power’s $34m investment in a 420MW project. When B.Grimm Power agreed to pay $34m to buy a stake in a 420MW solar photovoltaic (PV) project in southwest Vietnam in July 2018, it became one of the new solar power projects marking the surge of investment in the country. Trung Nam Solar Power had a slightly larger investment of $216.5m to build a 204MW solar PV project in the Ninh Thuan province, whilst Sunseap International also broke ground for a 168MW solar project in the same province for about $150m //It is a race to the finish line for foreign energy companies looking to capitalize on Vietnam’s 9.35 cents per kilowatt-hour feed-in-tariff for solar projects in operation before 2020 in Ninh Thuan and 2019 in other provinces. Investors are hoping the deadline will be extended to all localities this year, but no official word has been released yet. The Vietnamese government is considering piloting auctions as an alternative to feed-in-tariffs.

Related: Sharp to construct two mega solar plants in Vietnam – World Construction Network

 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Southeast Asia hopes US, China can cooperate in self-interest: Vivian Balakrishnan – The Nation Globalisation, free trade, and economic integration – conceived and underwritten by the United States – have brought peace and prosperity to everyone who subscribed to them since the end of World War II. But these factors have also led to the rise of a multi-polar world, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in New York on Wednesday.

Industry 4.0 and a people-centric ASEAN – The ASEAN Post At ASEAN’s core is a unique approach to regional governance, called the ASEAN Way – a commitment to the principles of non-interference in domestic affairs of member states, utmost respect for national sovereignty as well as an informal decision-making process between ASEAN leaders. However, the system of “decision by consensus” has come increasingly under scrutiny in the era of Industry 4.0.

Cross-border zone in North could boost trade links – Bangkok Post The government is studying the feasibility of establishing a cross-border economic zone in the Golden Triangle under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation scheme to expand economic links for Thailand, Myanmar Laos and China. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework was established in 2015 to promote multifaceted cooperation at the sub-regional level among the six countries along the Mekong River, namely Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. //A 2017 IMF report said that the “external debt distress” in Laos had grown from “moderate to high.” The country’s external debt in 2017 was $13.6 billion, of which China accounted for 44%. This number is expected to increase as the railway construction continues, raising the question of how Laos will solve the problem of potential repayment difficulties. In the past, it has repaid China in long-term land concessions and access to natural resources.

Why Are Myanmar’s Neighbors Ignoring the Rohingya Crisis? – The Diplomat On September 18, the three-member Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar, sanctioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2017, submitted a damning 440-page report to the Geneva-based body outlining the horrific excesses of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) in northern and western Myanmar. Yet, all the noise seems to be coming only from distant quarters. Myanmar’s own neighborhood remains silent as the grave.

Japan is putting quality over quantity in the Mekong – East Asia Forum Japan has revamped its strategy in the Mekong. Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic right-hand man Kentaro Sonoura delineated Japan’s foreign aid policy for the region, stressing the importance of the aid’s ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’. Accordingly, Japan has changed its strategy to focus on improving openness and transparency, human capital development, capacity building and environmental protection throughout its aid to Mekong countries. //While often viewed as competitors in Southeast Asia, Japan and China recently held their first meeting of a joint public-private committee on economic cooperation with a possible joint railway project in Thailand being discussed.

 

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Is coal still important in Asia’s renewables push? – Asian Power Experts at Power-Gen Asia 2018 deliberated whether Asia is still in the path of coal, renewables, or the combination of both. The global movement towards renewables has forced many countries to choose between the renewables path and the coal path, but experts debated whether countries in the Asia Pacific have already reached the crossroads as issues in both sides remain. Director of electricity of Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM) Jisman P. Hutajulu noted that amidst the country’s renewables push, coal will continue to be important. “Coal will be the baseload for the foreseeable future,” he said at the “Coal vs Renewables” debate, Power-Gen Asia 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Paris Agreement: Bangkok conference awakens debate on developed nations’ commitment – Southeast Asia Globe The Bangkok Climate Change Conference, held at the beginning of September, was intended to lay the groundwork for the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24), where guidelines on how to make the Paris Agreement functional will be decided. But rather than progress, it was the negatives that took centre stage at the conference, as the disparity in the contribution of developing and developed countries came to the fore.

Governments and Philanthropies Announce South East Asia Energy Transition Partnership – Bloomberg Today the Government of Canada’s Department of Environment and Climate Change, the French Development Agency (AFD), Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and global philanthropies announced the beginning of a new collaboration at the One Planet Summit in New York to accelerate the energy transition in partnership with countries in South East Asia.

Catalyzing A Renewable Energy Transformation: Lessons learned from Multilateral Development Banks – International Rivers A clean energy transformation is urgently needed to mitigate worst impacts of climate change and deliver power to the millions who currently lack it. Development finance institutions have an important role to play in delivering this transformation and helping developing countries meet their energy, climate, and poverty alleviation goals. The year 2012 has been described as the “inflection point” for renewable energy, at which point more renewable energy capacity has been installed each year than from conventional sources. Solar and wind have made up most of this new capacity, while new hydropower capacity has declined steadily since 2015 as energy planners have come to acknowledge the economic, environmental, social, and climate change risks and impacts that large dams pose.

As Sand Mining Grows, Asia’s Deltas Are Sinking, Water Experts Warn – Floodlist Combined with losses of soil-holding mangroves and accelerating groundwater extraction, which can lead to land sinking, the mining is increasing climate-related threats for those living in low-lying coastal areas, they said. “We have created a recipe for climate disaster,” said Marc Goichot of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Deltas dependent on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Mekong and Yangtze rivers are now sinking and shrinking, according to research carried out by WWF – a situation worsened by climate-related warming and rising sea level.

Hotels and resorts must go ’green’: experts – Vietnam News Hospitality property owners and developers in Việt Nam should apply green and sustainable architecture and design to respond to the effects of climate change, experts said at a hotel and resort conference which closed on September 25 in HCM City.  Barry Day, the Asia design director of planning and landscape at B+H Architects, told Việt Nam News on the sidelines of the conference that Việt Nam’s hospitality sector must make more serious preparations for climate change.

Water from thin air – Vietnam News Coffee farmers in the southern central province of Ninh Thuận used to dig up to 40 metres underground to reach water in order to irrigate their crops during droughts. Now when the land dries up, they struggle to find water at depths of even 100m. The water shortage has devastated residents of drought-plagued localities in Việt Nam, especially the Mekong Delta region, in recent years. Yet from difficulty emerges wisdom. “Water is in short supply, even underground. So, where can we make water from? Why not from the air?”

In Vietnam: Assessing City Resilience – The Asia Foundation The violent storms that swept over the Philippines, China, and the southeastern U.S. seaboard earlier this month were a harrowing preview of extreme weather events that are likely to become more common as the 21st century unfolds. The Rockefeller Foundation granted The Asia Foundation and its partners, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition and Vietnam’s Urban Development Agency, funding to develop an evidence-based tool for rapid, ongoing assessment of city resilience in Vietnam. This tool would yield two benefits. First, it would define a core set of actionable indicators that cities could use to monitor their progress; and second, by ranking cities within a national comparative index, it would create incentives for them to improve their resilience.

Related: Hanoi opens doors to smart city future – Vietnam.net

Why now is an exciting time for Cambodia’s clean energy market – Southeast Asia Globe EnergyLab Asia is an organisation that aims to facilitate the growth of the clean energy market in Cambodia, with a particular focus on startups and innovation. Southeast Asia Globe sits down with director of emerging markets Bridget McIntosh to discuss new technologies in renewable energy and the future of the sector in Cambodia

Counting the Costs: Disaster Needs in Laos Accumulate as Gov, UN, EU, WB Calculate Impacts – The Laotian Times The tragic loss of life and heavy impacts on livelihoods amid disaster triggered by pounding rains and rushing waters means there is no doubt 2018 has proved a challenging and heartbreaking one for too many people in Laos. The importance of accurately and timely measurement of impacts and recovery efforts saw the launch of the 2018 Post-Disaster Needs Assesment Monday attended by some 150 including government representatives led by the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare. 

 

CHINA

Is China going green by dumping brown on its BRI partners? – East Asia Forum The environmental impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been fraught with contradictions. While there are efforts to finance and promote green development through some BRI projects, other projects are raising serious environmental concerns.

Related: Commentary: Caution rising in China beneath the Belt and Road Initiative’s shiny façade – Channel News Asia

Related: Transcript of Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng’s exclusive interview with the Financial Times – China Daily

China steps up green energy push with revised renewable target of 35 per cent by 2030 – South China Morning Post China is stepping up its push into renewable energy, proposing higher green power consumption targets and penalising those who fail to meet goals to help fund government subsidies to producers. The world’s biggest energy consumer is aiming for renewables to account for at least 35 per cent of electricity consumption by 2030, according to a revised draft plan from the National Development & Reform Commission seen by Bloomberg. Previously, the government had only set a goal for “non-fossil fuels” to make up 20 per cent of energy use by 2030.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Vietnam is now China’s top trading partner in ASEAN – CGTN The economic ties between China and Vietnam, including trade, investment and tourism, are booming. Eclipsing Malaysia, Vietnam is now China’s biggest trading partner in ASEAN. Drawn by low costs, an abundant workforce and accommodating business environment, Chinese foreign direct investment in Vietnam hit record levels last year and the trade between the two nations is topping 10 billion US dollars a month.

China might avoid Trump tariffs by exporting via Vietnam – VN Express Vietnam could suffer collateral damage if Chinese businesses use made-in-Vietnam labels to avoid U.S. tariffs, experts warn. Economist Vu Dinh Anh said it is “highly possible” that Chinese businesses would seek to export their goods through Vietnam to the U.S. amid the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. One way they can do this is exporting their products to Vietnam and asking a Vietnamese business to label them as “made in Vietnam,” he told VnExpress International. “This will result in bad consequences for Vietnam as the U.S. might impose the same tariffs on Vietnam as it did on China.”

Petrolimex proposes halt to multi-billion-dollar refinery project – Vietnam News The Việt Nam National Petroleum Group (Petrolimex) asked the Government for permission to halt the Nam Vân Phong oil refinery project on Tuesday, local media reported. Petrolimex said the reason for the proposal was that the group wanted to focus its resources on other projects. Deputy Minister of Planning and Investment Nguyễn Văn Hiếu said that the country already had two big oil refinery plants – Dung Quất and Nghi Sơn – so there was no urgent need for a third to ensure energy security. Other giant oil refinery projects have also been put on hold: Vũng Rô ($3.2 billion) in Phú Yên Province and Nhơn Hội ($22 billion) in Bình Định Province.

Measures needed to help Mekong Delta farmers cope with floods – Vietnam News More breakthrough solutions are needed to help farmers in the Mekong Delta cope with unpredictably rising water levels, according to experts. This year, floodwaters caused by heavy rains and water of the Mekong River have been rising at alarming levels, submerging thousands of hectares of rice and crops and causing losses for farmers in Mekong Delta provinces. The water levels, which are higher than the average over the past decade, are forecast to reach warning Level 2 on the Tiền and Hậu rivers in the next few days.

Cambodia’s balance between China, Vietnam – Khmer Times Maintaining a flexible, stable equilibrium between key strategic and economic partners is a matter of long-term survival for a small nation like Cambodia. The Cambodian ruling elites are fully aware that losing balance and neutrality will lead to political instability at home given the fact that Cambodia is very much vulnerable to rising geopolitical competition and structural uncertainties. However implementing a balanced foreign policy is not easy at all and requires continuous examination and re-examination of Cambodia’s positioning in a fluid international system.

Cambodia’s Reliance on Chinese Debt is Risky: US Official – VOA Cambodia A senior US Embassy official in Cambodia has warned Cambodia over its growing closeness with Beijing.At a meeting in the capital, Michael Newbill, the embassy’s chargé d’affaires, said incurring substantial debts to China has had negative impacts on other countries, such as Sri Lanka and Djibouti. “Cambodia’s leaders must recognize the risks of relying on only one partner, and whether its people will accept that major change in the country’s orientation,” Newbill said. He went on to call for the Cambodian government to open up political space for “Cambodian people to have a voice in their country’s future”.

Commentary: Cambodia ‘pardons’ Australian filmmaker as ploy to legitimize Hun Sen – Asia Times In the lead-up to his trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen once again employed a familiar strategy to appease the international community. Keen to display a softening attitude with high respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law just like genuinely democratic nations, Cambodia decided on a prisoner release – or in the case of James Ricketson, to “pardon” one.

Government to Push Fish Farming – Khmer Times The government has set an annual target of producing 1.2 million tons of fish in farms within the next three years to support high local demand and to reduce the flood of imports from neighboring countries, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Fish has traditionally been a staple for Cambodians, along with rice, and while the demand for fish has been high, supplies on the local market have been low, secretary of state Nao Thouk told reporters yesterday.

As West recoils, China surges south in Myanmar – Asia Times Leader Aung San Suu Kyi is paving the way for Beijing to build a long-envisioned economic corridor in Myanmar which previous military regimes resisted. China has seized on Myanmar’s renewed international pariah status to push forward its corridor ambition. On September 10, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the construction of a so-called “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor”, or CMEC. The CMEC is envisioned as a 1,700 kilometer-long corridor of roads and railroads connecting the Chinese city of Kunming, the capital of China’s southern Yunnan province, with three Myanmar commercial centers, namely Mandalay, Yangon and the Kyaukpyu port and economic zone that lets out on the Indian Ocean.

Related: New Yangon City CEO Urges Gov’t to Act Quickly to Secure Chinese Investment – The Irrawaddy

Rising inflation poses challenge to Duterte – The ASEAN Post After two years since his landslide presidential victory, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte could finally be facing his biggest challenge yet. No, it is not his controversial war on drugs which Human Rights Watch says has claimed more than 12,000 lives. Nor is it his abysmal human rights track record. At the moment, the biggest concern for many ordinary Filipinos is the economy – a concern most likely shared by Duterte as well. Over the past few months, the Philippines has seen its inflation rate rise rapidly.

 

YUNNAN

Lancang-Mekong Cooperation expo to open in Kunming – Yunnan Gateway The 2018 Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Exposition will be held in Kunming, Yunnan Province in late November, said a news release on September 25. Based on the first two sessions of the Lancang-Mekong sub-regional commodity exposition in the past years, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation expo focuses on regional cooperation in economy and culture, under the theme of “share river, share development.” As part of the efforts of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism, the expo aims to showcase products from the six Lancang-Mekong countries, as well as products from Japan, South Korea, and some Africa and European countries and regions.

 

REVIEWS

Thailand between a US rock and Chinese hard place – Asia Times Benjamin Zawacki provides a thoroughly researched account of the alarming shift of a US ally and friend into the orbit of China. Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China details the US diplomatic blunders and inaction that have accelerated this move. With extensive interviews of senior officials and access to embassy dispatches, the book piles up details that are compelling. Shifting Ground should be required reading for every US diplomat and policy maker dealing with Southeast Asia and China.

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