Regional Roundup for Week of 9.8.2018

EXSE FOCUS

 Thailand’s military junta may at last be ready to call an election – The Economist September will sizzle with political intrigue in Thailand. The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has announced that his military government will shortly begin discussions with political parties about restoring democracy. Every year since his junta came to power in a coup in 2014, it has promised—and failed—to hold an election. This time it may actually keep its word. // If history is any guide, the Junta will use all of its remaining escape routes to postpone the elections until it feels confident in the results, one being the coronation ceremony of the new monarch, which is expected to take months to plan and rehearse. Another is Thailand’s 2019 ASEAN chairmanship and the political turmoil it may cause, such as in 2009 when widespread protests forced world leaders to escape by helicopter from rooftops before the meeting was finished.

Related: Thai politics under a new reign – East Asia Forum

Dam nation: China crackdown spares big state hydropower projects – South China Morning Post As authorities clamp down on small-scale dams and turbines, critics blame large projects for devastating the ecology, making remaining fish stocks on one river “fit only for dogs”. In a mountain village in southwest China’s Sichuan province, authorities have demolished seven small dam projects along a single river this year in an attempt to clear illegal developments in a new nature reserve. The demolition is part of a nationwide programme to close hundreds of tiny and often ramshackle dams and turbines, and bring order to China’s massive hydropower sector after years of unconstrained construction.

Belt and Road project runs into debt speed bump – The Straits Times China’s massive and expanding Belt and Road trade infrastructure project is running into speed bumps as some countries begin to grumble about being buried under Chinese debt. First announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the initiative, also known as the “new Silk Road”, envisions the construction of railways, roads and ports across the globe, with Beijing providing billions of dollars in loans to many countries. Five years on, Mr. Xi has found himself defending his treasured idea as concerns grow that countries involved in the project may lack the means to pay back the Asian giant. //A modern day ‘tributary system’? Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Southeast Asian leaders in 2010 that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact’.

Related: China’s Belt and Road Is Full Of Holes – CSIS

Related: China’s ‘Belt and Road’ at age 5 – The Japan Times 

Related: Backlash builds against China as Belt and Road ties fray – Nikkei Asian Review

Mekong River Commission to hold forum on Lao hydropower project – Vietnam Plus The Mekong River Commission (MRC) will organise the first regional stakeholder forum on the Pak Lay hydropower project in Vientiane, Laos, on September 20-21, according to the MRC’s press release on August 30. Pak Lay will be the fourth hydroelectric facility to be built on the Mekong River as proposed by the Lao government, following Don Sahong, Xayaburi, and Pak Beng. The forum aims to provide information on the Pak Lay project and the MRC’s prior consultation process.

Related: Laos Returns To Hydro Development – Newsbase 

Investors race against the clock to fulfill solar power projects – VietNamNetBridge If solar power projects do not start prior to June 30, 2019, investors will not be able to sell electricity to the Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) at the price of 9.35 cent per kwh for 20 years, under a new decision. Investors now are racing against the clock to be able to put their power plants prior to June 2019, because they fear the electricity price may be lowered after that period.//Meeting the June 30 deadline is crucial if Vietnam wants to achieve its goal of a 26% increase in household solar energy usage by 2030. 

Southeast Asia set for $9bn smart grid boost – Power Engineering International Countries in Southeast Asia will invest $9.8bn in smart grid infrastructure between now and 2027, according to new study by Northeast Group. The report states that these investments have three key drivers: A handful of leading countries have made the smart grid a key pillar of their energy futures; an increase in the development and implementation of regulations that encourage or mandate smart grid development; and efforts to improve energy efficiency and clean energy portfolios to meet growing energy demand.

 

REGIONAL RELATIONS 

China-ASEAN new energy forum opens in Yunnan – Xinhua Representatives of 12 countries and two international organizations participated in the China-ASEAN New Energy Forum that opened Wednesday in Kunming, southwest China’s Yunnan Province.The two-day forum focuses on issues including cooperation in new energy, policies and measures in promoting new and renewable energy and new energy technological innovation.

Can ASEAN Turn Geostrategic and Technological Disruption into Opportunity? – Project Syndicate Individually, ASEAN’s members have little global clout; collectively, they represent 10% of the world’s people and nearly 5% of its GDP. At a time when large powers and global trends are reshaping the regional environment, the only way for ASEAN countries to advance their interests effectively is by working together.

Singapore and the IEA co-host first ever ASEAN Clean Energy Investment and Financing Training Programme – International Energy Agency More than 100 participants from 15 countries, largely from Southeast Asia, convened in Singapore from 28 to 30 August for the Singapore-IEA Clean Energy Investment and Financing Training Programme. This programme aims to increase knowledge and skills for decision making on policies and regulatory frameworks that mobilise bankable investments in renewables and energy efficiency across the region.

Whither ASEAN centrality? – The Diplomat The 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings held in Singapore from 30 July to 4 August 2018 were hailed as a success. Most notably there were no delays in the issuance of its joint communique, which in previous instances had been delayed because of seemingly intractable issues like the South China Sea disputes.

 

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT 

Can We Achieve Universal Electricity Access Without Coal? – Asian Development Blog While coal will still keep the grid up and running for now, renewable energy-based distributed systems can meet growing demand in the near future. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. Are we making enough progress to be on track to meet the deadline?  

Mekong Flood Forecasting Webpage in Five Languages – Mekong River Commission The MRC cuts the last mile even shorter between its Mekong flood forecasting and the public. The full webpage with flood forecasting in the lower Mekong basin is now available in five languages of English, Lao, Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese. It provides flood information in 22 stations which are being monitored along mainstream of the Mekong river. The stations update daily hydrological information during the flood season including daily water level data and daily rainfall data.

What is water diplomacy and why should you care? – Global Water Forum  In recent years, the term ‘water diplomacy’ (or ‘hydrodiplomacy’) has experienced an impressive — yet surprising — career in the lexicon of journalists, policy-makers, and their advisors. Policy advisors and policy-oriented scholars use the term to discuss how those in foreign policy solve water conflicts and promote water cooperation for peace.

Trade of coastal sand is damaging wildlife of poorer nations, study finds – The Guardian Wealthy nations’ drastic increase in construction sand consumption contributes to erosion of estuaries. The secretive trade of coastal sand to wealthy countries such as China is seriously damaging the wildlife of poorer nations whose resources are being plundered, according to a new study. Sand and gravel are the most extracted groups of materials worldwide after water, with sand used in the concrete and asphalt of global cities. China consumed more sand between 2011 and 2013 than the US did during the entire 20th century. India has more than tripled its annual use of construction sand since 2000.

Of rivers, deities, and legal persons – A new approach to managing freshwater resources? – Global Water Forum Today, at least five rivers around the world – Whanganui in New Zealand, Yarra in Australia, Atrato in Colombia, Narmada in India, and Vilcabamba in Ecuador – enjoy some measure of independent legal recognition under national law. Efforts to afford similar legal respect to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India and the Colorado River in the United States have also been sought. The following is the last in a series of essays exploring this unique phenomenon.

China’s River Chiefs – An “Ingenious” Approach to Water Governance in China? – International Rivers China has long struggled to develop an effective system of governance for its increasingly stretched water resources. In the past, it was said that “nine dragons rule the waters” (九龙治水), a reference to the tangle of diffuse and unclear responsibilities for managing different aspects of China’s environment and policies. Now, a series of reforms are taking effect, with the intent to simplify and improve the way environmental protection is carried out in China.

How animal waste is helping turn China’s lakes green – The Guardian Animal husbandry is contaminating China’s water and has been linked to turning lakes bright green, a phenomenon known as eutrophication. China’s surging appetite for meat has compounded the problem. Pork is by far the most popular type of meat consumed nationally, and the humble pig enjoys an exalted status in Chinese culture as a lucky creature symbolising prosperity and peace. But environmentalists say the average citizen in China does not connect their love of pork to water pollution.

Pig pens power a solution to climate change in Vietnam – UN Environment When Trin Gim first started her biogas digester business, she raised many eyebrows. In the little district of Ung Hoa, located south of Viet Nam’s capital, Hanoi, villagers were not accustomed to seeing a woman take the reins of a business. But eight years later, Trin Gim has achieved not only financial success, but has played a role in a larger fight in Viet Nam against the devastating impacts of climate change.

The amphibious homes that work with water to stay afloat in floods – The Telegraph The recent flooding in Kerala is yet another reminder of the toll that extreme weather can take on homes: around 1.8 million people were displaced and nearly 500 killed after heavy monsoon rains set off landslides and rivers broke their banks. As the clean-up operation begins, the focus is now on how to make homes more resilient in regions that are prone to flooding. One solution being trialed in the Mekong delta in Vietnam is the development of amphibious homes. These float on water when the floods come but settle back onto dry land when the waters recede.

Agribusiness will bloom with EVFTA’s tariff cuts – Vietnam Investment Review After seven years of negotiations, Vietnam and the EU are currently completing final procedures to sign the bilateral free trade agreement (EVFTA) in October or November. The deal is expected to take effect in 2019. Once the EVFTA takes effect, the EU will open its doors to Vietnam’s agri-food immediately, creating scores of opportunities for the Southeast Asian nation – a major exporter of farm produce – to penetrate further into the EU market with its population of over 500 million people.  

 

CHINA

Huadian Fuxin Energy eyes projects in Southeast Asia – South China Morning Post State-backed Huadian Fuxin Energy Corporation, still weary of its near-miss acquisition experience in Britain due to the surprise Brexit vote result two years ago, is seeking out opportunities closer to home in Southeast Asia, according to its chairman.

Related:  Huadian Fuxin Energy shows its interest in Southeast Asia – cifnews 

Rivers in the sky: How deforestation is affecting global water cycleschinadialogue Large-scale deforestation in any of the three major tropical forest zones of the world – Africa’s Congo basin, Southeast Asia, and especially the Amazon – could disrupt the water cycle sufficiently to pose a substantial risk to agriculture in key breadbaskets halfway round the world in parts of the US, India, and China.

China tries to prop up investor sentiment amid worries over economy and trade war with United States – South China Morning Post China is stepping up its efforts to bolster market expectations, as worries about the trade war with the US and the economic outlook continue to hammer domestic investor confidence. The Financial Stability and Development Commission (FSDC), the government agency responsible for coordinating regulation to prevent risks to the country’s financial system, convened a high-profile meeting on Friday to improve the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to manage market expectations.

China Complicit in Blocking Aid to Kachin Refugees: Report – The Irrawaddy Magazine A rights group’s report has claimed Chinese involvement in the Myanmar government’s blocking of humanitarian assistance to war refugees on the Myanmar-China border where government troops and Kachin armed groups have been fighting. The report said that since the previous government organized peace-talks between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups, Chinese representatives in the meetings reportedly insisted that aid organizations not operate on the border areas in Kachin State.

How domestic politics threatens China’s dream of building Asia-Pacific free-trade bloc to offset US tensions – South China Morning Post Domestic opposition in countries ranging from India to Australia could undermine efforts to reach a deal on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. A massive trade deal for the Asia-Pacific region designed to offset the impact of US protectionist policies could still be derailed by domestic political uncertainties in some of the key countries, regional trade and diplomatic observers have warned.

China Finding Vietnam a Demanding Business Partner – Voice of America China is finding Vietnam to be a tough partner as Chinese firms try to do more business with the long-time political rival along its southern border. Vietnam’s legislature, faced with public protests, has put off until May 2019 a bill that would let Chinese and other foreign investors use special economic zones. The government in Hanoi also warns against taking out preferential loans from China for infrastructure development. It has cautioned as well against Chinese development aid.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

 

Singapore urges U.S. to continue to engage with Southeast Asian region – Kyodo News Singapore on Saturday urged the United States to remain engaged with Southeast Asia, following the announcement U.S. President Donald Trump will skip a major regional conference and send Mike Pence instead. The White House announcement that Trump will not attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ summit in November was a particular disappointment to Singapore, which will host and chair the conference.

Vietnam’s economic zones derailed by anti-China protests – Nikkei Asian Review Government says policies do not favor Beijing, but public’s concern grows. The Vietnamese government’s plan to open the country’s first three special economic zones have been stalled until next year at the earliest due to large demonstrations by those wary of an influx of Chinese businesses.

JICA Implements Sustainable Development Projects in Quảng Nam – Mekong Tourism The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has successfully implemented a number of sustainable development projects, particularly in environment and tourism, in Hội An in the central province of Quảng Nam, JICA announced yesterday on the occasion of Japanese Days in the province, which is taking place from August 16-19. Konaka Tetsuo, chief representative of JICA in Việt Nam, said in recent years JICA had worked with the province to develop small-scale projects implemented by Japanese NGOs, local governments and universities.

Dams and sand mining threaten integrity of lower Mekong – VNExpress As investment in hydropower and construction projects ramp up, ecosystems along Southeast Asia’s longest river are paying the price. At more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles), the Mekong is Southeast Asia’s longest river. It runs through six countries, providing food and income for more than 70 million people. But the integrity of the river, and therefore of the livelihood of the people who depend on it, is under threat – particularly in the lower Mekong basin in Cambodia and Vietnam. //Concrete is made of sand, thus making sand a key component in the construction boom in Asia, and China is leading the way. Today, China consumes half the world’s supply of concrete. Between 2011 and 2014 it used more concrete than the United States did in the entire 20th century. 

Sinking Bangkok among cities to be hardest hit by climate change – Investvine As Bangkok prepares to host climate change talks, the Global Warming and Climate Change Conference from October 4-5, experts once again remind that unchecked urbanisation and eroding shorelines will leave the city itself and its residents in a critical situation.

Urgent flood meet precedes dam releases – Bangkok Post The governors of Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi and Samut Songkhram attended an urgent meeting Wednesday to prepare their provinces for excess water being released from the Sri Nakharin and Vajiralongkorn dams, which could cause widespread floods in the coming days.

Related: Over 78,000 people still affected by floods in Thailand – Xinhua

Lao farmers using “photovoice” to communicate about climate change – Mekong Commons Photovoice is a communication tool that utilizes photographs and videos to represent key issues affecting vulnerable groups. Located in the central province of Savannakhet, Baan Phailom is a remote and small farming community of about 100 households. In recent years, Baan Phailom farmers have been experiencing frequent drought and crop damage from pests and diseases causing food shortages. These farmers have recently been involved in a project to take and share photos of their livelihoods and to convey the impacts of climate change.

Turning women’s aspirations into reality in Lao PDR – Asian Development Blog An ADB-supported project gave women an opportunity to enhance their social status by growing their income. In rural areas of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), the role of community leaders is mostly reserved to men. Despite the national gender strategy calling for women to hold at least 20% of decision-making positions by 2020, Lao PDR women often feel that their potential is stifled, voices kept silent, and capacities curtailed.

Laos’ hydropower ambitions threaten Mekong fishing villages – Nikkei Asian Review Effects of dwindling fish stocks and rising prices are felt nationwide. The tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos champions itself as “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting hydroelectricity to its neighbors as it seeks to exit the ranks of least developed countries.

Lao Floods Leave Many Schools Closed at Start of New Term – Radio Free Asia Widespread flooding in Laos in recent weeks has blocked the start of the school year in the Southeast Asian country, with as many as 1,000 schools left unable to open by the Sept. 3 beginning of the new term, Lao sources say. Hundreds of schools in 14 out of 18 provinces in Laos are now flood-damaged, with about a dozen schools in Xaythany district in the capital Vientiane still partly submerged, one source said.

Dams spell catastrophe for Cambodia, but an alternative exists – Southeast Asia Globe Magazine The deadly dam collapse in Laos in late July brings Cambodia’s own grand plans for hydropower into question – and thrusts solar power to the forefront of the Kingdom’s quest for energy independence. Twelve years ago, a Chinese state-owned company signed an agreement with the government of Cambodia to undertake a monumental feat of engineering: the Sambor Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam on the Lower Mekong Basin. The 2,600MW behemoth, double the size of any other dam planned or constructed on the Lower Mekong, would stretch for 18km, trailing an 82km-long reservoir behind it. The company ultimately dropped the plan in 2011 in the wake of protests from local villagers who didn’t want to see 100km of their river, home to their fisheries and livelihood, disappear.

Minister Warns Many More Dams at Risk of Bursting – The Irrawaddy Magazine Union Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, U Aung Thu, has warned the public of possible dam breaks. Speaking to reporters in Naypyitaw on Wednesday, the minister said that currently, the spillways of 57 dams across the country are submerged, warning of the likelihood of incidents similar to the bursting of the spillway of the dam on Swar Creek in Bago Region which resulted in the flooding of dozens of villages in Taungoo District in late August.

Myanmar to trim Chinese loans to avoid debt trap – The Economic Times China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has run into a hurdle in Myanmar, with the host government reducing the scope of Beijing’s loans for the Kyaukpyu Port in Rakhine state, fearing a debt trap. China had planned to fund $7.3 billion for Kyaukpyu Deepwater Port project, but will now be allowed to invest only $1.3 b for the initiative, ET has learnt. Myanmar’s officials indicated to ET that the government wants to avoid any debt trap by accepting huge loans from China that comes with a high interest rate.

Lawmaker Demands Accounting of Dam Maintenance Funds after Bago Flood – The Irrawaddy Magazine Lawmaker U Tin Tun Naing grilled the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation about last week’s fatal dam burst in Bago Region, during Monday’s session of the Union Parliament. The lawmaker expressed doubts that the ministry had conducted the proper annual maintenance work on the dam. At least seven people were killed after the dam on Swar Creek in Bago’s Taungoo District was breached on Aug. 29.

China Complicit in Blocking Aid to Kachin Refugees: Report – The Irrawaddy Magazine  A rights group’s report has claimed Chinese involvement in the Myanmar government’s blocking of humanitarian assistance to war refugees on the Myanmar-China border where government troops and Kachin armed groups have been fighting. The report said that since the previous government organized peace-talks between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups, Chinese representatives in the meetings reportedly insisted that aid organizations not operate on the border areas in Kachin State.

How domestic politics threatens China’s dream of building Asia-Pacific free-trade bloc to offset US tensions – South China Morning Post Domestic opposition in countries ranging from India to Australia could undermine efforts to reach a deal on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. A massive trade deal for the Asia-Pacific region designed to offset the impact of US protectionist policies could still be derailed by domestic political uncertainties in some of the key countries, regional trade and diplomatic observers have warned.

100 days of Mahathir: can Malaysia’s new government survive its inevitable succession? – Southeast Asia Globe Magazine Malaysia’s promise of reform is in full bloom after the ruling coalition’s shock defeat, but despite rumblings of democracy, civil rights strides remain – for now, perhaps – elusive. Two years ago, Malaysia’s opposition leader was in jail, the nation’s independent media was being censored or shut down and colonial-era laws were being used to jail activists. The idea of a democratic transition wasn’t even a pipe dream – yet it happened due to a perfect storm of events on 9 May when the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, beat Barisan Nasional (BN), which had ruled uninterrupted for 61 years.

Duterte’s enduring popularity is not just a political choice—it is also religious – New Mandala Duterte is a moral crusader. In the eyes of his followers, the President is driven by his deep love for the country. During his presidential campaign, Duterte kissed the Philippine flag, a symbolic act that enthralled his followers, many of whom were tired of politicians’ empty promises. And from his stint as Davao City’s mayor, Duterte had the record to prove his worth.

 

REVIEWS 

China’s BRI Projects in Southeast and South Asia: A Review of “High-Speed Empire” – Council on Foreign Relations Over the past year, Chinese officials reportedly have been surprised by how quickly the Trump administration has undermined U.S. influence in East Asia, creating a leadership void that could potentially be filled—by China. But even before Trump alienated many Asian partners with a mix of harsh trade rhetoric and a general disinterest in South and Southeast Asia, Beijing had launched a strategy to establish itself as the dominant power in its neighborhood.

 Every Day is Extra review: John Kerry on Vietnam, Syria, Paris, Iran … and Trump – The Guardian The war hero, senator, secretary of state and presidential candidate has plenty to write about – and to be right about. John Forbes Kerry served nearly three decades in the Senate, four years as secretary of state, and did a tour of duty as a naval combat officer in Vietnam. He also landed within three points of beating George W Bush in 2004, the smallest winning margin for an incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson. Now comes Every Day is Extra, Kerry’s dense 640-page tome, his fifth book and first memoir.

 This week’s newsdigest was curated by Michael DiMartino-Jensen

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