Regional Roundup: Week of 12.21.2014

The analysis is beginning to roll out from the Mekong River Commission’s Regional Consultation on the Don Sahong Dam in Laos – see below.  International Rivers, vehemently opposed to any damming on the Mekong released a series of op-eds on their blog this week – worth reading.  At the 5th GMS Summit this weekend, Chinese Santa delivered 3bn in development goodies to its Mekong neighbors to the south – at the same time its chief hydropower developer is considering to take over construction of the Don Sahong dam project.  Let’s watch carefully how this money is spent.  Would be interesting to look at the ROR on China’s overseas and cross border investment.  Much more including predictions for 2015….

 

ExSE FOCUS

 Parties polarized after consultations on Laos Don Sahong Dam – VOA Robert Mather, South East Asia head for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said there are serious questions about whether this evaluation process is worthwhile.”Three main issues – the timing of the process, the lack of clarity about really the limits of what the process is actually about and the lack of any real trans-boundary EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) discussions around, then I really don’t think you can expect the process to really yield anything meaningful,” said Maher.

Unquiet grows the Don – The Economist THE Mekong river, sustaining around 60m people, mostly rural and poor, is the world’s largest and most productive inland fishery. It is hardly surprising, then, that NGOs and downstream governments are fretting about the impact of yet another planned upstream dam. On December 11th the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an intergovernmental body of the four riverside, or riparian, states (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) along the lower Mekong—held a public consultation over Laos’s plan to dam the river two kilometres north of its border with Cambodia.

Along with Vietnam, Laos’s other downstream neighbour, Cambodia is unhappy with the Don Sahong dam project. Environmental NGOs, such as the WWF and International Rivers (IR), worry about the damage it could cause to communities and fisheries—particularly the Mekong giant catfish and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. So Nam, who heads the MRC’s fisheries programme, said that there was still too little data on how the Don Sahong would affect Mekong fisheries. He also said that the engineers’ proposals to mitigate damage—diverting water away from the channel across which the Don Sahong will be built, and making two other channels wider and deeper—would fail to attract migrating fish.

The Vietnamese delegation to the MRC insists it will take five to ten years of study to know how the dam will affect fish migrating through the region. Other concerns raised include the Don Sahong’s blockage of sediment, used as fertiliser by downstream farming communities, and its effects on Si Phan Don, the tranquil archipelago in which it will be built. A lack of transboundary studies has impelled several regional NGOs to call for Laos to cancel the project.//great analysis from an old friend of the blog.  Correction: Laos currently has 23 dams on the Mekong tributary system and zero operating on the main stem.  The Xayaburi dam is about 30% complete but has not fully blocked the flow of the river..yet.

 Laos Dam Risks Damaging Mekong River, Igniting Tensions With Vietnam – The Diplomat Consultations on Don Sahong dam fail to bridge gap between Laos and neighboring states

 Opening Speech by CEO of MRC Secretariat – Regional public consultation on Don Sahong Hydropower Project – ADB

Fish migration, potential environmental impacts and transboundary effects took centre stage at MRC’s regional public consultation on Don Sahong hydropower project – ADB About 100 members of various stakeholder groups from the Lower Mekong Basin gathered in Pakse, Lao PDR for the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) regional public consultation

 Is the Mekong at a Tipping Point? – International Rivers For thousands of years the mighty Mekong River Basin has served as a life-sustaining force, supporting the livelihoods and food security of more than 40 million people in the region. The river’s rich mosaic of ecosystems supports the world’s largest inland fisheries and exceptional riverine biodiversity that is only surpassed by the Amazon River. The Mekong provides ecosystem services on a scale so vast that it’s often called the mother of all rivers.

Dams and the Politicization of Science International Rivers For almost two years, the sensational water conflict brewing in Southeast Asia was a hot topic, drawing the attention of global leaders and major newspapers. Laos was planning to build the enormous Xayaburi Dam across the Mekong River, angering downstream countries that depend on the river for food security. Prominent global politicians, including Hillary Clinton, urged Laos to act in an environmentally responsible manner. Regional leaders, especially from Vietnam and Cambodia, called for a delay in the project. I was working for International Rivers at the time, and we were constantly responding to requests from journalists who wanted to gauge how far the conflict would go.

Is the world’s biggest dam builder willing to change? International Rivers Dam-builder Sinohydro has an opportunity to prove that it values its reputation and its role as an ambassador of the Chinese state more than the short-term profits of a destructive contract, says International Rivers policy director Peter Bosshard. Since the turn of the century, Sinohydro has become the world’s dominant dam builder. The company is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with International Rivers, and prepared a strong environmental policy framework in 2011. Yet Sinohydro now considers building of the Don Sahong Dam, which would threaten a vital fish migration path on the Mekong, and other highly destructive dam projects.

 China offers $3bn in aid and loans to neighbours Reuters China has offered more than $3 billion in loans and aid to neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to improve infrastructure and production, and to fight poverty, state media reported on Saturday.

China plans to lead by example at GMS summit WantChinaTimes China will continue to play a leading role in pursuing inclusive and sustainable development of the Greater Mekong Subregion.

 China Is Handing Out Money To Its NeighborsBusiness Insider

Spotlight: GMS eyes better connectivity, China’s bigger role Xinhua

 Mekong countries plan $30bn links Bangkok Post

Thailand – China sign two MOUs ahead of 5th GMS Summit Thailand National News Bureau.

China, Thailand boost ties with deals for rail and riceReuters

 Other countries welcome to invest in three other rail routes: Prajin – The Nation Japan, South Korea and European countries still have an opportunity to invest in Thailand’s railway systems – despite the pending 867-kilometre double-track project being allocated to China, Transport Minister Prajin Juntong said yesterday.

 ADB President Calls on Greater Mekong Subregion to Build on Achievements ADB  The President of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Takehiko Nakao, completed a two-day visit to Bangkok today, where he participated in the 5th Leaders’ Summit of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) and met top officials of the host country to discuss ADB’s deepening partnership with Thailand.

 New Year’s Predictions for Southeast Asia – CFR Asia Unbound It’s that time of year again. Since I will be away between Christmas and the end of the year, this is the week for boldly making predictions about 2015 in Southeast Asia. At the end of 2015, just like this year, we can look back and see how many of my fearless predictions were right, and how many missed the mark.

 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

China’s Charm Offensive: A Temporary, Tactical Change The Diplomat China is playing nice for now, but there are cracks in its friendly smile.//Xi has done much to improve China’s soft power image in the last 12 months. He’d get receive even more global laurels if he showed up in a Santa suit for the Christmas day press conference in Beijing.

Can China’s Gwadar Port Dream Survive Local Ire? The Diplomat China wants the Gwadar port, but impoverished locals have no interest in foreign meddling.//next project, public opinion polls at all of China’s new trading/naval ports around the world. 

Thailand-Burma in border trade talks BANGKOK POST Thailand and Burma plan to have a joint trade committee meeting next month in an attempt to boost two-way trade and investment. The move is part of the countries’ strategy to drive overall border trade volume to reach 1.5 trillion baht (US$4.5 billion) next year. The first meeting will be chaired by Thai Commerce Minister Chatchai Sarikulya and his Burmese counterpart.

Burma Last in Asean to Join Regional Infrastructure Fund  The Irrawaddy  Burma has become a full member of the Asean Infrastructure Fund, the last country of the regional grouping to gain shareholder status, the fund announced on Thursday. “It [Burma] will be able to access funding from AIF for infrastructure projects, that will be how Myanmar benefits,” said Jin W. Cyhn, the principal economist of the Southeast Asia department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which administers the fund.//Then again Burma was last to join every ASEAN institution. Perhaps the better headline is “Burma finally joins…”

Maritime Southeast Asia: A Game of Go? The Diplomat How much does the ancient game of Go, or weiqi, reveal about Chinese military strategy?

and A.: Bill Hayton on Growing Rivalries in the South China Sea NYT The BBC journalist’s latest work, “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,” addresses the history, politics and energy resources of the sea that has become central to China’s foreign policy.

Navy to sink two more illegal fishing boats – Jakarta Post Despite complaints from neighboring countries, Indonesia is set to continue sinking foreign ships caught fishing illegally in its territorial waters. The Indonesian Navy was scheduled to sink two more ships on Sunday at Laha, Teluk Ambon, Maluku, Navy spokesman Commodore Manahan Simorangkir said.

 Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea – The Diplomat Indonesia’s new president could jeopardize bilateral relations and ASEAN unity with his maritime “shock therapy.”

 ASEAN Should Confront Laos On Rights Abuses: NGOs – The Diplomat Call issued on anniversary of disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone. //The whole world should confront Laos on this atrocity. Google the writings of Sombath Somphone to see how generous, creative, and inspiring he is. 

Crimson tide Southeast Asia Globe After being destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, Banda Aceh’s Lampulo fish market was rebuilt and remains a hotbed of shark fin trading. Local fishermen trawl the seas, hauling in hundreds of thousands of the creatures each year to meet the demand for shark fin soup that flows out of China and Vietnam.

 Multi-country tourist visas stalled over security worries – The Nation The idea of tourists getting one visa for six destinations in the Mekong region is tough to achieve because nations are concerned about security, Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said yesterday.//This is a reflection of general anxiety regarding the AEC 2015.  Thailand has yet to sign the Cross Border Trade Agreement which will increase flows of regional goods – reasons same, Thailand is concerned about security.

Will we see an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015? ADB Launched as a political bloc and security pact in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has evolved to embrace an ambitious economic agenda. Its latest project is to establish the ASEAN Economic Community by 31 December 2015. But is this likely?

Suu Kyi still negotiating China visit DVB Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still discussing an itinerary for her planned visit to China this month. Suu Kyi’s spokesperson Phyo Zayar Thaw, himself an MP for the National League for Democracy (NLD), said: “Arrangements are still being discussed with Chinese officials. She won’t be leaving anytime soon.”

 Burmese soldiers reportedly killed near Chinese border – GoKunming  Seven soldiers were killed in an ambush near the Myanmar-China frontier last week, according to Burmese state media reports. The target of the attack was an army outpost inKunlong, a small town in the north of Shan State, located only 30 kilometers away from the border with Yunnan’s western Lincang Prefecture.

 US Congress in the Driver’s Seat on US–Burma Military Cooperation – Irrawaddy  Burma When it comes to foreign policy, among the most powerful words in any Congressman’s vocabulary are “none of the funds appropriated by this Act…” Congress used them, or a variation thereof, twice this week (Dec. 8-13) in connection with Burma policy.

Unlocking ASEAN’s Potential – Project Syndicate For decades, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been asking whether ten countries with different cultures, political systems, and levels of economic development can act in concert to expand their collective potential. Judging by their leaders’ ambitious vision for cooperation, the answer may be yes.

Thailand Turns to China – The Diplomat With a post-coup cooling of relations with the West, Bangkok is looking to its largest trading partner.//China also turns to Thailand with the prospects of big changes in the year to come.  China always saw Thai democracy as a big obstacle to bilateral relations. 

 

SUSTAINABILITY & RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Asia’s fragile caves face growing development risks The Guardian The limestone caves of Southeast Asia and southwest China are home to scores of plants and animals, many of them rare. But a rise in tourism, mining, and other human activities is placing these biodiverse environments at risk, reports Environment360

Hainan gibbon ‘clinging on’ with 25 left in China The Guardian Scientists say a disease outbreak or typhoon could push world’s rarest ape species towards extinction. Scientists are racing to save a critically endangered ape species that lives only in the rainforests of southern China’s Hainan island. With 25 known individuals remaining, a disease outbreak or a strong typhoon could “massively impact” the species’s chances of survival, the scientists say.

Hu tieu, a Vietnamese dish spiced with prosperity and climate change – The Guardian The rice noodle soup, a specialty of the Mekong Delta, tells the tale of the changing economy and environment in the region. Is Vietnam becoming a victim of our appetites? On a visit last month to the town of My Tho, the capital of the Tien Giang province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, I found a riverside restaurant that served the local specialty, a dish called hu tieu. It’s a delicious soup, dense with stretchy rice noodles and topped with succulent locally farmed shrimp.//The quickest way to understand climate change goes through the stomach. 

China’s farmers face major challenges adapting to climate change – ChinaDialogue China’s mainly small-scale agricultural sector, where the average farm is less than a hectare, needs significant investment and capacity building to adapt to climate change. In an interview with chinadialogue, Xu Yinlong, who is a member of the Scientific Steering Committee leading UNEP’s ‘Programme of Research on Climate Change Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation‘, explains the government’s strategy.

Using local knowledge to recover fisheries in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam – Mekong Commons  Vam Nao village is located on the riverbank of Vam Nao River in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam. The river plays a very important role in local community life, both for fisheries and agriculture. In the Mekong Delta, the Mekong River branches in to nine major rivers, and the Vam Nao River balances the water flows between two of these, namely the Tien River and the Hau River.

Greed and Resistance in Sarawak’s Rainforest – International Rivers Will dams flood out Sarawak’s indigenous cultures? Sarawak, the Malaysian province on the island of Borneo, has long been one of the six world regions with the highest biodiversity. An average hectare of Sarawak rainforest contains more tree species than all of Europe. The local Penan communities have names for more than 1300 of the plants they live with. The forest is also home to orang utans and tree leopards, hundreds of bird species, and frogs that can glide up to 20 meters through the air.

 Laos foots the bill for power-hungry Bangkok – Mekong Commons Seven months ago, in May, Bangkok’s latest shopping mall, Central Embassy, celebrated its opening with aplomb, attracting several thousand Bangkok celebrities to this glitzy affair. The 144 000 square-meter luxurious and futuristic-looking mall was described by Travel & Leisure magazine as a ‘monster of a shopping complex’. During the same month, theWorldwide Wildlife Fund warned that the construction of the Don Sahang dam in southern Laos would endanger the survival of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, and called for a suspension of the project.

The Oil Price Opportunity – Project Syndicate Though lower oil prices may boost overall global growth, with the oil-importing advanced economies gaining the most, the impact on efforts to combat climate change could be devastating. But this decline in oil prices could also provide a rare political opportunity to introduce an explicit carbon price.

 Why Are Commodity Prices Falling? – Project Syndicate Most dollar commodity prices have fallen since the first half of the year. Though a host of sector-specific factors are at work, the fact that the downswing is so broad – as is often the case with large price movements – suggests that macroeconomic factors are at work.

 

CHINA

Story Map: What is the impact of China’s mega water diversion scheme? – Third Pole China’s South-North Water Transfer Project – the world’s largest engineering project –  will eventually pump 45 billion cubic metres of water each year from the Yangtze to the Yellow River to feed the cities and coal fields of northern and western China, which are running out of water. The amount of water diverted every year will be equivalent to a second Yellow River.//great work from Beth Walker

Housing: Why grumble? The Economist JUST how bad is China’s housing bubble? One important measure—the most important for those trying to get a foot on the property ladder—is affordability. Many believe that Chinese housing prices have soared well beyond the reach of ordinary people. There is some truth to that. But a closer look at the data reveals a more complex picture. The Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company, created a city-level index to track the relation between housing prices and incomes across China. Two points stand out.

China’s Housing Resists Efforts to Spur Market – NYT Property developers in China are struggling to unload unsold units as potential buyers try to decide if prices will continue to fall.

Tourists Behaving Badly: China’s Image Problem – The Diplomat There is a disconnect between China’s growing national power and the international image of the Chinese people.//I’m writing this on an AirAsia flight from Kunming to Bangkok – so far so good.  Even though Chinese tourists’ action often should stand alone along with the actions of businessmen and govt officials behaving badly we have to admit there’s a growing disconnect between how the West looks out for China and the international capabilities of China’s growing power. 

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

 Cambodia investigates suspected mass HIV infection Agence France-Presse Unlicensed doctor suspected of spreading virus through contaminated needles, leaving 106 people thought to be infected. Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has ordered an inquiry into an apparent mass HIV infection believed to have been spread by contaminated needles, as the number of suspected cases passed 100.

Thai murders: Foreign Office blocking fair trial for Burmese migrants – lawyers The Guardian Lawyers representing men accused of murdering two British tourists in Koh Tao say information about case is being withheld. Lawyers representing Burmese migrant workers accused of killing two young British tourists in Thailand have accused the Foreign Office of being complicit in ensuring the men will not receive a fair trial after officials in London refused to share any information about the prosecution case.//Coup plus murdered tourists do not bode well for tourism to Thailand which accounts for a significant portion of GDP

Thai NGOs Call for Improved Social Benefits for Migrant Workers – Irrawaddy  Burmese migrants and NGOs supporting migrants in Thailand have called on the Thai government to reform its social security system so that legally registered Burmese, Laotian and Cambodia workers in the country can gain long-term benefits from the system. Brahm Press, the director of the MAP Foundation for the Health and Knowledge of Ethnic Labor, said the group, along with half a dozen other community-based organizations, had sent an open letter to the Thai Ministry of Interior’s office at Chiang Mai City Hall and to the Thailand’s Legal Reform Committee.

The Harsh Life of Thailand’s Migrant Workers – The Diplomat Two recent cases underscore just how difficult life is for migrant workers in Thailand.

Thailand’s Twelve Turbulent Months – The Diplomat Democracy in Thailand took about 12 steps backwards in 2014.//this fall at the annual Thai Studies Conference at UWisconsin, Thongchai Winichakul proclaimed the military coup set Thailand back 2-3 generations.

Samsung could double-down on Vietnam by 2017 – Thanh Nien News Samsung has offered to raise its investment in Vietnam to US$20 billion in 2017 if their existing business here goes smoothly, according to a new government report.//Interesting that Samsung’s largest cell phone factory is in Hanoi rather than the more productive HCMC – because lower wages or need to keep close to the state?

Faced with Russian tourist drop, Vietnam resort towns cut prices – Thanh Nien News Hotels, resorts and travel agencies in Binh Thuan Province, famous for its Mui Ne beach, have agreed to cut prices to fight a dramatic decline in Russian tourists’ bookings due to the ruble’s fall.//Tourism is likely down from Hainan all the way to Phuket this holiday season.

Vietnam’s rising debt a serious concern, economists warn – Thanh Nien News After Vietnam’s public debt hit US$70 billion in late 2013, economists began to express concerns about the country’s financial future.

Power-Grid Study to Tackle Supply Problems Cambodia Daily U.S. conglomerate General Electric on Thursday inked a $1 million deal with Cambodia’s state-owned Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) to conduct a six-month study to identify weaknesses in Cambodia’s electrical grid with the aim of enhancing the reliability of the power supply.//cost of electricity in Cambodia is among the most expensive in the world – a new grid is necessary.  Investors line up.

ADB, Cambodia Sign Loans to Boost Water Supply, Tourism and Financial Sectors ADB  Cambodia’s Minister of Economy and Finance H.E. Aun Pornmoniroth and ADB today signed loan agreements totaling $67 million for three support operations to improve water supply, tourism and financial sectors.

China to Build New National Police Headquarters – Cambodia Daily The Interior Ministry on Wednesday confirmed that China will construct a new head office for the National Police in Phnom Penh at no cost in order to accommodate the expanding duties of Cambodia’s domestic security operations.// yet another eyesore to mar the skyline of Phnom Penh.

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