Regional Roundup for Week of 9.21.2015

EXSE FOCUS

Solving Southeast Asia’s drug problemEast by Southeast The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

Why Beijing isn’t using the Erawan Shrine bombing to its advantageEast by Southeast A connection between Uyghur militants from China’s northwest and the August 17th bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine has been confirmed. Thailand’s police chief made the link explicit during a news conference Tuesday. While the geopolitical consequences of the connection remain to be seen, Beijing could still stand to benefit from the Erawan bombing. However, fears over domestic implications may keep China from using the attack to their advantage.

Related: Bangkok Bombing: Uighur human trafficker revenge motiveThe Bangkok Post

China building third airstrip on disputed East Vietnam Sea islets: expertTuoi Tre News China appears to be building a third airstrip in contested territory in the East Vietnam Sea, a U.S. expert said on Monday, citing satellite photographs taken last week. The photographs taken for Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank on Sept. 8 show construction on Da Vanh Khan (Mischief Reef) – one of several artificial islands China has created in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago. The images show a rectangular area with a retaining wall, 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) long, matching similar work by China on two other reefs, Da Xu Bi (Subi Reef) and Da Chu Thap (Fiery Cross Reef), said Greg Poling, director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). Looks like China’s pledge to stop building and expanding in the SCS hasn’t resulted in anything substantial. PS: congrats to Greg Poling, one of most knowledgeable on SCS issue and new director of CSIS AMTI.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

An unelected dictatorship, Thailand’s government finds China more amenable than AmericaThe Economist PRAYUTH CHAN-OCHA, Thailand’s prime minister, sometimes resembles a ham actor ad-libbing his way through an audition for a role as an unhinged dictator. “You cannot oppose me. No one will let you do that!” he told reporters this month, before threatening to deal with critics by taping their mouths shut. His junta then briefly detained a well-known journalist for publishing articles that “could cause confusion” (on release, he promptly quit his job). Thailand’s lurch back into autocracy complicates its relations with its long-standing ally, America, which has repeatedly called for the restoration of democracy. China, however, has no such qualms. Its relations with Thailand have never been better. China likes to play the “friendly to the dictator” card in SE Asia. Something the U.S. should watch out for: if things turn sour with the U.S., countries can always turn to good ol’ China for support, so the U.S. has only so much wiggle room in its pivot.

Vietnam Cozies Up to Japan in South China Sea StrategyThe Wall Street Journal Vietnam is again building up ties with other countries to help its territorial claim in the South China Sea, this time dispatching the chief of its ruling Communist Party for talks in Japan this week. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who arrives in Tokyo on Tuesday [article date: September 14], in recent months has played a noticeably more visible role in Vietnam’s efforts to broaden the dispute in the contested waters, where China last year towed an oil-exploration rig into an area claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi.

Japan pledges patrol vessels, loans to VietnamThanh Nien News Japan pledges to provide Vietnam with 200 million yen (US$1.6 million) in non-refundable aid to buy Japanese used patrol ships for its maritime safety in the 2015 fiscal year, according to a joint statement issued Tuesday following Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to Japan. Trong arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday for a four-day official visit at the invitation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two sides issued the statement on a “joint vision” for their relations after the talks between Trong and Abe, Vietnam News Agency reported. This deal is very similar to Japan’s June deal with the Philippines, when Philippines Pres. Aquino visited Japan, compared Xi to Hitler in the Diet, and then got patrol boats and possibly surveillance aircraft. The Japan – VN – Phils anti-China axis conveniently complements U.S. interests in the SCS.

Balancing act: Vietnam may find itself hosting Barack Obama and Xi Jinping within days of each otherSouth China Morning Post Vietnam may be forced to perform a delicate balancing act should President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, visit within the same timeframe, as expected, later this year. No exact dates have been fixed for Xi’s visit – which will be the first in 10 years by a Chinese president. Hanoi’s invitation for Xi to visit was accepted last year but sources say Beijing only recently confirmed that Xi would come by the end of this year. Vietnam might find itself the prettiest girl in the ballroom as she’s courted by China and the U.S.

Premiers of Vietnam, Laos pledge priority for bilateral rapport developmentTuoiTre News Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his Laotian counterpart Thongsing Thammavong have agreed that the governments of the two countries will keep giving top priority to the promotion of their countries’ special relations. They reached the agreement during their talks in Vientiane on September 14 to discuss measures to beef up comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and Laos, according to the Vietnam News Agency.

Marine police claim ‘self defence’ in firing on Vietnamese fishermenThe Bangkok Post Thai maritime police said they opened fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat while trying to intercept another vessel in waters near Malaysia last week, a clash Vietnamese state media said killed a fisherman and wounded two others. Officials from the two countries were quoted on Wednesday giving starkly different accounts of the incident and Vietnamese Communist Party media said it could eventually be addressed at the diplomatic level.

Party line on border? UnityThe Phnom Penh Post Opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday told his lawmakers to consult with the party and get their facts together before speaking out on the sensitive Vietnam border issue, according to a spokesman. Addressing his troops after almost a month abroad, the Cambodia National Rescue Party president stressed that work would continue on determining whether Cambodia had lost land to Vietnam but called for a more unified and considered approach, said CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith.

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Kunming-based think tank fighting Myanmar forest lossGoKunming via ExSE A new project promoting agroforestry as a sustainable alternative to current farming practices in the uplands of Myanmar is underway. Led by the World Agroforestry Centre‘s East and Central Asia regional program, and approved by the country’s Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MECF), the undertaking aims to reforest mountainous landscapes prone to degradation.

CHINA

Xi Jinping, Chinese Leader, Has Weighty Agenda and Busy Schedule for U.S. VisitNY Times President and Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping will arrive next week for his first state visit, with meetings with tech leaders in Seattle, with President Obama in Washington, and an address to the United Nations in New York. For China, a priority will be bolstering Mr. Xi’s stature at home, and the events planned should play well on Chinese television. These include meetings in Seattle with American business executives, a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn and a state dinner, followed by Mr. Xi’s first speech before the United Nations in New York.

Obama Hints at Sanctions Against China Over CyberattacksNY Times Remarks by President Obama seemed to represent a ratcheting up of what has until now been a quiet effort to warn the Chinese that the United States will not tolerate recent breaches. President Obama warned on Wednesday that his administration was ready to take action against China over online attacks carried out by Beijing or its proxies, publicly raising the specter of sanctions a week before President Xi Jinping arrives in the United States for a state visit.

Despite Crackdown, Chinese Lawyers Vow to Press for Human RightsNY Times “Braving the wind and rain, we will travel together,” read a statement signed by 276 lawyers across China. The lawyers said they would continue to work for legal rights in China, using a phrase from Shi Jing, or Book of Odes, a collection of poetry from around 3,000 years ago, to express their feelings about the current situation: “The wind and rain are dark, the cocks crow incessantly.” The crackdown on lawyers prompted Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, to say in Geneva on Monday that he was “concerned about the detention and interrogation in recent months of more than 100 lawyers in China, in connection with their professional activities, and by the adoption of new laws with far-reaching implications for N.G.O.s.”

China’s energy giant Sinopec to sell off hotels and ditch cars in graft crackdownReuters Chinese state-owned energy giant Sinopec Group will sell off most of its hotels by the end of 2017 and get rid of more than 4,000 company cars as part of efforts to root out corruption and waste, it said on Monday. Since President Xi Jinping’s appointment in 2013, the government has cracked down on official corruption and extravagance in China, where the flaunting of personal and often illicit wealth and wasteful public spending have led to widespread criticism of the party. Part of general shift away from SOEs, hopefully this move will improve efficiency in Sinopec. But are SOEs really what’s wrong with China’s economy? 

Home Prices Rise in China for Fourth Consecutive MonthReuters Average new home prices inched up 0.3 percent in August from the previous month, the fourth consecutive month they had gains, offering hope that the ailing property sector is becoming less of a drag on the slowing economy. Let’s hope this has to do with increasing demand for houses and not some sort of meddling… 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

FBI Probes Malaysia Development FundWSJ The FBI has opened an investigation into allegations of money-laundering related to a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, a person familiar with the matter said. The scope of the investigation wasn’t known. It is the latest in a series of international investigations related to the fund that have been revealed in the past several weeks. The international investigations center on entities related to 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which was set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009 to help drive the economy. The fund is having difficulty repaying more than $11 billion of debt and is at the center of investigations that are destabilizing the government. Wow! Bad news for Najib. Though a Malaysian government probe found that WSJ’s July allegation that $700m from 1MBD ended up in Najib’s bank account wasn’t true, this problem isn’t going away. Malaysia’s Attorney General got fired after trying to investigate Najib; expect more heads to roll in the coming months as the investigation goes up the power hierarchy… Najib can’t fire the FBI.

It’s Not 1997: Southeast Asian Currencies Slump Isn’t a CrisisBloomberg Southeast Asian currencies are tumbling, and that may be a good thing. Indonesia’s rupiah and Malaysia’s ringgit have fallen to levels hit during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, leading a decline in the region’s currencies. The drop won’t spark the same economic meltdown this time around, according to analysts who watched the disaster unfold almost two decades ago. In fact, it could be a healthy realignment that helps boost exports.

Grace Poe: I offer myself as your president – Rappler Senator Grace Poe, in the past months the front runner in presidential preference surveys, announced on Wednesday night, September 16, her bid for the highest post in the 2016 elections. Before thousands of supporters and her family and friends at the University of the Philippines Bahay ng Alumni, she said: “Kayong lahat ang pinaghuhugutan ko ng inspirasyon. Kayo ang nagbibigay sa akin ng lakas na i-alay ang aking sarili sa mas mataas na paninilbihan sa bansa.” (I draw inspiration from each and every one of you. You give me the strength to pursue a higher calling for our country.) Poe is riding on popular support from her father, who many Filipinos believe had the presidency stolen from him by former President Arroyo in 2004. But current and extremely popular president Aquino wants current Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, whose popularity is low, to win. Will the Filipino tradition of personality politics carry through the 2016 elections?

Malaysian police fire water cannons at Malay protestersAP via Yahoo News Police fired water cannons at ethnic Malays who turned unruly Wednesday at a pro-government rally that many fear has the potential to provoke racial trouble in this multiethnic nation with large Chinese and Indian minorities. The rally — a collection of several marches that converged on a central field near Parliament — was ostensibly called to emphasize the dominance of Malays in Malaysia, as well as to support the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is under pressure to resign over a $700 million financial scandal. But the rally is also being seen as a challenge to the country’s Chinese- and Indian-origin residents, who participated in large numbers in an anti-Najib rally on Aug. 29 and 30.

TPP Trade Talks Appeal, Says SomkidThe Bangkok Post Thailand is interested in joining the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact being touted by the United States, but needs to study the terms and conditions of the new trade bloc first, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak says. “We are very interested but we must weight ht eadvantages and disadvantages carefully,” Mr Somkid told the Bangkok Post. The 12-member trade bloc’s economic activities represent around 40% of the global economy. Expressing interest put Thailand “on their radar screen,” he said. Let’s see if they get the TPP signed and implemented before other countries start joining …

More than 100 scrubbed from final candidate listThe Myanmar Times November’s election, promised to be the most free and fair in over half a century, prompted a deluge of applicants; 6189 potential candidates representing 92 political parties as well as independent pollsters submitted their credentials to the UEC. After an application and scrutiny period complicated by devastating floods, the UEC’s delayed list enumerated 6065 candidates, with the ruling party one of just a few to have escaped the district commission’s inspection unscathed.
Related: Principle over Detail in NLD Election ManifestoThe Irrawaddy
Related: Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape Vibrant, but Fraught with Uncertainties – cogitASIA

National scene: Indonesia, UAE sign deal on weapon production –The Jakarta Post Indonesia has agreed to grant licensing of SS2 assault rifles to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to enable the latter to produce and market the weapons. Under an agreement between Indonesian state-owned arms maker PT Pindad and the UAE’s Continental Aviation Services, the UAE becomes the official distributor of the Indonesian weapons in the Middle East.

Speaker vows to pass BBL before end of the monthThe Philippine Star Leaders of the House of Representatives said yesterday they would exert all efforts to pass the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which seeks to create a new autonomous region in Mindanao, before the end of the month. Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chairman of the ad hoc committee that drafted the proposed law, issued the statement during the opening of the exhibit of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process in the House of Representatives. The BBL would do much to develop Mindanao, which as of now lags behind the rest of the Philippines. Anti-Muslim sentiment, incited after a January massacre of over 40 police officers, continues to hamper the BBL’s chances of passing.

This week’s news digest was compiled by John Juenemann, who also added analysis. 

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