CSIS: Southeast Asia from Scott Circle – Oct 29, 2015

Seizing the Moment: Preparing for Obama’s Trip to Manila

By Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS), Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), and Conor Cronin, Research Associate, CSIS

October 29, 2015

For the first time in anyone’s memory, foreign policy and national security are poised to figure as major issues in the Philippine presidential election, scheduled for May 2016. Recent polls show Filipinos are worried about China and its aggressive stance in the South China Sea. They also fear that economic dependence on China could be leveraged to force concessions on the Philippines’ sovereignty. These are not unreasonable views, given that Chinese vessels now occupy Scarborough Shoal, just 140 miles from the Philippines’ northern Luzon Island, and that China’s nine-dash line nearly intersects with the Philippines’ Palawan Province. Filipinos are demanding that their leadership establish a credible defense posture for the country.

Other polls suggest a very close race among three leading candidates to succeed President Benigno Aquino, who is limited to only one term under the Philippine constitution. The leading candidates are Senator Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and former secretary of the interior Manuel “Mar” Roxas. The winning candidate will need to convince voters that she or he is committed to defending Philippine sovereignty.

That context is important for both Aquino and U.S. president Barack Obama, who are slated to meet in mid-November on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Manila.

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Biweekly Update

  • Jokowi visits U.S., commits to work toward U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership
  • Myanmar signs cease-fire agreement with eight ethnic rebel groups
  • U.S. Navy sails through waters claimed by China in the South China Sea

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Looking Ahead

  • A Look into Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia
  • Japan and U.S. Perspectives on Southeast Asia Development
  • Banyan Tree Leadership Forum with Ben Rhodes

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Seizing the Moment: Preparing for Obama’s Trip to Manila

By Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS), Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), and Conor Cronin, Research Associate, CSIS

October 29, 2015

For the first time in anyone’s memory, foreign policy and national security are poised to figure as major issues in the Philippine presidential election, scheduled for May 2016. Recent polls show Filipinos are worried about China and its aggressive stance in the South China Sea. They also fear that economic dependence on China could be leveraged to force concessions on the Philippines’ sovereignty. These are not unreasonable views, given that Chinese vessels now occupy Scarborough Shoal, just 140 miles from the Philippines’ northern Luzon Island, and that China’s nine-dash line nearly intersects with the Philippines’ Palawan Province. Filipinos are demanding that their leadership establish a credible defense posture for the country.

Other polls suggest a very close race among three leading candidates to succeed President Benigno Aquino, who is limited to only one term under the Philippine constitution. The leading candidates are Senator Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and former secretary of the interior Manuel “Mar” Roxas. The winning candidate will need to convince voters that she or he is committed to defending Philippine sovereignty.

That context is important for both Aquino and U.S. president Barack Obama, who are slated to meet in mid-November on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Manila.

For Aquino, the remaining months of his administration offer a legacy opportunity to institutionalize defense and national security mechanisms to protect the sovereignty of the Philippines. In doing so, he is politically aligned with the majority of Filipinos, who have welcomed his outspoken stand against Chinese diplomatic pressure and aggression in the South China Sea toward the Philippines. His administration’s decisions to seek clarity on China’s claims in the South China Sea at the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and to hammer out the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States are pillars of this effort.

The EDCA, which Manila and Washington signed in April 2014 and whose constitutionality is currently being questioned by the Philippine Supreme Court, would allow the stationing of U.S. troops, planes, and ships on Philippine bases on a rotating basis and involve significant U.S. capacity-building efforts for the Philippine armed forces.

Presidential visits have historically been action-forcing events. For Obama, this will be his last trip to the Philippines as president, and likely the last by a U.S. president for several years. The United States will hold presidential elections in November 2016, and a new president will take office in early 2017.

Therefore, Obama’s visit to Manila could be a recommitment of his rebalance to the Asia Pacific, underlining tangible support for the U.S.-Philippine alliance through serious investment in helping to modernize the defense capabilities of the Philippine armed forces through the EDCA.

With the visit less than a month away, the opportunity for the United States and the Philippines to roll out the EDCA and activate the U.S. funding vehicle—the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which will allocate $425 million for the U.S. military to support the Philippines and other regional partners in maritime domain awareness and related military capabilities—may have passed. However, the two leaders still have the chance to institutionalize bilateral defense cooperation if the Aquino administration can see the EDCA moved out of the Philippine Supreme Court before the visit.

Many Filipinos wonder whether the United States would support them, under the framework of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, if another country attacked the Philippines. The answer to that question was clearly given in the significant efforts by both governments to negotiate the EDCA. That agreement also provides for careful respect of Philippine sovereignty and laws, as the U.S. military has no interest in re-establishing bases in the Philippines. Washington has signaled that it is committed to helping Manila develop a credible defense strategy and coordinating with other partners with vested interests in the maritime security and regional stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

If the Philippine Supreme Court can decide on the EDCA before mid-November, history can be made in Manila. Some argue that the court is attentive to political trends in the Philippines. If that is true, a reading of popular sentiment in the polls would give it every encouragement to move forward. The Supreme Court judges may also be awaiting a lower court’s verdict on the controversial case of Joseph Scott Pemberton, a U.S. Marine who was charged with the murder of Philippine transgender woman Jennifer Laude in October 2014. If the case is resolved soon, as expected, and in a way that most Filipinos see that justice is served, it will help pave the way for the Supreme Court to act.

The next step for Obama and Aquino in November should be alignment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Aquino this month publicly called for the Philippines to join the next round of the TPP. That decision fits well within a national security strategy that recognizes that in Asia, economics is the foundation for real and enduring security.

During the APEC Leader’s Summit, Obama will convene with the other 11 heads of state from the original TPP member countries. That moment is the right time for Aquino to announce that the Philippines is committed to joining the TPP and to explain that doing so will drive economic development by having the world’s supply chains route through the Philippines, bringing the jobs, technology, and infrastructure that the country needs to continue its impressive economic growth into the next decade. In so doing, Aquino could give real momentum to efforts already under way in the Philippine Congress to amend economic provisions in the constitution that restrict foreign investments and participation in the Philippine economy. He would also signal to the other TPP countries that the Philippines is ready to join the pact.

Whether Aquino and Obama can make history and institutionalize these new levels of cooperation will depend on political leadership and strategic focus on both sides.

Some candidates running for president in the Philippines have called for closer relations with China, and underlined the need to “avoid confrontation” with China over the South China Sea disputes. Meanwhile, in the United States, some presidential candidates are running on platforms of protectionism, and recommending the country disengage internationally and build walls to limit new immigration.

Ultimately, these ideas will not win the day in Manila or Washington. But it is incumbent on Aquino and Obama to elevate the U.S.-Philippine alliance by activating the EDCA and bringing the Philippines to the top of the list of the next group of countries to join the TPP when they meet in November.

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Biweekly Update

Indonesia

Jokowi visits U.S., commits to strengthening U.S.-Indonesia relations. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on October 26 met with U.S. president Barack Obama at the White House to discuss ways to strengthen the bilateral U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership. The two presidents announced a new annual, ministerial-level dialogue between the U.S. secretary of state and the Indonesian foreign minister, and pledged to work toward a strategic partnership between the two countries. The two leaders also inked memorandums of understanding on maritime cooperation and energy cooperation, and a joint statement on comprehensive defense cooperation. Jokowi also met with U.S. congressional leaders and representatives of U.S. companies during his visit to the United States from October 25 to 27.

Aceh authorities ordered shutdown of more churches after church burning. A mob of hundreds of people, calling itself the Aceh Singkil Islamic Youth Movement, on October 13 torched a church in Singkil district in Aceh Province, killing one person and injuring several others on grounds that the church was built without proper permits. The incident followed earlier demands by some Muslims that authorities dismantle 10 churches for lacking proper permits. The government responded by deploying more than 1,300 police and military personnel to reinstate order. Provincial authorities on October 18 ordered more churches to shut down.

Government announces five more foreign firms allegedly involved in forest fires. Police on October 20 added five more foreign firms—four from Malaysia and the fifth one from Singapore—to a list of companies suspected of being involved in forest fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The government previously named a Chinese-owned company and an Australian-owned company suspects in land and forest fires. The transboundary smog caused by Indonesian forest fires has reached as far as southern Thailand and is expected to persist for at least another month.

Government unveils fifth round of stimulus measures. President Joko Widodo on October 22 announced a fifth round of economic stimulus measures aimed at attracting foreign investment and boosting economic growth. The new measures eliminate a redundant tax on investments in real estate and aim to create incentives for Islamic banking. Also included in the package is an asset reevaluation plan for state-owned enterprises. Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro is expected to announce details of the new tax policies at a later stage.

Government threatens to delay third tranche of village funds over accountability concerns. The Finance Ministry has warned local authorities that the central government could postpone the third tranche of village development funds if it does not receive spending reports from regional officials before October 30, according to an October 21 Jakarta Globe report. The ministry said that Jakarta has disbursed $1.2 billion to local governments this year for development projects but only 20 percent of the funds have been spent. Watchdog agency Indonesia Corruption Watch warned that regional officials may use the funds to buy votes ahead of regional elections in December.

Literary festival forced to cancel events on the 1965 mass killings. Organizers of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Indonesia’s biggest annual literary festival, said on October 23 they were forced by authorities to cancel several events that featured discussions on the 1965 mass killings of those suspected to be communists during former president Suharto’s rule. Local police reportedly threatened to revoke the festival’s license if the events were not canceled. At least 500,000 people were massacred during the anti-communist purge across Indonesia at the height of the Cold War.

Myanmar

Government signs cease-fire with 8 ethnic armed groups. The government on October 15 held a cease-fire signing ceremony with 8 armed ethnic groups in Naypyidaw, after two years of negotiations with a total of 16 armed ethnic groups. The only two major groups that signed the cease-fire were the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State. Two joint committees were formed following the signing to oversee the implementation of the cease-fire, and political dialogue between the government and the eight signatories on issues of power sharing is expected to start within 60 days of the signing.

Union Election Commission announces cancellation of voting in 600 villages. The Union Election Commission (UEC) on October 13 announced that voting in 600 villages in the states of Kachin, Shan, and Kayin and in Bago Region will be cancelled because of ongoing armed conflicts or security risks. The cancellation was criticized, as ethnic political parties claim strong representation in areas of Kachin, Kayin, and Shan states where voting was cancelled. The UEC on October 27 postponed elections in two more townships in Shan State after the military began attacks on the Shan State Progressive Party on October 6. At least a million eligible voters will be excluded in the upcoming elections on November 8.

Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in Rakhine State amid rising communal tensions. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on October 16 began her campaign stop in Rakhine State amid rising communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. High supporter turnout showed that Suu Kyi was still popular among both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, despite having been portrayed by ultra-nationalists as pro-Muslim. She has kept silent, however, on the plight of the Rohingya and the government’s rejection of all Muslim candidates in the upcoming election.

Special Branch police arrested three for Facebook posts “defaming” the military. Myanmar’s Special Branch police arrested three activists between October 13 and 14 for their Facebook posts, which allegedly “defamed” the military. Two of the activists appeared in court on October 27 and face at least three years of imprisonment if convicted of defamation charges. Meanwhile, authorities did not take action when members of the opposition National League for Democracy reported insulting posts or hate speech against them. Several U.S. congressional leaders on October 20 called the arrests “troubling” with elections a few weeks away.

Central bank revoked thousands of foreign exchange licenses. The central bank on October 18 revoked thousands of foreign exchange licenses on grounds of curbing the growing use of the U.S. dollar to better control the kyat’s volatility, which has weakened by 25 percent this year. Businesses will only be able to accept transactions in kyat in debit or credit cards, increasing the transaction costs. The sudden announcement of the policy is expected to have a sizable impact on the tourism industry, which is at its peak season.

Global Witness report says illicit jade trade is worth $31 billion, fuels ethnic conflicts. A Global Witness report released on October 23 said that Myanmar’s illicit jade trade is worth $31 billion, or 48 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The report said that proceeds from the jade trade have helped fuel armed conflict between government troops and ethnic rebels in Kachin State. It also condemned violent land grabbing from local villagers and the environmental pollution that has resulted from the extractive business in northern Myanmar.

Malaysia

Najib no-confidence vote postponed until next session of parliament. Parliament speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia on October 20 announced that an earlier motion filed by an opposition lawmaker on holding a vote of no confidence on Prime Minister Najib Razak will be delayed until the next session of parliament. Deliberations on the government’s budget for 2016 are expected to take up most of the current session, which will adjourn on December 3. Opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, on October 22 resubmitted the motion, but it has little chance to succeed given the opposition coalition is 25 seats short of a majority in parliament.

Prime minister announces government budget amid political and economic pressures. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also finance minister, on October 23 presented a preliminary government budget for 2016 to parliament for consideration. The proposed $62 billion budget includes increased cash handouts for low-income families, additional funds for affordable housing projects, higher government spending, and salary increases for civil servants. Najib also proposed funds for social incentives and infrastructure projects in the states of Sabah and Sarawak in eastern Malaysia, which are strongholds for the ruling United Malay National Organization.

1MDB receives bids to buy assets. Officials from the embattled state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) on October 16 said they have received three bids for a group of power plants the fund is looking to sell. 1MDB officials said that the bids were from domestic and international investors and were reportedly binding and fully funded. One of the bidders was state-run power company Tenaga Nasional Bhd., which has made its offer public. 1MDB is looking to sell some of its assets to reduce its $11 billion debt.

Police arrest 132 on terrorism-related charges. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on October 20 said that Malaysian police, in coordination with international intelligence agencies, had arrested 132 individuals suspected of being involved in terror-related activities. The detainees included militants suspected of having links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well several Malaysian soldiers. The U.S. Justice Department announced on October 15 that Kosovan hacker Ardit Ferizi had been arrested in Malaysia on charges of providing stolen personal information about U.S. federal employees to ISIS.

Thailand, Malaysia enhance border cooperation. Ministers from Thailand and Malaysia on October 21 held meetings to discuss bilateral cooperation on border security and economic cooperation between the two countries. The two sides discussed ways to share expertise in rubber production and jointly tackle human trafficking. Thailand and Malaysia are the destination and transition countries for many human trafficking networks in the region. Malaysian authorities earlier this year discovered mass graves of Rohingya human trafficking victims on the Thai-Malaysian border.

Philippines

Typhoon Koppu kills 58, displaces more than 500,000. Fierce Typhoon Koppu that battered the northern island of Luzon from October 18 to 20 killed at least 58 people. The slow movement of the storm across the island caused sustained heavy rain, landslides, and flooding, which displaced more than 500,000 people. Officials with the National Food Authority have scheduled an emergency meeting to decide whether to import grain after floods destroyed 412,000 tons of paddy rice.

Candidacy filing period for 2016 elections closes, 130 candidates declare for president. The filing period to run in the Philippines’ 2016 elections ended on October 16, with a record 130 candidates declared for the presidential race. Along with the more serious aspirants are many so-called nuisance candidates, 96 percent of whom the Commission on Elections will likely reject for having no reasonable expectation of victory. Experts believe the final list will comprise Vice President Jejomar Binay, former secretary of the interior Mar Roxas, Senator Grace Poe, and latecomer Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

Mindanao mayor and son abducted, slain by communist rebels. The mayor of a town in the southern island of Mindanao was abducted and killed on October 19 by an armed group of New People’s Army (NPA) soldiers posing as National Bureau of Investigation agents. Dario Otaza, mayor of Loreto town, was found in a remote village tied up and dead from multiple gunshot wounds, along with his 27-year-old son, Daryl. The mayor was a reformed rebel who worked with Philippine military forces against the NPA, which admitted to the killings.

Grace Poe faces three new disqualification challenges. Senator Grace Poe registered on October 15 to run for president in the 2016 election, triggering three new petitions to disqualify her candidacy before the Commission on Elections. A political science professor, a former prosecutor, and a former senator each filed petitions that attacked Poe’s claims to Philippine citizenship and questioned her 10-year residency qualification to be president. A retired senator claims that representatives from Poe’s presidential rivals also approached him to file a petition.

Bureau of Immigration will deport U.S. Marine accused of murder, but only after trial. The Bureau of Immigration on October 20 ordered the deportation of Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, a U.S. Marine accused of murdering Philippine transgender woman Jennifer Laude. Following a public backlash over worries that deportation would allow Pemberton to escape justice, the bureau clarified that he would not be deported before serving his sentence, which could be as long as 40 years in prison.

Chinese consul general injured, two diplomats killed in restaurant shooting. The husband of a Chinese consulate official, Li Qing Liang, shot the Chinese consul general of Cebu, wounding him and killing two embassy officials at a birthday party on October 21. Witnesses reported an argument in the private dining room before Li opened fire. Li and his wife, who works in the visa section, claimed diplomatic immunity after they were taken in for questioning. Chinese authorities quickly transferred the couple back to China to face trial.

Vietnam

Government to divest stakes from 10 major state-owned enterprises under TPP. The Prime Minister’s Office on October 15 issued a decree ordering the government to sell all its stakes in 10 large state-owned enterprises, including dairy company Vinamilk, software giant FPT Corp., and insurance company Bao Minh Insurance Corp. Deputy Prime Minister Vu Van Ninh said on October 20 that he expects this privatization round to raise over $3 billion, which the government hopes to spend on building more hospitals. Vietnam has advanced a timetable for divestment of government assets in state-owned companies to adhere to provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was concluded on October 5.

Oregon State governor visits Vietnam to boost economic ties, security cooperation. Oregon State governor Kate Brown on October 20 met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in Hanoi to promote closer cooperation between Vietnam and Oregon on trade and investment, security, and education. The two sides signed a letter of intent on cooperation during Brown’s visit. Companies from or with operations in Oregon such as Nike and Intel have a large presence in Vietnam, while the Oregon National Guard began a partnership with the Vietnamese military, focusing on search-and-rescue training, in 2012 under the State Partnership Program.

Vietnam, China conduct 5th joint border patrol. Vietnamese and Chinese border guards this month conducted a joint border patrol along the northern Vietnamese province of Lao Cai and southern China’s Yunnan province, according to an October 20 report by the People’s Army Newspaper, the media organ of the Vietnamese military. The activity aimed to forge trust between the two militaries and focused on fighting criminal activities and illicit flows across the border. The two countries, which fought border skirmishes in the past, made plans to hold another joint patrol before the end of the year.

Government launches two official Facebook pages to reach public. The Vietnamese government on October 20 launched two Facebook pages, “Government Information” and “The National Competitiveness Forum,” in an effort to embrace social media and give the public greater access to official information. The country had an unofficial Facebook ban for years, despite widespread knowledge among the public of ways to evade censorship. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said earlier this year that the government will not be able to ban social networks and urged it to provide more accurate information to create public confidence, according to an October 21 Thanh Nien News report.

Thailand

New Constitutional Drafting Committee to finish draft constitution by January. The new Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) on October 19 said it plans to finish a new draft constitution by January. CDC spokesperson Amon Wanichwiwatana said that charter drafters will focus on developing constitutional provisions that would prevent politicians from introducing populist policies. A military-appointed reform body last month rejected the previous draft constitution, which observers said gave too much power to appointed officials and the military, on grounds that it did not have enough democratic measures.

Thailand expects 30 million visitors despite Erawan bombing incident. Thailand’s Tourism Council said on October 20 it expects a record high of 30 million visitors, with more than 8 million coming from China, to visit Thailand in 2015 despite the deadly Erawan shrine bombing incident in September. The bombing incident resulted in a temporary drop in tourist arrivals, but Thailand’s tourism sector has rebounded quickly and is currently the only growing sector in Thailand’s economy.

Three jailed under lèse-majesté law for referencing links to the monarchy. A Thai military court on October 21 handed down jail sentences to three people, including an aide to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, as part of a major probe into a group of people who allegedly made false claims about their relationships to members of the royal family. Authorities on October 16 launched a 19-member police committee tasked with investigating lèse-majesté offenses, but police refused to disclose how many people were arrested or are being investigated under the charge. Arrests of lèse-majesté offenders have surged since the May 2014 coup.

Bombs detonated in Pattani Province in southern Thailand. Two separate roadside bombs detonated in Pattani Province in southern Thailand on October 20, killing two rangers and badly injuring five others. No one has claimed responsibility, but Thai police suspect the blasts were linked to Muslim insurgent movements in southern Thailand or to drug-trafficking activities. More than 6,400 lives have been lost over the past 11 years of protracted conflict in Thailand’s three southern provinces.

South China Sea

U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation exercise around island reclaimed by China. The USS Lassen on October 27 passed within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands constructed by China in the South China Sea, challenging Chinese claims to sovereignty over disputed features in the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation operation took place near Subi Reef, a feature that does not enjoy the right to territorial waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Chinese officials protested angrily, calling the patrol illegal and provocative.

Indonesian military commander rebuffs Chinese suggestion for joint maritime patrols with ASEAN. The commander of the Indonesian Defense Forces, General Gatot Nurmantyo, declared on October 19 that Indonesia remains committed to a stable South China Sea and would not take part in Chinese-led joint maritime patrols. China had invited ASEAN countries to hold joint maritime patrols at an informal summit between the Chinese defense minister and ASEAN defense ministers three days earlier. Indonesian defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, reportedly agreed with the Chinese hosts that joint patrols would defuse regional tensions. However, officials in Jakarta quickly reaffirmed that Indonesia’s policy is to take no action that might threaten stability.

Malaysia and Philippines slam Chinese provocations in the South China Sea. Malaysia’s armed forces chief issued a surprisingly strong rebuke against Chinese activities in the South China Sea while attending the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing on October 18. Zulkefli Mohd Zin called Chinese island reclamations and garrison buildups an unwarranted provocation. The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs also blasted Chinese constructions on October 19, calling the erection of two lighthouses a covert attempt to enforce Chinese claims to the sea. Chinese officials claim that the lighthouses are intended for safety purposes.

Chinese ship raids and sinks Vietnamese fishing boat. Vietnamese officials reported on October 15 that a Chinese vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China and claimed by both China and Vietnam. According to the Vietnamese fishermen, who were attacked on September 29, armed sailors from the unidentified Chinese vessel boarded their fishing boat, stealing navigational and other equipment before returning to their own ship. The Vietnamese ship sank several hours after the ramming. Vietnamese authorities said this is the 20th Chinese attack on Vietnamese fishing boats this year.

Singapore

Singapore launches latest research and development hub. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on October 19 inaugurated Singapore’s newest research and development center, Fusionopolis Two. The $450 million research hub aims to promote collaboration among science and engineering research institutes in both the public and private sectors. Singapore is one of the world’s fastest-growing services and technology centers, and hosts research and development hubs for many multinational companies.

Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail project attracts 150 companies. Singapore’s Land Transportation Authority on October 19 said that as many as 150 companies have signaled interest in a $9.4 billion high-speed rail project linking Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The Land Transportation Authority is soliciting companies’ feedback on the railway until November 18. Malaysia and Singapore had halted plans on the project in 2008 due to high costs.

Singapore signs international convention against race discrimination. The Singapore government on October 19 signed the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as part of its efforts to boost racial and religious harmony in the city-state. The signing took place in New York. Parliament is expected to ratify the convention in 2017.

Cambodia

Hun Sen threatens “new war” if opposition controls Cambodia. In a graduation speech on October 19, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that an electoral victory by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2018 would spark a “new war.” Hun Sen, whose ruling Cambodian People’s Party faces a challenge from the CNRP led by Sam Rainsy, pointed to anti-corruption remarks made by Rainsy as proof that CNRP policies would inspire hatred toward the rich and compared the opposition leader to former Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot.

Government vows decisions on all outstanding land titles by 2020. The minister of land management, urban planning, and construction, Im Chhun Lim, pledged on October 19 that his ministry would disburse all qualified land titles by 2020. Land security in Cambodia has been a problem since records were destroyed and millions relocated under agrarian reform policies of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Quarrels between families without titles and corporations granted concessions by the government have emphasized the issue as the government tries to address poverty and deforestation nationwide.

Hun Sen visits China to boost bilateral cooperation. Prime Minister Hun Sen attended several meetings in China from October 12 to 17, including one with President Xi Jinping, to boost relations between Cambodia and China. The prime minister attended conferences on development, tourism, China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, and security. The meeting with Xi delivered several economic agreements for Cambodia, including a grant to build a sports entertainment complex in Phnom Penh for over $150 million.

Cambodia, Vietnam hold first defense policy dialogue. The Cambodian Ministry of National Defense hosted a Vietnamese defense delegation from October 18 to 20 in the first bilateral defense policy dialogue between Vietnam and Cambodia. Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh led the Vietnamese representatives to the bilateral cooperation meeting, which covered information sharing, joint training, border security, and other issues. The Vietnamese delegation also paid a visit to Prime Minister Hun Sen and spoke at the National Defense University in Phnom Penh.

Laos

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes visits Laos, Myanmar. Senior officials from Laos and the United States met in Vientiane on October 16 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of U.S.-Laos diplomatic ties. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who led the U.S. delegation, said the United States is interested in stepping up cooperation with Laos in fields such as education and addressing unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War. Rhodes also announced that President Barack Obama plans to visit Laos in 2016, when it will chair ASEAN and host the East Asia Summit. Following his trip to Laos, Rhodes visited Myanmar from October 18 to 20 ahead of the upcoming general elections in Myanmar on November 8.

Japan to fund $61 million expansion of Wattay International Airport. The Lao government and the Hazama Ando Corporation on October 12 signed a Japanese government-funded $61 million contract to expand the domestic and international terminals of Wattay International Airport in Vientiane. According to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the number of passengers passing through the airport annually increased from 500,000 in 2011 to 1.1 million in 2014. By 2028, Laos is expected to receive 2.8 million passengers per year. Developers expect to complete the project by June 2018.

China announces pilot economic zone in border area. China announced on October 19 a $31.4 billion investment in the Mengla zone of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture bordering northern Laos. The plan, which will cover investments in 240 energy, education, and transport projects, is expected to greatly strengthen economic cooperation between China and Laos. Yunnan planning official Ruan Jianzhong called the zone a growth engine for the border and described plans to create a transport hub linking China with Southeast Asia through Laos.

Laos

Laos to export electricity to Singapore. Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said that Laos will sign a deal this month to export electricity to Singapore, according to an October 4 Lao News Agency report. The agreement will see Laos export 100 megawatts of electricity to Singapore through transmission networks in Thailand and Malaysia. The sale of electricity has become one of Laos’s main sources of revenue in recent years, accounting for over $880 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

EU, WWF to help Laos tackle illegal logging. The Lao government and the World Wide Fund for Nature on September 25 signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a partnership that will help Laos promote legal timber trade. The four-year scheme, which is funded by the European Union and costs about $643,000 , aims to ensure that Laos’s domestic and transboundary timber flows comply with the EU’s timber regulations. The forestry sector contributed $164 million to Laos’s economy, or 2.1 percent of gross domestic product, in 2011.

South Korea to fund Laos-Vietnam railway feasibility study. South Korea on October 6 agreed to fund a feasibility study of a proposed 300-mile railway from the Lao capital of Vientiane to Vietnam’s central Ha Tinh Province. The three-year study aims to finalize a master plan for the rail line and provide capacity building for the railway sectors in Laos and Vietnam. The project is expected to help boost bilateral trade between Laos and Vietnam and significantly improve the quality of travel between the two countries.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Aquino says Philippines should join next round of the TPP. Philippine president Benigno Aquino told a business forum in Manila on October 14 that the Philippines wanted to join the next round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Aquino said that the Philippines, currently Southeast Asia’s second-fastest-growing economy, had been invited to join the TPP and has held consultations with six TPP countries, adding that it made “very good sense” for the Philippines to join because many of the TPP’s members are already its strong allies.

Mekong River

China, Lower Mekong countries to launch discussion forum. The vice chairman of the China Public Diplomacy Association, Zhang Jiuhuan, announced that the six Mekong countries—China, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—will launch a Mekong discussion forum on November 12 in Yunnan Province, according to an October 19 The Nation report. The forum aims to provide an opportunity for the Mekong basin states to discuss political, security, and people-to-people issues, and to help reduce the development gap among the Lower Mekong countries.

ASEAN

ASEAN, UN introduce five-year action plan for Sustainable Development Goals. ASEAN and the United Nations introduced a new five-year action plan to enact key elements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, such as ending poverty and hunger, achieving food security, and empowering women and girls, according to an October 19 New Straits Times report. Malaysia’s deputy foreign minister, Reezal Merican Naina Merican, told an audience at Kuala Lumpur’s Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations that the plan would contribute to ASEAN’s establishment of a people-oriented and people-centered community.

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Looking Ahead

The Power Is in the Palm: A Look into Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia. The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) will host a full-day conference on October 30 on sustainable palm oil in Indonesia. The conference will feature panels, including “Ensuring Economic Benefits of Palm Oil for the Next Generation: Impact Investment and Sustainable Consumption” and “Indonesia and Development: Looking Forward.” The event will take place from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the SAIS Rome Auditorium, 1619 Massachusetts Avenue NW. Click here to RSVP.

Japan and U.S. Perspectives on Southeast Asia Development. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on October 30 will host a half-day conference to examine Japan’s and the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia with a view toward what the past can tell us about the future. Guest speakers include Masahiro Kawai of the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo, and Murray Hiebert, senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. The conference will be followed by a light reception. The event will take place from 2:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW. Click here to RSVP.

The Banyan Tree Leadership Forum with Ben Rhodes. The CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies will host Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on November 4 for a discussion about his recent visit to Burma. He will discuss U.S. policy toward Burma against the backdrop of Burma’s landmark elections on November 8. The event will take place from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1616 Rhode Island Avenue NW. Click here to RSVP or e-mail southeastasiaprogram@csis.org.

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For more the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, check out our website, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, visit our blog CogitAsia, and listen to our podcast at CogitAsia and iTunes. Thank you for your interest in U.S. policy in Southeast Asia and CSIS Southeast Asia. Join the conversation!

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