Saturday, April 13, 2013

China declines comment on report on North Korea nuclear weapons

North Korea soldiers lean in a boat on Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jacky Chen
China declined to comment on a report by a Pentagon spy agency that said North Korea may have a nuclear weapon it can mount on a missile.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing on Friday that he had no comment on the report. Hong reiterated China's stance that tensions on the Korean peninsula have to be resolved through dialogue.

Tension has been fuelled by North Korean anger over the imposition of U.N. sanctions after its last nuclear arms test in February, creating one of the worst periods of stress on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.-Reuters (April 13, 2013)

Japan continues to trust Philippines as investment destination

Japan continues to regard the Philippines as a competitive investment destination, with approved investments in 2012 amounting to over 69 billion pesos (around $1.68 billion), the Japanese Embassy in the Philippines said Friday.

During a meeting Thursday by officials from both countries under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement framework, "Both countries noted the continued and renewed interest shown by Japanese investors in the Philippines as proven by a series of recent investments by Japanese companies," a joint statement released Friday by the embassy said.

"Both sides welcomed the recent flow of new investments from Japan as an affirmation that the Philippine economy is showing a remarkable performance and proving its competitiveness as an investment destination."

The statement also said that Japan's 69 billion peso investment in the Philippines last year has made it the second-largest investor in the country after the Netherlands, which pumped 104.32 billion pesos into the economy.

Japan's investment last year was, however, down from the 78.32 billion pesos invested in 2011, but higher than the 58.3 billion pesos it invested in 2010.

Akio Isomata, the embassy's minister for economic affairs, said he does not know the reason for the drop of Japanese investment in 2012, but believes it is not related to the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, that shattered Japan.

"Usually, we don't see the volume of investment for a certain year as either a good or bad sign for that specific year. We look at the trend over several years because it really fluctuates. The trend is Japan is either the biggest or second-biggest investor in the Philippines," Isomata told Kyodo News.

The statement also disclosed that trade volume between the two countries increased in 2012 as Japan served as the largest importer of Philippine products with a value of $9.88 billion, up from $8.9 billion in 2011.

The Philippines' imports from Japan, however, edged down to $6.45 billion in 2012 from $6.52 billion in 2011.

"Both sides noted that the recent figures related to trade and investment had been very encouraging, despite economic difficulties around the world," the statement said.

During the meeting, the two countries discussed "tax-related issues, rationalization of investment incentive schemes, affordable and sustainable supply of electricity, utilization of Batangas and Subic ports (on the main island of Luzon) and other issues related to the improvement of business relations," it said.

Japan also "acknowledged notable measures taken by the Philippine side to make progress in the country's investment climate," it said. Such measures include passage of an act that rationalizes the taxes paid by international carriers in the country.

Setting another meeting in September this year, the two parties agreed to continue holding dialogue with members of the business community to increase investments in the Philippines, and to address issues faced by Philippine companies operating in or exporting to Japan.

"The dialogues aim for steady and concrete progress on the resolution of specific issues in order to ensure that a transparent, predictable, and consistent business environment is created," the statement said.

The Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement on bilateral investment and free trade came into force in December 2008.-ABS-CBN News (April 13, 2013)

Chinese vessels continue to stay at Panatag Shoal a year after tension between Manila, Beijing

Chinese vessels continue to remain at the Panatag (Scarborough) shoal—claimed by both the Philippines and China—more than a year after Beijing blocked Manila from arresting its nationals caught poaching on local waters. 

Two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels and a Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ship are still in the disputed area, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Friday. 

For its part, the Philippines maintains its naval and air assets in the area. No recent tension or standoff has yet been reported.

"They are there, but we don't want to escalate the problem. We have done our part by submitting this matter to an international court of arbitration so that we can resolve this peacefully," Gazmin said.

On April 10, 2012, tension erupted between the Manila and Beijing when a Philippine Navy ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen who
illegally collected corals, giant clams, and live sharks in the area but was blocked by Chinese vessels.

Gazmin dismissed speculations that China was already controlling the area. He also denied that Philippines has weakened its stance on Panatag Shoal.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government has still yet to identify the two foreign aircraft that intruded into Philippine air space last week. The two unidentified aircraft flew at high-speed over Philippines' Pag-asa Island.

"That is the sad truth about these things. We admit...we cannot file the necessary complaint because we have not identified the nationality of these aircraft," Gazmin said.-Interaksyon (April 12, 2013)

China proposes, ASEAN agrees: Special meeting on South China Sea to be set

Foreign ministers from ASEAN and China will hold a special meeting to hasten progress on a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, Indonesia's foreign minister said Thursday.

The meeting was proposed by China and all countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to participate, Marty Natalegawa told reporters at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Brunei.

The agreement is potentially significant as China has insisted on handling territorial disputes bilaterally with individual countries, while ASEAN wants to speak as a group, a disconnect blamed for hindering progress on a code.

Although no date has been set, Natalegawa said the planned meeting underscored the importance of making "progress on the code of conduct and to maintain a positive atmosphere in the South China Sea".

"About where and when and how, I think that's something that needs to be worked out," he added, of the meeting's details.

Simmering tensions over competing claims to the sea, which is rich in oil and gas deposits, have reached boiling point in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of increasingly aggressive actions.

China claims nearly all of the sea, an important waterway for world trade, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the area.

Brunei, the tiny, oil-rich sultanate which chairs the 10-nation ASEAN bloc this year, has said it is keen to conclude a code of conduct under its watch.

China and ASEAN signed a broad declaration in 2002 pledging the parties would handle disputes peacefully and not take actions that threaten peace and stability, but efforts toward a legally binding code of conduct have floundered.

At the foreign ministers' meeting, ASEAN renewed calls for restraint "in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes", a statement by Brunei's government said.

But Natalegawa said ASEAN's own self-restraint is tested by "unilateral action to try to change (the) situation" in the body of water, referring to China, and adding, "Enough is enough".

The meeting in Brunei was convened to prepare for an April 24-25 summit of ASEAN countries in which the sea issue is expected to figure prominently.

The sea dispute led to unprecedented infighting at an ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh last July, which ended for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history without a joint communique.

As chair at the time, Cambodia - a close China ally - was accused of resisting efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to take a more aggressive position against the Chinese.-Interaksyon (April 12, 2013)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Laos' Economy to Grow 7.7 Percent in 2013

Vientiane, Apr 12 (Prensa Latina) The economy of Laos is expected to have sustainable growth of around 7.7 percent in 2013 as resource based industries, manufacturing and services continue to generate solid growth, according to a key Asian Development Bank (ADB) report released in this capital today.

According to the ADB, this country, among the poorest in the region, will continue to see solid growth in the next few years, building on the achievements of the last five years.

However, the ADB Country Director, Chong Chi Nai, said that Laos will have to shift its focus from absolute growth to quality of growth to ensure that the increases will follow an inclusive and sustainable path.

According to the report, the substantial investment flowing into hydro-power and mining, along with the construction of hotels, offices and residential buildings, will drive this growth.

It is expected by 2013 that hydro-power plants will contribute to a 12 percent increase in power generation, the agricultural sector will provide jobs to more than 60 percent of the workforce, with recovery in rice production and expansion of the cattle industry. Tourist arrivals are expected to grow by 10-15 percent.

The ADB report predicts a benign 5.5 percent rate of inflation for 2013, with price pressures manageable for now, but said these will need to be monitored closely.

Southeast Asia was the only sub-region to see growth accelerate year-on-year in 2012, led by a recovery in Thailand and strong public spending in the Philippines. This buoyancy is set to continue, backed by robust consumption, rising investment and increased intra-regional trade, with GDP growth projected at 5.4 percent in 2013 and 5.7 percent in 2014.-Plengish News (April 12, 2013)

Singapore economy contracts in first quarter

The Singapore economy contracted by 0.6 per cent on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter of 2013, according to advance estimates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

On a quarter-on-quarter basis, the economy contracted by 1.4 per cent. This was due to a sharp decline in manufacturing.

The numbers undershot market expectations of 1 per cent growth.

Economists say full-year economic growth is unlikely to hit the upper end of the 1 to 3 per cent official growth forecast.

Despite the contraction in Q1 GDP, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) says the economy should grow at a modest pace this year, as external demand recovers.

It is sticking with a tight monetary policy - allowing for a modest and gradual appreciation of the Singapore dollar.

The central bank has also lowered its inflation forecast for the year, reflecting weaker price increases in recent months. 

Core inflation, which excludes housing and private transportation costs, is expected to come in at 1.5 to 2.5 per cent - down from MAS' earlier estimates of 2 to 3 per cent.

The MAS has also lowered the CPI-All Items inflation rate to 3 to 4 per cent - down from the 3.5 to 4.5 per cent forecast previously.

Economists see full-year GDP growth of up to around 2%

After growing at around 50 per cent per year for the past four years, Asiawide Print Holdings sees its revenue growth slowing to 20 per cent in 2013.

The printing firm, which employs 52 people, makes S$5.5 million a year.

Asiawide Print Holdings' chief business officer, Terence Hong, said: "When sales are going down, the budget for marketing collaterals will greatly shrink. So for some MNCs, (our) experience is that for this year they'll have a low marketing budget, and for some of the smaller companies, they'll have zero marketing budget. So overall we will experience a slower growth, together with them."

Still, Asiawide is in a better position than than many Singapore companies, which are export-oriented. Domestic sales account for 95% of its revenue.

Over the past year or so, domestically driven sectors like construction and services have helped prop up GDP growth in the face of sluggish external demand.

In the first quarter, construction grew 15 per cent quarter-on-quarter, boosted by a recovery in private sector building activities, while services expanded 1.8 per cent on the back of expansion in the finance and  business services sector.

The growth in construction and services sectors helped to offset the 11.3 per cent decline in manufacturing. The sequential decline in manufacturing largely reflected a contraction in the output of the biomedical manufacturing cluster.

On a year-on-year basis, construction grew 7 per cent, services producing industries grew 1.2 per cent while the manufacturing sector contracted by 6.5 per cent.

OCBC's head of treasury research & strategy, Selena Ling, said: "Within manufacturing, what we see is that biochemicals, especially pharmaceuticals, remains very weak. And you also have a soft patch in electronics extending into the first quarter of this year. So it's a double whammy. Manufacturing continues to be the main drag on growth.

"The G3 economies including China look to be fairly tepid, so we're not expecting a very sharp turnaround in terms of external demand. What that means for manufacturing and exports, for Southeast Asian exporters like Singapore, is that we cannot count on manufacturing to be the key driver of growth this year. So that sets the challenge for the domestic sectors in Singapore to be the engines for growth this year."

Most economists see the global manufacturing cycle rebounding in the second half of the year. This is expected to help pull full-year GDP growth up to around 2 per cent. -Channel News Asia (April 12, 2013)

The Philippines as a BRIC Successor

Recently, the BRICS nations met in South Africa. Due to severe debt crises in the advanced nations, the growth prospects in these economies are no longer immune to the turmoil in the West.

Among the emerging economies, the Philippines is best-placed for an upgrade. It is favorably positioned to sustain growth in an exceptionally grim international landscape. It could even become a BRIC nation – with continued reforms.

In the sweet spot     

During the past decade, I have used much time exploring and consulting on the transformation of the major advanced and large emerging economies worldwide. What most nations find particularly intriguing are the growth lessons of the BRICs.

When Goldman Sachs identified the emerging group of potential successors to the BRICs a few years ago, the Philippines also made it into the list, in the footprints of two other major Southeast Asian nations. However, Indonesia and Vietnam have attracted much more FDI, so far.

In the aftermath of the Ramos era, the role of the Philippines as a BRIC successor was based mainly on its economic potential rather than a sustained growth record. In 2002, the Philippines gross domestic product still amounted to $81 billion, in current prices. Today, it has tripled to $241 billion.

In the aftermath of the global crisis, the Philippines is one of the few nations in which forecasts are revised up by financial analysts. In January, it reported 6.8 percent year-to-year growth, which made it the growth leader in Southeast Asia.

Almost half of the recent growth can be attributed to private consumption, which has been coupled by investment, especially in construction. Due to the impending mid-term elections in May, government spending will accelerate through the spring.

The acceleration of domestic demand since the first quarter of 2012 reflects the country’s solid macroeconomic fundamentals, stronger government finances, and confidence in the Aquino government’s commitment to reform.

Along with current account surpluses and foreign exchange reserves, the growth record has given rise to a more diversified export basket, while shielding the economy from very challenging international headwinds.

Complacency is not an option

The beauty of the BRIC projections is that they allow policy architects to reflect on (very) long time perspectives. The trap of the same projections is that, when they create a sense of inevitability, they can lull even the most promising growth stories into complacency.

In the Philippines, delivering the growth promise is predicated on accelerated structural progress.

According to various competitiveness indicators, the country has made dramatic strides in improving competitiveness, though often from a very low base. The perception is that corruption and red tape are finally addressed decisively. With the strong macroeconomic performance, the financial sector has become supportive of business activity.

Despite these positive trends, weaknesses remain to be addressed, including the poor infrastructure, various market inefficiencies and labor market rigidities.

As the Aquino administration knows only too well, the economy needs to shift from consumption towards investment, both public and private. Sectorally, this requires rising productivity in agriculture, less dependence on low-wage and low-skill services and more on labor-intensive manufacturing and high value services.

In BRIC economies, such changes have typically preceded periods of sustained growth. However, in order to raise the incentives for job creation and entrepreneurship, they require difficult policy reforms in agriculture, manufacturing, business and labor regulations, and social protection.

In turn, these reforms make possible greater public investment in health, education, and infrastructure.

BRIC future requires more inclusive growth     

In the absence of adverse developments, the Philippines is at the verge of receiving an investment-grade rating, by the major rating agencies.

Nonetheless, significant challenges of poverty remain. Growth is not yet inclusive.

Except for Brazil, inequities have typically increased in all emerging economies during their high-growth phases, while job-creation has been strong and unemployment low. In the Philippines, the story is different.

Even in 2011-2012, unemployment rate stayed at 7%, while underemployment rate rose to 22.7% since the number of full-time jobs declined by half a million in the same period.

In the next half a decade, GDP growth rate in the Philippines could climb close to that of China. But in order to be sustained, this growth must become more inclusive.

In the Philippines, the BRIC future has potential for a large consumer economy, with some 150-170 million people by 2050. That objective is predicated on huge expansion of consumption – but it is only viable through more inclusive growth.

Due to the historical legacies of the Philippine political and economic institutions, there remain strong vested interests in the current status quo. That, in turn, makes vital reforms challenging to implement.

The Aquino administration has proven able and willing to make difficult decisions. In all BRIC nations, sustained growth has been neither inevitable nor automatic. It does not just happen. It must be made to happen. And sometimes that requires painful decisions in the short-term because they make possible sustained growth in the long-term.-Economonitor (April 12, 2013)

Burma riots: Muslim gold shop workers jailed

General view of destroyed houses in riot-hit Meiktila on 23 March 2013
A court in Burma has sentenced three Muslims to 14 years in jail for their role in communal violence that has left more than 40 dead.

The owner of a gold shop, his wife, and an employee, were convicted of theft and assault on Thursday, reports said.

A dispute at the gold shop in Meiktila is thought to have triggered deadly clashes between Burma's Muslim and Buddhist communities.

The violence spread to other towns and led to curfews being imposed.

More than 12,000 Muslims have been displaced from their homes since the clashes began on 20 March. Whole Muslim neighbourhoods have been destroyed.

The row at the shop was said to have started over a gold hair clip. A fight broke out, and the store owner reportedly beat a Buddhist customer on the head.

This was followed by an attack on a Buddhist monk, who died later in the town hospital.

News of the incidents sparked off sustained communal violence, and a state of emergency was imposed in Meiktila and three other towns.

'Religious extremists'

State prosecutors say they are building several cases against dozens of people allegedly involved in the unrest, including both Buddhists and Muslims, AP news agency reports.

Last month, Burmese president Thein Sein warned that the government would use force if necessary to stop "political opportunists and religious extremists" from fomenting hatred between faiths.

"All perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," he said.

The conflict is the worst since violence in Rakhine state last year, where nearly 200 people were killed and tens of thousands forced from their homes.

The conflict that erupted in Rakhine involved Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognised as Burmese citizens. Scores of Rohingyas have fled what they say is persecution in Burma in recent months.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 12, 2013)

US warns N Korea missile launch would be 'huge mistake'

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said an anticipated missile launch by North Korea would be a "provocative act" and "huge mistake".

The North has moved two missiles to its east coast and South Korea is on alert.

Speaking in Seoul, Mr Kerry reconfirmed the US's commitment to protecting itself and its allies.

But he played down a US report that the North has a nuclear warhead, saying it was "inaccurate" to suggest it has "a working and tested" device.

A declassified section of a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report had warned there was "moderate" confidence that Pyongyang had developed the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.

'Food not missiles'

North Korea will mark the birth of national founder Kim Il-sung on 15 April, a date which could be used for a missile launch.

It has moved two Musudan ballistic missiles to its east coast. Estimates of their range vary, but some suggest the missiles could travel 4,000km (2,500 miles).

That would put US bases on Guam within range, although it is not believed that the Musudan has been tested before.

In a joint news conference with his South Korea counterpart, Mr Kerry said that if Northern leader Kim Jong-un decided to go ahead with a launch "he will be choosing wilfully to ignore the entire international community, his own obligations which he has accepted, and it will be a provocative and unwanted act that will raise people's temperature".

"It is a huge mistake for him to choose to do that because it will further isolate his people ... who are desperate for food not missile launches, who are desperate for opportunity not for a leader who wants to flex his muscles in this manner," he said.

Mr Kerry said that in his talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye she had made clear her "bright vision" of a peaceful Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

"We are prepared to work with conviction that relations between the North and South can improve and can improve very quickly," he said.

"The world will be much better off if the leaders of the North, and one leader in particular, can make the right decision."

On Saturday Mr Kerry will move on to China. He said he would urge leaders there to use their influence to rein in Pyongyang's aggression. He will then travel to Japan.

Mr Kerry said it was "clear to everybody in the world that no country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on [North Korea] than China", and that talks there would aim to "lay out a path that will defuse this tension".

His hope, he said, was that from talks in China and Japan "we will find the unity necessary to provide a very different set of alternatives for how we can proceed and ultimately diffuse this situation".

On Thursday, China carried out a civilian emergency drill in a town near its border with the North.

China's state media said the half-hour exercise covered evacuations and responses to an air raid and was aimed at raising public awareness of disaster prevention and relief.

North Korea has increased its warlike rhetoric following fresh UN sanctions imposed after its third nuclear test in February and joint military manoeuvres by the US and South Korea.

The North says it will restart a mothballed nuclear reactor, has shut an emergency military hotline to the South and has urged countries to withdraw diplomatic staff, saying it cannot now guarantee their safety.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 12, 2013)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

State-owned Lao bank unveils mobile phone services

The state-owned Lao Development Bank (LDB) on Monday launched mobile phone banking and Visa card services as part of its modernisation process and overall service upgrade.

The launch also marked the 10th anniversary of the bank, which was founded in April 2003. The bank was the result of a merger between the Lanexang Bank Limited and Laomay Bank Limited.

The bank provides customers with financial services, deposit and credit facilities and transfers payments between business operators, organisations and individuals.

Speaking at the launch, LDB Director Bualien Phommavongsa said one of the bank's main goals is to provide loans to small and medium enterprises, larger businesses and other clients.

“Over the past decade, LDB has played a significant role in implementing government policies on economics and currencies, and operates under the supervision of the Bank of the Lao PDR.”

Bualien said the bank launched credit services for SMEs in 2008, to help provide small businesses with sufficient capital to survive and grow their operations.

“SMEs in particular contribute to the country's social and economic development. They help to raise living standards around the country and over time enable more people to rise above poverty,” he added.

LDB's head office is on Souphanouvong Avenue in Sihom village, Chanthabouly district, Vientiane. The bank has modernised its services and uses the Core Banking system, which enables online banking throughout the country.

The new mobile phone banking service provides customers with SMS alerts and enables payment of electricity and phone bills and money transfers. In addition, Visa card holders can now withdraw cash from ATMs across the country.

Governor of the Bank of the Lao PDR, Somphao Phaisith, observed that LDB has made significant progress in terms of providing loans to SMEs and other banking services.

“LDB is now on track to serve the needs of society. The most important factor is the provision of fast services using the most modern technology as Laos prepares to join the Asean Economic Community in 2015,” Somphao said.-Asia News Network (April 11, 2013)

Vietnam sets new credit growth limits for individual banks

The State Bank of Vietnam has assigned this year's specific credit growth limits to local banks based on their economic health.

Banks, which are ranked in the top group based on size, credit quality, liquidity and corporate governance, are permitted to expanding their total credit by a maximum of 12 per cent this year, equal to the credit growth target set for the whole banking sector.

The lending growth cap for banks ranked in the second group is 10 per cent.

Some weak banks will not be allowed to increase loans this year.

Industry insiders said that it could cause difficulties for major banks because many had targeted credit growth much higher than the cap, so some may have to adjust their business performance plans this year.

For example, Military Bank, which posted the highest credit growth of 27 per cent last year, has targeted 17 per cent credit growth this year.

It may be even harder for Lien Viet Post Bank as its credit growth limit this year is also 12 per cent against its target of 30 per cent set earlier this year.

As credit growth in the first quarter only grew 0.03 per cent, experts said that the central bank should allow banks to expand their lending and only control their credit growth through indicators such as loan-to-deposit ratios, liquidity and provisions in a move to reduce non-performing loans.

Last year, the SBV classified local banks into four groups with different lending growth limits. Specifically, it set a maximum credit growth rate at 15 per cent for Group A (healthy banks), 15 per cent for Group B (moderately healthy banks), 8 per cent for Group C (unhealthy banks) and zero per cent for Group D (weak banks).

The credit growth limit regulation was considered unsuccessful last year as some banks, which were allowed high lending growth, failed to use it, while others that were limited to low lending growth asked for more room.-Asia News Network (April 11, 2013)

Philippines charges Chinese fishermen over reef crash

Members of the Philippine Coast Guard inspect the Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground on Monday in the Tubbataha Reef in Palawan province, 9 April 2013
The Philippines has charged 12 Chinese fishermen with poaching after their boat ran aground a protected coral reef, reports say.

The men face up to 12 years in jail and $300,000 (£195,784) in fines, said an official from the Tubbataha reef park, a Unesco World Heritage site.

They were also charged with bribery after they allegedly tried to pay off Philippine park rangers.

The US also faces a fine after its ship crashed in the same reef in January.

The Chinese fishing vessel, which measures 48m (157ft), ran aground the reef in the Sulu Sea on Monday.

The fishermen said they reached the reef by accident from Malaysia, Philippine officials were quoted as saying.

Chinese officials have visited the fishermen, who are detained in Palawan province, local reports say.

"We will seek to quickly prosecute and resolve this case," Alen Ross Rodriguez, a local official in Palawan, told the AFP news agency.

"No-one can just enter our waters and wilfully destroy our marine life."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said they had asked the Philippine government to ensure the fishermen's "legitimate rights" and safety.

The boat is the seventh Chinese fishing vessel caught in the area since 2002, according to a statement from the Tubbataha reef park.

The USS Guardian struck the reef south-east of Palawan island on 17 January. The ship was dismantled to minimise damage to the reef and the US has apologised for the accident.

Four navy officers on the minesweeper were relieved of their duties.

According to Unesco, the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park is home to a great diversity of marine life. Whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles are among key species found there.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 11, 2013)

G8 ministers condemn North Korea nuclear moves

Foreign ministers from the G8 group of nations have condemned in the "strongest possible terms" North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

Tensions have risen on the Korean peninsula in recent weeks.

In a communique, the ministers also expressed their "deep concern" at the toll of the conflict in Syria.

They also endorsed what they called a historic pledge on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

The Group of Eight nations comprises the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.

Britain currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the G8 and the talks are a prelude to the annual G8 summit later this year in Northern Ireland.

Correspondents say Japan, present at the talks, had been looking for a strong statement of solidarity over Korea.

North Korea has been making bellicose threats against South Korea, Japan and US bases in the region.

The G8 ministers reportedly pledged to work to end sexual violence in conflict, calling for urgent action to address "comprehensively" the "culture of impunity" in conflict zones.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague had said the issue of sexual violence in conflict zones was his own "personal priority" for the talks.

Missile threat

The BBC's diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says ministers agree that the combination of warlike threats from North Korea and preparations for new missile tests amount to dangerous provocation.

"There is no disagreement with the United States over North Korea," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Wednesday.

South Korea has raised its alert level amid indications that the North is preparing for a missile test.

Pyongyang has moved two Musudan missiles to its east coast. Estimates of the ballistic missile's range vary, but some suggest it could be as high as 4,000km (2,500 miles).

A missile therefore has the potential of hitting US bases on Guam, although it is not known whether the Musudan has been tested before.

There is also no evidence the North has miniaturised a nuclear weapon sufficiently to be used on a ballistic missile.

Correspondents point to Monday - the birthday of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung - as a potential launch date.

North Korea has increased its fiery rhetoric following fresh UN sanctions imposed after its third nuclear test and joint military manoeuvres by the US and South Korea.

The North says it will restart a mothballed nuclear reactor, has shut an emergency military hotline to the South and has urged countries to withdraw diplomatic staff, saying it cannot now guarantee their safety.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been among those calling for calm on the peninsula.

In Washington on Wednesday, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said North Korea was "skating very close to a dangerous line", adding: "Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation.''

However, in the past few days North Korea's media appear to be in more of a holiday mood, as Kim Il-sung's birthday on Monday approaches.

Humanitarian assistance

At a press conference at the end of the morning session, Mr Hague said the ministers had agreed on plans to tackle "the horrific use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe", which he described as "one of the greatest and most persistent injustices in the world".

Mr Hague said the G8 had "committed to the development of a comprehensive international protocol on the investigation and documentation of rape and sexual violence in conflict".

The UN special envoy for refugees, Angelina Jolie, said that wartime rape should not be regarded as inevitable, saying: "It can be prevented and must be confronted."

She said she welcomed the "long overdue stance of the G8".

"Finally have some hope to offer victims," she said.

On Syria, the ministers called for greater humanitarian assistance to Syrians affected by the conflict.

They affirmed their support for a "political transition", but did not mention any punitive measures against President Bashar al-Assad.

Fresh evidence of links between some opposition fighters and al-Qaeda has made it even harder for governments to decide a course of action, correspondents say.

G8 ministers met Syrian opposition figures on Wednesday on the sidelines of the two-day forum.

Leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) had reportedly pressed for more humanitarian assistance.

Mr Kerry, however, stressed the importance of the opposition becoming better organised, a senior US official told reporters.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have died since the uprising against the government of President Assad began in March 2011.

The London talks were also the first chance for G8 ministers to discuss face-to-face the failure of last week's meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on curbing Iran's nuclear programme.

Tehran says it only wants to produce energy but the US and its allies suspect it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Burma, Somalia and cyber-security were also topics on the agenda.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 11, 2013)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

China anger at Japan-Taiwan disputed island fishing deal

File photo: Diaoyu islands, 2 September 2012
Japan and Taiwan have signed a deal allowing Taiwan to fish near a group of disputed islands, prompting China to express "extreme concerns".

The agreement allows Taiwan to fish within 19km (12 miles) of the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

China and Taiwan both claim the island chain, which is controlled by Japan.

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which does not have official diplomatic relations with Japan.

The deal comes after 17 years of negotiations between Japan and Taiwan, local media has reported.

The islands offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain oil deposits.

They have been at the heart of considerable diplomatic tension between China and Japan, most recently in January when Japan said a Chinese frigate put a radar lock on a Japanese navy ship near the islands - something China disputes.

In January, a boat of Taiwanese activists also tried to reach the islands, but were forced back by the Japanese coastguard.

'Special partnerships'

"These negotiations are about the protection of maritime resources in the East China Sea," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday.

He added that the deal had no relation to the territorial dispute. "The Senkaku islands are inherently our national territory. Therefore there are no issues being shelved here."

Liao Liou-yi, Chairman of Taiwan's Association of East Asia Relations, said that relations on both sides were at the "highest positive level" and that Taiwan and Japan had "special partnerships".

Many analysts believe that Japan agreed to the deal to prevent China and Taiwan from presenting a united front against it over any territorial dispute.

China has expressed opposition to the agreement. It claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and insists that nations cannot have official relations with both China and Taiwan.

"China's position on Taiwan's foreign exchanges is clear and consistent," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Wednesday.

"We are extremely concerned about Japan and Taiwan discussing and signing a fishing agreement."-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 10, 2013)

Malaysian general elections set for 5 May

Supporters of the ruling National Front coalition

A general election will be held in Malaysia on 5 May, the Election Commission said, in what is seen as a major test for Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition.

The governing party has been in power for a 56-year period. However, the opposition has been gaining ground on a pledge to end corruption.

In 2008, the ruling National Front lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time.

Formal campaigning starts on 20 April.

Mr Najib dissolved parliament last week and will serve as caretaker prime minister until the elections.

In recent weeks, he has been highlighting Malaysia's economic successes under his leadership, as well as giving cash handouts.

On Saturday, he unveiled his manifesto pledging cash for the poor and more affordable living costs.

'Great survivor'

Opinion polls suggest a narrow win for the National Front. Mr Najib faces pressure to return the party to its two-thirds majority in parliament.

Many are predicting that this could be closest vote since independence from Britain 56 years ago, the BBC's Jonah Fisher in Bangkok reports.

Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the opposition, is seen as one of the great survivors of Malaysian politics, our correspondent adds.

Mr Anwar is part of a broad coalition which includes moderates, Islamists and Malaysians of Chinese descent.

Mr Anwar once served as deputy prime minister under the National Front, but fell out with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998.

He was jailed for misuse of power for six years, and charged with sodomy twice - although on both occasions he was cleared.

He has described the charges as politically motivated.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 10, 2013)

Vietnam jails officials over land eviction case

Fisher farmer Doan Van Vuon (second left, front row) and his family members stand trial at a local People's Court House in the northern coastal city of Haiphong, 2 April 2013
Vietnam has jailed a former official for destroying the home of a farmer who won public support for resisting eviction from state-owned land.

Nguyen Van Khanh, who was deputy chairman of the district where the incident took place, received two-and-a-half years in jail.

Four other officials, including his boss, received suspended jail terms.

The farmer, Doan Van Vuon, received a five-year jail term last week for using weapons to defend his fish farm.

Three of Mr Vuon's relatives were also found guilty of attempted murder last week for injuring several police officers in January 2012. They were given jail terms of between two and five years each.

Their case had attracted attention and popular support, as farmers resorting to violence to protect land in Vietnam is rare.

Land rights are a contentious issue in Vietnam, where the Communist government owns all land and usage rights are unclear.

The Land Law, in effect since 1993, stipulates that households and individuals are entitled to land rights for a "limited period" of 20 years. After that, subject to availability and other factors, local governments will decide whether the time can be extended.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 10, 2013)

South Korea raises alert with North to 'vital threat'

South Korea has raised its alert level to "vital threat" amid indications the North is preparing for a missile test.

At least one ballistic missile with an estimated 3,000km (2,000-mile) range is fuelled and ready for launch, US and South Korean sources say.

Pyongyang has been making bellicose threats against South Korea, Japan and US bases in the region.

The threats follow tough new UN sanctions imposed on North Korea last month after its third nuclear test.

Separately, an initial investigation by the South into a major cyber attack last month that affected a number of banks and broadcasters has said the North is to blame.

'Anytime now'

North Korea is believed to have completed preparations for a missile launch after it moved two Musudan missiles to its east coast, Yonhap news agency says.

In anticipation, the South Korea-US Combined Forces have raised their alert level to Watchcon 2, to increase surveillance monitoring, Yonhap quoted a senior military official as saying.

North Korea unveiled the Musudan missile during a military parade in 2010 but has yet to test it. There are reports, however, that it may have been sold to Iran and tested there.

The launch could happen "anytime from now", South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told parliament.

A test launch would be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, which states the North "must not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile".

North Korea has tested intermediate range missiles before and during periods of crisis and tension, says the BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul.

So while another test launch would certainly be seen as provocative, it is unlikely to have any major, short-term military significance unless it goes wrong, our correspondent adds.

He says one key date for a launch could be Monday - the birthday of the North Korean state's late founder, Kim Il-sung.

Yonhap also reported that the South's National Police Agency had raised its state of alert by one level from "attention" to "caution".

It said that patrols had been increased at 770 sites, including at embassies and key underground stations.

Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said his nation was on "high alert", with anti-missile defences deployed in Tokyo as a precaution.

A number of travel agencies in China have reported that tourist trips into North Korea have been suspended.

One travel agent in the north-eastern city of Dandong told Reuters news agency: "All [tourist] travel to North Korea has been stopped from today and I've no idea when it will restart."

The border remains open to commercial traffic.

Meanwhile, an official investigation by the South into last month's cyber attack traced the malicious codes used to six computers in the North.

"We've collected a lot of evidence to determine the North's Reconnaissance General Bureau led the attack, which had been prepared for at least eight months," a spokesman for the Korea Internet and Security Agency said.

The attack on 20 March severely affected the KBS, MBC and YTN broadcasters and operations at the Shinhan, NongHyup and Jeju banks.


The North has warned foreigners in South Korea to take precautions in case of war.

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the crisis on the Korean peninsula may become "uncontrollable".

He once again urged North Korea to tone down its "provocative rhetoric" and to keep open a joint North-South Korean industrial complex.

North Koreans failed to report for work at the Kaesong complex on Tuesday, suspending one of the few points of co-operation with South Korea.

Since the UN sanctions were imposed, Pyongyang has threatened to use nuclear weapons and has said it will restart a nuclear reactor.

The North has also shut an emergency military hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Last week, it warned it would not be able to guarantee the safety of foreign embassy staff after 10 April, and that countries should begin evacuating their diplomatic staff.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 10, 2013)

US to intercept N Korea missile if allies at risk

A top US military commander said Tuesday he favoured shooting down a North Korean missile only if it threatened the United States or Washington's allies in the region.

When asked by lawmakers if he supported knocking out any missile fired by North Korea, Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of US Pacific Command, said: "I would not recommend that."

However, the four-star admiral told the Senate Armed Services Committee he would "certainly recommend" intercepting an incoming North Korean missile "if it was in defence of our allies" or the United States.

Amid widespread speculation that North Korea could be preparing a missile launch, Locklear also said he was confident the US military would be able to detect quickly where any missile was headed.

"It doesn't take long for us to determine where it's going and where it's going to land," said Locklear, who oversees American forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US military has a powerful radar in Japan to help track a possible missile launch as well as naval ships in the area equipped with anti-missile weaponry. Japan and South Korea also have their own missile defence systems.

The Pacific Command chief's comments underscored the delicate balancing act faced by President Barack Obama as his administration attempts to demonstrate US resolve without aggravating the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Given North Korea's repeated violations of UN Security Council resolutions that bar the pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, Pyongyang represents "a clear and direct threat to US national security and regional peace and stability," Locklear said.

North Korea has issued dire threats that it could stage an attack on the United States with nuclear weapons, but experts doubt it is able to do so.

Both the admiral and lawmakers voiced concern that possible miscalculation could trigger an unintended war, and Locklear acknowledged the situation was "volatile."

To try to manage tensions, a new joint military plan between the United States and South Korea was designed to carefully counter North Korea's provocations but "without unnecessary escalation," he said.

With Pyongyang issuing almost daily threats against Washington and its allies, the United States was struggling to discern the motives and behaviour of the Stalinist state's young leader, Kim Jong-Un, he said.

"We have limited understanding of North Korean leadership intent, which remains a concern to long-term stability," Locklear said in written testimony.

Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said hopes had long been dashed that North Korea's leader would be a reformer.

"Any guarded optimism about North Korea that may have accompanied the December 2011 death of long-time dictator Kim Jong Il has faded as the new regime has adopted many of the same destructive policies... as its predecessors," Levin said.

The senator and other lawmakers expressed frustration over China's role, saying it needed to use its influence with North Korea to defuse the crisis.-Channel News Asia (April 10, 2013)

Indonesian rubber industry to review deal with Malaysia, Thailand

The rubber industry in Indonesia, the world’s second-biggest rubber producer, will propose a review of the supply management that it has implemented in the past six months to cut overseas supply, along with Thailand and Malaysia.

Indonesian Rubber Association (Gapkindo) chairman Daud Husni Bastari said on Monday that the mechanism was still poorly supervised and it was unclear whether stakeholders carried it out according to their commitments.

The review proposal will be rolled out during a meeting of the International Tripartite Rubber Council (ITRC) from Wednesday to Friday on Thailand’s resort island of Phuket, which will decide further moves on shoring up rubber prices.

“Our main concern is that we don’t know whether members have already implemented the supply curb consistently and whether there will be additional output from new plants,” Daud told The Jakarta Post in a phone interview.

The supply arrangement is based on the prediction of demand over a long span of time and is seen as strategic in curbing supply in the long term as overproduction will in turn significantly erode prices.

In a deal reached in August, three ITRC members - Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia - representing 70 per cent of the world’s rubber output, pledged to curb supply to bolster prices through an agreed export tonnage scheme (AETS) and supply management scheme (SMS) after prices slumped to a record low of around US$2.7 per kilogram.

Under AETS, producers cut supply to the market by as much as 300,000 tons from October last year to March this year, while through the SMS, they controlled production through a variety of measures, including replanting and removing aging trees.

The measures came up after futures on the Tokyo Commodity Exchange plunged to a three-year low of 205.6 yen (US$2.09) in August last year.

Rubber for September deliveries gained 6.6 per cent to close at 270.3 yen per kilogram in Tokyo, the largest daily gain since November 2011, Bloomberg reported.

During October to November last year, Indonesia slashed as much as 111,000 tons from the market, inching closer to the commitment of 117,000 tons for six months, ending in March this year, according to the latest data available at Gapkindo. Thailand and Malaysia, the world’s largest producers, earlier planned to pare down 143,000 tons and 40,000 tons respectively.

Last year, Indonesia exported 2.44 million tons of natural rubber, down by 4.15 per cent from a year earlier.

This year, Indonesia expects to see its rubber output rise slightly by 2.36 per cent to 3.04 million tons, the association estimates.

Daud said that his association would also ask for the extension of the rubber supply arrangement with other Southeast Asian producing nations, such as Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, during the meeting.

“Vietnam’s output will soon catch up with Malaysia, and our concerted efforts along with other countries in ASEAN may be good for managing supply and sustaining prices in the long run,” he said.

Thailand has said it would ask for an extension of the reduction in exports from the three biggest suppliers during the meeting to curb prices, said Thai Deputy Agriculture Minister Yuttapong Charasathien as quoted by Bloomberg.

However, Deputy Trade Minister Bayu Krisnamurthi said that Indonesia would not offer a position before the two measures were reviewed.-Asia News Network (April 10, 2013)a

Indonesian businesses unaware of ASEAN single market plan

Many companies in Indonesia are still unaware of the ASEAN member countries’ plan to implement the ASEAN single market within the next two years, a local businessman said.

Chairman of the Indonesian Young Entrepreneurs Association (HIPMI) Raja Sapta Oktohari said that many businessmen, especially those outside Jakarta, for the most part did not understand how the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), also referred to as the ASEAN single market, would be implemented in 2015

He feared that with such a situation, manufacturers would not be prepared to compete with the influx of goods from other ASEAN members, when the single market takes effect. Although only two years away, it is not too late for the government to inform local industry, especially small- and medium-scale companies, about what implication the free trade agreement will have for their business, he said.

In addition, the government should provide financial assistance - such as cheap loans - to help local companies improve their businesses and prepare them.

“Local business players’ awareness of AEC is still low, but it is inevitable, so we must be ready and beat the competition” he added. 

ASEAN - which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia - agreed in 2007 to establish the ASEAN Economic Community. The free trade agreement will be fully implemented in 2015 by all members, except Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, which will fully participate in 2018.

Based on ASEAN findings regarding member countries’ readiness for AEC 2015, Indonesia’s score dropped from 77.8 per cent in the 2010-2011 period to 72.6 per cent in 2012-2013 period due to a number of non-tariff barriers imposed by other ASEAN members. Despite the decline, Indonesia must be ready to fully implement the single market concept, the head of subdivision of ASEAN cooperation of the trade ministry, Donna Gultom said.

According to figures from the Central Statistics Agency, Indonesia recorded a surplus balance of trade with ASEAN countries in January, a month when exports hit US$2.83 billion surpassing imports totaling $2.42 billion. 

Edy Putra Irawadi, Deputy Coordinating Economic Minister on trade and industry, said that Indonesia should take advantage of the free trade agreement.

“We have the largest population in ASEAN, natural resources and experience in dealing with an economic crisis,” he added. 

Iwan Suyudhie Amri director for ASEAN Economic Cooperation at the Foreign Ministry commented that Indonesia should benefit from the community as we have a more youthful society than Thailand and other countries.

Furthermore, Bayu Priawan Djokosentono, chairman of the Young Leaders Forum, explained that small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) must be empowered if Indonesia wanted to face AEC 2015. 

“We have a lot of potential human resources, but they are not well nurtured,” he said, adding that many SMEs are concerned with the time-consuming process of applying for credit to open businesses. 

“It can take three to four months to process a credit application for my business at a national bank but only three to four days at foreign banks. This is so sad, the government needs to assist SMEs in the development of their businesses” he added.

Other ASEAN countries are undertaking various strategies in preparation of the AEC. Malaysia boosted progressive liberalisation, Thailand enhanced the economic development zone as well as opening access to neighbouring countries and Singapore continues to maintain its technology service businesses.-Asia News Network (April 10, 2013)