Saturday, June 22, 2013

PHL-Thailand sign three cooperation agreements

The Philippines and Thailand on Friday signed three agreements aimed at increasing economic cooperation between the two Southeast Asian neighbors.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Thai counterpart Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, who is on official visit to country to attend the two nations’ Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation, signed agreements on taxation, trade and energy.

The Convention on the Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Prevention of Fiscal Evasion with Respect to Taxes on Income is expected help facilitate economic activities between the PHL and Thailand.

Both sides have also agreed to establish an Energy Forum to further advance cooperation in the energy sector while a Memorandum of Understanding on the Development of Cooperation between the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce Industry and Banking is seen to promote collaboration on trade and investment between the Philippine and Thai companies.

During the meeting, Del Rosario and Surapong provided updates on the political and economic developments in their respective countries.

Other topics discussed were trade and investment, technical cooperation, education, tourism, and transportation, law enforcement and legal cooperation, defense and labor.

The two ministers likewise exchanged views on regional and international issues including disputes in the South China Sea, amid heightened territorial conflicts involving Association of South East Asian Nations’ four members – Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia – and neighboring China over the resource-rich waters, of which Taiwan is also a claimant.

Thailand is this year’s head of rotating chairmanship of the ASEAN-China dialogue.  

The South China Sea, home to a cluster of islands, shoals, reefs and coral outcrops that straddle one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, is known as West Philippine Sea in the Philippines.

China has claimed the waters and its features in its entirety on historical grounds and has stepped up efforts this year to strengthen its claims, provoking protests from the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimants.

The ASEAN, a bloc of democratic, socialist and aristocratic states formed in the Cold War era, also consists of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia. Laos and Myanmar.

ASEAN, which is targeting a European Union-style integrated economic community by 2015, represents a market of more than 600 million people with a combined Gross Domestic Product of $2.7 trillion.

In his closing remarks, Del Rosario thanked Surapong and the members of the Philippine and Thai delegations for the success of the JCBC, the fifth to be held by the two countries since it was established in 1992.

“I hope we can build on this positive momentum and actively work together in realizing our commitments. Thailand remains a close friend and an ally of the Philippines,” Del Rosario said.

Thailand will host the next meeting of the JCBC in 2015.-GMA News

Philippines becomes first country in Asia to destroy ivory tusks


The Philippines began destroying five tonnes of elephant tusks on Friday in a landmark event aimed at shedding its image as one of the world’s worst hotspots for illegal African ivory trading.

The backhoe of a bulldozer began crushing hundreds of tusks in a wildlife bureau car park, as the nation became the first in Asia to eliminate its multi-million-dollar stockpile.

“This act is a strong statement to the rest of the world that the Philippines will not tolerate the illegal wildlife trade,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said.

The five tonnes of ivory came from a total of about 13 tonnes seized by customs officers since the mid 1990s, with the two biggest hauls at Manila’s seaport and international airport in 2005 and 2009.

The rest of the ivory, worth many millions of dollars on the black market, was stolen over the years.

Most of it went missing while being kept by the customs bureau, a notoriously corrupt organisation in the Philippines, and a wildlife bureau officer is on the run after being charged with stealing about 700 kilograms.

The Philippines was in March named by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as one of eight nations that was failing to do enough to tackle the illegal trade in elephant ivory.

The others were Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malaysia, Vietnam, China and Thailand, and they were warned they could face international sanctions on wildlife trading if they failed to take action.

The United Nations and conservations groups have warned the demand for ivory is leading to the slaughter of thousands of African elephants each year, and could eventually lead to their extinction.

The Philippines was named because of its role as a transport hub for African ivory being smuggled into countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand, where demand has skyrocketed in recent years.

The ivory is highly sought after for statues, trinkets and other items to showcase wealth.

Demand is also high in the Catholic Philippines, with the ivory used for religious icons.

Paje said the destruction of the ivory was one part of the government’s action plan submitted to CITES since March to show it was trying to curb the trade.

Another was the launch on Friday of a multi-government-agency taskforce focused solely on the ivory trade.

“The Philippines will not be a party to this massacre (of African elephants) and a conduit for the cycle of killing,” Paje said.

The executive director of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, Mary Rice, praised the Philippines for taking the lead in destroying its stockpiles.

“This is a really significant event. It is the first time a consuming country and an Asian country has decided to dispose of its seized stockpiles,” Rice, who was in Manila to witness the event, told AFP.

Rice said thousands of kilograms of seized ivory were sitting in storehouses in other cities around Asia and other parts of the world.

Some African nations have previously burnt ivory stockpiles, most recently Gabon last year.

The UN and conservation groups warned in a major report in March that African elephants faced the worst crisis since global trade in ivory was banned almost a quarter-century ago.

Illicit trade in ivory has doubled since 2007 and more than tripled over the past 15 years, according to the report, which estimated that only about 420,000 to 650,000 elephants remain in Africa.

About 25,000 African elephants were estimated to have been killed for their ivory in 2011, the report said, and conservationists believe last year was even worse.

The Philippine efforts to destroy the tusks were complicated as the government backtracked on an initial plan to burn the tusks due to protests from environment groups about open-air fires.

A second plan to crush them with a roller was also cancelled after it emerged the tusks were too tough.

The third plan of crushing them with a backhoe, one-by-one, was expected to last at least a day. The government said the remnants of the tusks would then be burnt at an animal crematorium.-South China Morning Post

Friday, June 21, 2013

Philippines, US To Hold Exercises Near Disputed Reef

The United States and the Philippines are to hold joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea next week between the main island of Luzon and a reef claimed by both China and Manila, the Filipino navy said Thursday.

The exercises taking place from June 27 to July 2 by the two allies are to be held about 108 kilometers (67 miles) east of Scarborough Shoal, navy spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Gregory Fabic told AFP.

Chinese government vessels are still believed to be patrolling the waters around the shoal after a lengthy stand-off last year with the Philippines, which ended with a Filipino retreat.

"This was planned way back in 2010. Whatever happened since then was purely coincidental," Fabic said when asked if holding the exercises there this year were a way for the Philippines to reassert its sovereignty over the shoal.

The maneuvers would be held over 12,347 square kilometers (4,767 square miles) of waters, he added.

Chinese embassy spokesmen in Manila could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Beijing claims it has sovereign rights over nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, and the area has for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conflict in the region.

Since last month the Philippine navy has also been monitoring Chinese government vessels in the South China Sea stationed off a Filipino-controlled reef in the Spratly Islands called the Second Thomas Shoal.

Fabic said an unspecified number of US Navy ships, Marines and aircraft will take part in the exercises alongside Philippine Navy and coastguard vessels and aircraft, Filipino Marines, and navy and coastguard special operations teams.

"We will focus on communications, naval surface operations, counter-terrorism and maritime security," he said.

"This is to increase the level of inter-operability between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in the conduct of combined naval operations."-Black Pearl

Singapore smog from Indonesia fire 'could last weeks'

Singapore smog, before and after

Singapore's prime minister has warned that the haze engulfing the city-state could last for weeks, as air pollution soared to record levels.

The pollution standards index peaked at 371 on Thursday, breaking previous records and well above hazardous levels, before falling to about 300.

The haze is the result of forest fires started by farmers clearing land on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The issue has sparked accusations between the two neighbours.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister, wrote on his Facebook wall that he would demand "definitive action" from Jakarta.

"No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and wellbeing," he said.

However, Indonesian Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono said that Singapore was "behaving like a child".

"This is not what the Indonesian nation wants, it is because of nature," he said.

Environment officials from the two nations have been holding an emergency meeting in Jakarta, to discuss the issue.

Since the haze arrived, Singapore's buildings have been obscured by the polluted air and the smell of burnt wood has permeated the city-state.

A PSI reading above 200 indicates "very unhealthy" air, while a PSI score above 300 is "hazardous". Readings are being posted on the website of the National Environment Agency.

At a press conference, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the haze could "easily last for several weeks and quite possibly longer until the dry season ends in Sumatra".

Mr Lee asked Singaporeans to "stay indoors where possible and avoid heavy outdoor activities".

He also announced that the Singaporean government would hold daily press conferences on the haze situation.

Air traffic controllers in Singapore have been told to work with extra caution given the poor visibility, while McDonald's has temporarily cancelled its delivery service.

The Singaporean military has also reportedly suspended all outdoor training.

The poor air quality has prompted widespread buying of disposable face masks, leading shops to run out of stock.

Parts of Malaysia have also recorded "hazardous" pollution levels, with over 200 schools in the country's south ordered to shut.

Malaysia's Department of Environment has also banned open burning in some states.

Cloud seeding

Indonesia's forestry ministry said it intended to use cloud seeding to try to induce rain on the affected area of Sumatra.

Indonesian officials have suggested that foreign palm oil investors, including Singaporean companies, may bear some responsibility for the fires.

However, several major Singapore-based palm oil companies have denied any involvement.

Singapore's prime minister said the city-state had provided satellite data to Indonesia to help identify who was responsible for the fires.

He added that if any Singaporean companies, or companies with a presence in Singapore played a part in the fires, they would be held responsible.

In 1997 and 1998, many countries in the region were affected by the South East Asian haze, which was caused by smog from Indonesian fires.

Road and air traffic was disrupted, and the smog is thought to have made around 20 million people ill.

The haze led to an agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution being approved by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2002.

However, Indonesia has yet to ratify the agreement.-British Broadcasting Corporation

China's border row with India has misfired, says regional security expert


China's three-week border stand-off during April in Ladakh, in Indian-administered Kashmir, had misfired, an Indian security expert told a forum in Manila, saying Beijing's move galvanised Indian leaders into finally sealing an historic security deal with Japan.

The dispute strained ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours, but both sides pulled troops back ahead of a visit to New Delhi by Premier Li Keqiang, who agreed to fresh talks to settle their long-running border row.

Retired army major general Vinod Saighal, saw the subsequent India-Japan deal last month as possibly a signal that Japan and India were in the process of setting themselves up as the linchpin of a new security system in Asia, that could attract Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Myanmar.

He said Australia and Indonesia would also be viewing it favourably.

"The US had been pushing India in this direction as part of its rebalancing strategy. After the US used the term Indo-Pacific, Australia and Japan have embraced it," he said.

Saighal, who wrote Restructuring South Asian Security, was speaking at a forum on "India's expanding maritime interests in Southeast Asia" at the University of the Philippines Asian Centre.

Saighal said India could help provide "a security architecture in the region to restrain China so that the cost of aggression would be much too heavy. If you have that architecture in place, China will not attempt anything".

Saighal said India was in a position to contribute to that set-up, citing a recent successful underwater maiden test firing of a BrahMos supersonic cruise missile from a submarine in the Bay of Bengal.

He hinted at its implication in disputes over the South China Sea. "There is cautious talk in some strategic circles that were India to provide the BrahMos missile to Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, it has the potential to become a game changer."

He said India's role would be to restrain China "from dreaming its new-fangled dream in a manner that conflict breaks out in the region". He described mainland China's dream as a "dynamic expansion model" fuelled by fast economic growth and a desire to push beyond its core interests in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang - and into India's Arunachal Pradesh province, most of the South China Sea, and the Diaoyu islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus.

Saighal noted that a white paper on defence, that China issued in April, for the first time in many years omits the promise that China will never be the first to use nuclear weapons.

A senior Philippine navy official said India and the Philippines had developed a "relationship where the Philippine navy now sends [to India] some of its officers to train in ... anti-submarine warfare".

Commodore Caesar Taccad, deputy commander of the Philippine navy, agreed that India could potentially complement the US as a regional stabiliser and become the "friendly partner" that the Philippines and other "Southeast Asian countries which suffer China's aggressiveness in the South China" are looking for. But Taccad said that China was likely to retaliate if India waded into the South China Sea dispute.

Philippine coastguard Captain Rudyard Somera said India had the third largest naval force in Asia and if it collaborated with Japan, their combined forces would pose a credible challenge to Chinese forces.

The Philippines sent a fresh batch of marines and supplies to a shoal in the disputed South China Sea, where a Chinese warship and surveillance vessels appeared last month and triggered a new stand-off, Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said yesterday.
The marines replaced troops at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal. They are stationed in a decrepit military hospital ship that ran aground in 1999. It has since become an awkward symbol of Philippine sovereignty.-South China Morning Post

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Indonesia To 'Make Rain' To End Sumatra Fires

People enjoy a drink on a yacht sailing past the hazy skyline of Marina Bay Sands casino and resort in Singapore

Indonesia is to use weather changing technology to try to produce rain to put out raging fires on Sumatra island that have cloaked neighbouring Singapore in thick haze.

The city-state, home to 5.3 million inhabitants, has been pressing Jakarta to take action over the fires which have pushed air pollutant levels on the island to a 16-year high.

The government planned to use a technology called "cloud-seeding" to try  put out the fires, that are mainly centred on peatlands in Riau province, said Indonesian forestry ministry official Raffles Panjaitan.

Helicopters would be sent into the skies above Sumatra to inject chemicals into clouds, which prompt the formation of heavy ice crystals, and so speed up the production of rain, he said.

But the helicopters, from the disaster management agency, will not be dispatched until Friday at the earliest, he added.

About 100 firefighters are tackling the blazes but finding them hard to extinguish because they are smouldering underground in carbon-rich peatland, mostly in palm oil plantations.

"It is extremely difficult to extinguish the fires which are burning under the surface of the peatland," Mr Panjaitan said.

He said the cloud-seeding operation would depend on weather conditions. "Hopefully there will be lots of clouds so that we can produce a lot of rain."

The worst affected area is Bengkalis district, where 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of land is ablaze - 555 fires have been detected in Riau so far, up from 356 last month.

In Singapore, the Pollutant Standards Index soared to 172 at 3pm local time (0700 GMT), well past the officially designated "unhealthy" threshold of 100, according to the National Environment Agency website.

It was Singapore's worst haze reading since September 1997 when the number peaked at 226.

The haze problem is a recurring one which happens in the dry season as a result of forest fires in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, some of them deliberately started to clear land for cultivation.-News Sky

ASEAN, China eye more cooperation in search, rescue in South China Sea

Some 40 representatives from ASEAN and China Wednesday attended a workshop on strengthening ASEAN-China cooperation in search and rescue of persons and vessels in distress in the South China Sea.

Addressing the workshop, Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnamese deputy minister of foreign affairs, said the workshop is a part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which is a milestone document in cooperation between ASEAN and China.

The document reflects the joint commitment of relevant parties on the respect of the international law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the implementation of principles of restraint, not conducting activities that further complicate the situation, non-use of force, and peaceful settlement of disputes along with measures to build trust, Vinh said.

Fully implementation of the DOC and the adoption of COC to ensure maritime peace, security, safety and freedom of navigation are among measures to build trust in accordance with DOC, he said.

The South China Sea is a complex area with potential risks. There are many factors leading to the distress of peoples and vessels in the sea, including weather, sickness or damaged vessels. ASEAN and China need to work together to adopt necessary and appropriate policies and measures to coordinate in search and rescue for humanitarian and trust building purposes.

During the two-day workshop, participants will discuss the necessity to set forth measures to support people and vessels in distress in the South China Sea, the factors affecting the coordination of humanitarian assistance in the region, and the specific recommendations to enhance cooperation in the field of search and rescue operations in the South China Sea.-The Philippine Star

China, Vietnam agree to set up hotline

China and Vietnam have agreed to set up a hotline to resolve fishing incidents in disputed South China Sea waters.

The two countries' agriculture ministers signed the agreement in Beijing on Wednesday. No details were immediately available.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and its island groups, while Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries claim some areas. The islands sit amid some of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes, along with rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits.

Last month, Vietnam accused China of damaging a fishing boat that it said was operating in Vietnamese waters, risking the lives of 15 crew members. China said the Vietnamese fishing boat was fishing illegally around islands in Chinese waters.-The Philippine Star

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

'Reef crash' Vietnamese cargo crew held in Philippines

Philippine Coast Guard (June 2013)

Eighteen Vietnamese crew members have been detained after their cargo ship hit a coral reef in the central Philippines, the coastguard has said.

The ship - the Unicorn Logger - was heading from Malaysia to deliver logs to Japan when it hit the reef.

In April, 12 Chinese fishermen were charged with poaching after their boat ran aground on the protected Tubbataha reef park, a UN World Heritage site.

A US Navy ship also crashed into the Tubbataha reef in January.

The navy was fined for reef damage and made to pay the costs of dismantling of the ship.

Coastguard spokesman Armand Balilo told the AFP news agency that the Unicorn Logger ran aground off the tiny island of Sambawan on Friday.

"The crew are detained aboard their vessel as the damage to the reef is assessed," he said.

Officials say the vessel will be towed for repairs to a shipyard in the central port of Cebu once the extent of its damage is verified.- British Broadcasting Corporation

Indonesia set to cut fuel subsidy

Students protest the fuel price hike in Jakarta

Indonesia's parliament has paved the way for a rise in petrol and diesel prices after months of debate and political haggling.

The average 33% hike will reduce the government's ballooning fuel subsidy which has been a major drain on resources.

The move will likely stoke inflation and has sparked protests in recent days.

The revised budget, passed late Monday, has a cash handout for poor families.

A date has not yet been set for when the fuel price rise will take effect.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Chatib Basri said the government needed to follow the administrative process of handing out 150,000 rupiah ($15; £10) per month to the poor, for a period of four months, to help offset the rise before implementing it.

Violent demonstrations

It is a politically sensitive move, and one that many analysts did not think this administration had the stomach to push through. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been trying to pass through reforms on fuel subsidies since early last year, but with little luck.

A proposed increase of 33% in fuel prices last year led to violent demonstrations around the country. Opposition parties in parliament vehemently opposed a hike, despite economists saying a rise in fuel prices was critical for this country's future.

This time around there were protests again - but not as violent as demonstrations have been in the past.

Opposition parties and even one coalition partner opposed the fuel price rise, but the government managed to pull through in the end with a cash handout for 15 million poor families of $910m (£579m).

Mainly because there is a lot at stake.

Indonesia, once a darling of foreign investors in the region, has been sorely criticised for its lack of action on fuel subsidies. Its reputation as a star amongst the emerging markets has suffered - although foreign direct investment figures have remained strong.

Investors have begun to look elsewhere in the region - like the Philippines and Thailand - for returns. The bloated fuel subsidy bill has put pressure on Indonesia's current account deficit, the stock market and the rupiah - the Indonesian currency.

Shares and the Indonesian rupiah have seen sharp sell-offs as foreign investors have looked to put their money into what they deem to be safer options.

Concerned about the lack of momentum on reforms, the international ratings agency Standard and Poor's revised down its outlook for the country from positive to stable - while at the same time raising the rating for Indonesia's neighbour, the Philippines.

That was particularly embarrassing for the Indonesian government, given that it has always been seen as the strongest economy in South East Asia. The sizeable Indonesian middle class has tempted many foreign companies to set up shop here in recent years.

Earlier this year, the Boston Consulting Group said that Indonesia's middle class could double by 2020 to 141 million people - more than half the size of the current population.

Bitter pill

Nevertheless, although the decision to raise fuel prices and cut the subsidy bill will be applauded by the international investment community, Indonesians aren't thrilled by the move.

Any increase in prices will lead to a short-term jump in inflation to between 7% and 8% from current levels of approximately 5% - a jump that economists say is a bitter pill but one the country has to swallow.

Already prices of goods have started increasing in local markets in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

"People have been expecting the price of fuel to go up," said Ade, a street vendor in Jakarta. He sells fried rice to office-goers in the business district to make a living. "So already the price of all the basic food like rice and vegetables has gone up too. Also it is the beginning of the fasting month soon - and prices traditionally go up then too."

There is nothing more politically sensitive than rising prices in Indonesia. Politicians here remember all too well how former president and strongman Suharto stepped down from three decades of ruling the country with an iron fist, after soaring prices prompted huge protests on the streets of Jakarta.

That led to one of the most painful periods in Indonesia's economic history.-British Broadcasting Corporation

China expert: U.S. folds as China expands in South China Sea

An expert on China and its government warns that the communist nation has been aggressively claiming territory in the South China Sea. The United States, meanwhile, has responded weakly.

Gordon Chang, an attorney and author, says China has been claiming disputed islands in the area for over a year, which would shut the waters to international commerce.

Why? Because China's political structure is "brittle" and its economy is "faltering," Chang claims.

"And this belligerence, I think, is the result of internal weakness," Chang says. "China right now is a threat to the international community and to the United States not because it is strong, but because it is weak."

Chang authored the  book The Coming Collapse of China. The theory that the growing country is actually at risk of ruin is a running theme at Chang's self-named website. He lived and worked in China, and now writes and speaks about the country to a worldwide audience.

Recently the New York Times reported that the Beijing regime has privately circulated an official map to foreign diplomats that shows for the first time that 80 percent of the South China Sea is China's.

Therefore Beijing now takes the position that the ships and planes of other countries will have to get its permission to enter the area, which has long been considered international water and airspace.

More than half of the world's annual merchant tonnage passes through the South China Sea.  

But Chang says, unfortunately, U.S. response to the Chinese threat has been feeble. "This is bipartisan failure in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats," he says. "So when it comes to China, which I believe is the greatest threat to American security, we have inadequate policies."

Chang says he was not encouraged by this past weekend's meeting between President Obama and China's new leader, President Xi Jinping.-One News Now

Fresh clash breaks out between Malaysia, Sultan followers

Some 400 fighters and volunteers in the Royal Security Force (RSF) of the Sultanate of Sulu have engaged Malaysian security forces in a firefight in Kampung Dengan Tungku in Lahad Datu, Sabah on Monday afternoon, Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for the Sulu sultanate,  said the fresh fighting was  reported to him by Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram III and commander of the RSF.

Agbimuddin reported that the RSF fighters were moving through Dengan Tungku at about 1 p.m. when they encountered the Malaysian troops.

"There was a rather long exchange of fire. The RSF later was forced back into their base in Lahad Datu," Idjirani told the STAR.

Idjirani said the RSF did not sustain any casualty during the firefight. There was no information about casualties on the Malaysian side.

"The size of the RSF force involved in the fight would also give you an idea how large was the Malaysian force they had encountered. This only shows that Malaysia is really bent not to give up its hold on Sabah," said Idjirani.

Idjirani added that the clash in Dengan Tungku was also confirmed by Hajib Mujaha Hashim, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front's Islamic Command Council.

Meanwhile, the sultanate of Sulu met with representatives of the Bayan Muna party list led by Satur Ocampo to tap the party's help in pushing for the Sabah issue at the House of Representatives.

Idjirani said the Sulu sultanate handed over to Ocampo several legal and historical documents detailing the sultanate's claim over Sabah.

"We handed these documents for them to study. Ka Satur has promised that the Sabah issue will be pushed by Bayan Muna and seven other allied representatives at the House of Representatives," said Idjirani.-The Philippine Star

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ASEAN+8 hold military exercise in Brunei

A huge humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise involving 18 Asia-Pacific countries kicked off Monday in a bid to achieving interoperability among the defense forces of a region strained by territorial disputes.

The four-day ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and Military Medicine Exercise is being held for the first time under the platform of the meeting of ASEAN defense ministers plus their eight dialogue partner countries so as to elevate the meeting from just a dialogue to practical cooperation.

The countries involved are the 10 ASEAN member states, and eight dialogue partner countries, namely, China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.

More than 1,200 military personnel are involved in the exercise, which is mainly being held in the Borneo jungle, while many pieces of equipment have been brought in for the exercise.

Japan has deployed two C-130 transport aircraft and a Shirane-class helicopter destroyer.

The United States has sent the USNS Matthew Perry dry cargo ship and two Puma aircraft, while China has sent a huge hospital ship, Peace Ark, equipped with 300 beds and eight operating rooms.

"This exercise will lay the foundation to what militaries can do together in a constructive and meaningful manner to enhance the peace and security of the region," Maj. Gen. Aminuddin Ihsan Abidin, commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces, said in a speech at the opening ceremony of the exercise.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.-ABS-CBN News

Philippines Seeks Air Defense Systems From Israel

Notorious for dragging its feet on defense modernization, the Philippine government may finally be putting its money where its mouth is thanks to a territorial dispute with China and the belief that the U.S. is unwilling to come to its defense.

According to media reports, the Philippine military intends to procure surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) from two Israeli defense contractors. And this time, it seems to mean it.

An unnamed source told the Manila Standard, late last week that Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin could head for Israel this week to sign agreements with the two firms, which have been identified as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and Israel Military Industries Ltd. (IMI).

Once an agreement is signed, the systems could be shipped to the Philippines within three to six months, the report said. It added that the acquisition would constitute the country’s first-ever air defense capability. The systems would be deployed in the West Philippine Sea, but the report did not elaborate on any other details.

Undersecretary Abigail Valte, a spokesperson for the Presidential Palace, has refused to confirm or deny the planned acquisition. However, Communications Secretary, Ricky Carandang, confirmed on June 15 that the proposal had reached the Palace.

As part of its air defense products, Rafael is known for its Spyder short- and medium-range defense system, the Iron Dome, as well as the Stunner (a.k.a. “David’s Sling”). For its part, IMI is the maker of the Lynx MLRS, among others.

As of the publication of this article, e-mail queries to Rafael and IMI have gone unanswered.

Another source told the Standard that while the procurement plans had been floated for some time, no progress had been made for lack of willingness on Manila’s part to make the necessary capital investments. However, the territorial dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea — or the West Philippine Sea, as Philippine media refer to it — appears to have focused minds in Manila.

Another factor appears to be Manila’s displeasure with Washington’s “neutral stance” on the Philippines’ dispute with China, with some voices within the Philippine defense community accusing the U.S. of failing to abide by the Mutual Defense Treaty. If Manila cannot count on its longstanding ally to come to its rescue when the going gets rough with its much larger neighbor, then alternative options might be the way ahead, some are saying.

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea and has become more assertive in recent years. In 2012, vessels from the Philippines and the People’s Liberation Army Navy faced off for nearly two months over the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which is located approximately 220 km west of Luzon. China has also been building or expanding military air strips in the South China Sea, including a reported project at Subi Reef near Pag-Asa Island in the Spratlys, about 20 km from the Philippines’ administrative headquarters for the area of the archipelago that it claims as part of its territory. China also has an airstrip on Yongxing Island, or Woody Island, in the Paracels, which can accommodate transport and fighter aircraft, including the Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30MKK.

Aside from China, Taiwan also has territorial disputes with the Philippines, particularly over islets in the Spratlys, where Taiwan has built a 1,150 meter airstrip on Itu Aba (Taiping Island) and which it plans to extend. Tensions also escalated between Taipei and Manila following the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman on May 9 by Philippine coast guards in disputed waters between the two countries. The incident prompted a series of exercises by the Taiwanese Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force in the area, maneuvers that immediately highlighted the shortcomings of the Philippine armed forces.

Both China and Taiwan have the ability to conduct airborne maritime surveillance of disputed areas in the South China Sea using manned and unmanned aircraft, and to quickly establish air superiority during hostilities. Absent a credible air deterrent, the acquisition of air defense systems seems both appealing and logical for Manila, though some critics have argued that the Philippines should dedicate more energy to developing its naval forces.

President Benigno Aquino III released P75 billion (US$1.74 billion) to fund a military upgrade program — mostly for the procurement of ships and aircraft — during his first year in office. It remains to be seen if his administration will move ahead with the Israel deal. But the circumstances, from fears of abandonment by its ally to Beijing’s intransigence in its territorial disputes, could force Manila to finally make the jump.-The Diplomat

Singapore, Malaysia choke on haze from Indonesia

Singapore urged Indonesia on Monday to take "urgent measures" to tackle its forest fires as severe air pollution blown from Sumatra island choked the densely populated city-state.

Singapore's skyscrapers including the famous Marina Bay Sands casino towers were shrouded in haze and the acrid smell of burnt wood pervaded the island-state.

The city-state's Pollutant Standards Index soared to 152 at 9:00pm (1300 GMT) Monday, well past the officially designated "unhealthy" threshold of 100, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA) website.

It was Singapore's worst haze reading since 2006 when the PSI reached 150, statistics from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources showed.

Parts of neighbouring Malaysia were also suffering from the smoky haze, a recurring problem Southeast Asian governments have failed to solve despite repeated calls for action.

The NEA said it had alerted its Indonesian counterpart on the situation "and urged the Indonesian authorities to look into urgent measures to mitigate the transboundary haze occurrence".

But the Indonesian forestry ministry said firefighters were already tackling the blazes and water-dropping aircraft would only be deployed if local governors made a request, which they had yet to do.

Ministry official Hadi Daryanto attempted to shift some of the blame onto Malaysia and Singapore, saying their palm oil companies that had invested in Indonesia were also responsible.

"We hope the governments of Malaysia and Singapore will tell their investors to adopt proper measures so we can solve this problem together," he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on his Facebook page: "The haze situation in Malaysia is going to worsen in the coming days with winds carrying smoke from hot spots in Sumatra.

"Please reduce outdoor activity and drink a lot of water during this period. Health should remain a number one priority for everyone."

The problem occurs in the dry season as a result of forest fires in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, some of them deliberately started to clear land for cultivation.

The NEA said 138 "hotspots" indicating fires were detected on Sumatra on Sunday, and prevailing winds carried smoke over to Singapore.

People with heart and lung disease, those over 65 and children are advised by the NEA to "reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion" even in "moderate" haze conditions, defined as a reading of 51-100.

Singaporean doctor Ong Kian Chung, a respiratory specialist at the Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said he expected a surge in patients in the coming days if the haze stays at current levels.

"The usual complaints during haze are throat irritation, eye irritation, cough and difficulty breathing," he said.

Those who have pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis are more at risk, he said.

Business and air transport have so far not been affected.

Singapore is one of the world's most densely populated countries, with the majority of its 5.3 million people living in high-rise apartment blocks.

Haze was also at unhealthy levels in parts of Malaysia on Monday, particularly in the states of Pahang, Malacca and Terengganu.

Southeast Asia's haze problem hit its worst level in 1997-1998, causing widespread health problems and costing the regional economy billions of dollars as a result of business and air transport disruptions.-ABS-CBN News

Vietnam arrests third blogger in less than a month

Vietnamese police have arrested a blogger accused of posting "erroneous and slanderous" information about the communist government, state media reported Monday. The blogger is the third locked up in less than a month in an intensifying crackdown against dissent.

Dinh Nhat Uy was taken into police custody in southern Long An province on Saturday, the state-run Thanh Nien newspaper reported. He is accused of "abusing democratic freedoms," an offense punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Uy was found to have authored and posted on his blog "erroneous and slanderous" articles and photos of the government, the newspaper said.

The 30-year-old is the brother of Dinh Nguyen Kha, a student who was sentenced last month to eight years in jail for spreading propaganda against the state.

Two well-known bloggers have been arrested over the past three weeks on the same charges.
So far this year, 46 bloggers or democracy activists have been convicted and imprisoned, more than the number of people locked up for violating national security laws in the whole of 2012.

Critics accuse the government of using the security laws to silence dissent. Hanoi has said no one has been convicted of peacefully expressing their views, and only lawbreakers are put behind bars.

Foreign governments, led by the United States, and international rights groups have criticized the crackdown and called for the activists' release.-Yahoo News