Saturday, August 31, 2013

Indonesian minister wants cancellation of Miss World

WILL SHE HAVE A SUCCESSOR? Miss World 2012 Yu Wenxia. Photo from the Miss World Facebook page

Indonesia's religious affairs minister has called for the Miss World beauty pageant to be cancelled, as opposition in the Muslim-majority country mounts the week before the contest opens in Bali.

Suryadharma Ali said that the organizers should follow the advice of the nation's top Islamic clerical body, which last week called for the contest to be scrapped even after organizers agreed to axe the bikini round.

"The Indonesian Ulema Council has expressed strong opposition to Miss World because it doesn't fit with Islamic teachings that say Muslim women should cover immodest parts of their bodies," the minister said in a statement late Thursday.

The minister is the first government official to publicly voice opposition to the pageant, dealing a fresh blow to the Britain-based organizers.

His statement came the same day a commissioner from the country's National Human Rights Commission said he opposed an event that "put women's bodies on display."

The local organizers were not fazed by the minister's comments however, saying the issue was not his domain and that "the show must go on."

"This is not an Islamic country and this event is an issue of culture, not religion," Adjie S. Soeratmadjie, corporate secretary of broadcaster and local organizer RCTI told AFP, adding several other ministers supported Miss World.

While Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation, its constitution is not Islamic and recognizes several religions.

READ: Indonesian Muslims vow to stop Miss World

The organizers revealed in June that the famed bikini round was being axed for the pageant in Indonesia in a bid to avoid causing offense, and contestants would instead wear Balinese sarongs.

Nevertheless, hardline group Islamic Defenders Front has not been appeased and still plans to hold protests on the outskirts of the capital Jakarta, where the pageant's final will be held on September 28.

The competition opens on September 8 in Bali, a Hindu-majority island known for its many beaches where female tourists from around the world sunbathe in skimpy bikinis with few problems.

Hardline groups in Indonesia have forced the cancellation of events deemed "un-Islamic" in the past. - Rappler

Talks advance on wider US military role in Philippines

The United States and the Philippines are moving towards an agreement that will expand the American military's presence in the Philippines, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday during a visit to Manila.

Hagel and President Benigno Aquino "reaffirmed the progress being made" in talks begun earlier this month to allow a bigger military footprint in the Philippines, the Pentagon chief said.

"This progress is welcome and encouraging. I noted that our negotiating teams are working hard to finish the framework agreement in the near future," he told reporters.

Hagel's optimistic comments appeared to open up the possibility that the negotiations, which resumed this week in the US capital, could be wrapped up in time for President Barack Obama's expected visit to Southeast Asia later this year.

An accord opening the way to a more visible role for the American military marks a shift in relations between the two countries, more than two decades after the United States closed down large bases amid anti-American sentiment.

But the Philippines now faces territorial disputes at sea with China and has asked for US assistance to better monitor coastal waters. The United States, meanwhile, is seeking to bolster its ties across Southeast Asia, partly to counter China's growing military power.

The proposed deal would allow more US troops, aircraft and ships to temporarily pass through the Philippines, at a time when Washington is refocusing its attention on Asia after a decade of war.

But Hagel sought to reassure Filipinos, whose senate had voted out the American presence in the early 1990s, saying Washington had no interest in setting up permanent outposts.

"The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines -- that would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality," he said at a joint news conference with his Filipino counterpart.

"Instead, we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and partners," he said.

The Philippines once hosted tens of thousands of US soldiers at two bases near Manila, but they were forced to leave in 1992. A new accord in 1999 allowed troops to return to the Philippines for joint military exercises every year.

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the proposed agreement could permit US forces to regain access to Subic Bay, a large naval base north of Manila that the Pentagon handed over to Philippine control in 1992.

"Subic Bay is one of the facilities that was mentioned for the US forces to (have) access in. As soon as the framework agreement is complete, we will provide the necessary access to all these facilities," Gazmin added.

The US defence chief went ahead with his overnight visit to Manila despite a tense showdown over Syria, with US forces prepared to launch punitive strikes against the Damascus regime if ordered.

Even with the turmoil in the Middle East, Hagel said the US remained committed to a strategic focus towards Asia, as well as its 1951 mutual defence pact with Manila.

Hagel was in Manila at the end of a week-long Asian tour amid fresh strains between the Philippines and China over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The tensions have forced Aquino to call off a planned visit on September 3 to the Chinese city of Nanning to attend a trade conference.

The Philippines accused China of aggressively pushing its territorial claims over most of the South China Sea, including waters close to Philippine shores.

Hagel endorsed efforts by China's smaller neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to negotiate a South China Sea "code of conduct", as well as Philippine efforts to solve the disputes.

Without mentioning China, he said that Washington wanted nations to settle their disputes through international law "without coercion or militarised attempts to alter the status quo".

Hagel held separate talks with Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, and visited the US military cemetery in Manila before heading back to Washington. - Channel News Asia

Russia joins ASEAN declaration on prevention of conflicts at sea

Defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and partners in dialogue have signed a declaration on preventing conflicts at sea.

Representatives of Russia, the United States, China, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia joined the gathering alongside ASEAN member states in Brunei on August 29.

Mohammad Yasmin bin Haji Umar, a minister in the office of the prime minister of Brunei, said after the meeting that the dialogue had been fruitful for prospects of developing practical cooperation.

“We are looking forward to holding joint exercises to learn how to provide security at sea, fight terrorism and carry out peacekeeping operations,” he added.

The Brunei declaration is designed to stimulate cooperation among the military agencies of ASEAN and the organisation’s partners, as well as to avoid undesirable incidents at sea.

“We are going to strengthen interaction among the ASEAN nations and their partners and increase collective responsibility for regional security,” the declaration said.

ASEAN defense ministers and their partners meet next in Malaysia in 2015. - Philippines News Agency

Cambodian King urges parties to tackle election row based on constitution

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni on Friday urged the ruling and opposition parties to resolve their disputed election results based on the kingdom's constitution.

"Cambodia is an independent and sovereign state and has the Constitution as the supreme law, which is respected by the whole nation," the King said in a royal letter from Beijing where he has stayed for routine medical checkup since Aug. 12.

"Resolving national issues should be based on the Constitution and tasked to responsible institutions which are determined in the Constitution and other laws in the kingdom," he said in the royal letter, which was released to the media by the Office of the Council of Ministers.

He said the results of the July 28 general election would be officially issued no later than September 8.

"I'd like to appeal to Cambodian people to continue maintaining national peace and dignity," he said.

It was the second time King Sihamoni called for the two political parties to solve the contested poll results peacefully under the country's laws.

Initial election results showed that the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen won the poll with 68 of the 123 parliamentary seats, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of long-time opposition leader took the remaining 55 seats.

But the CNRP rejected the results, claiming that it should have won 63 seats, with the CPP getting the remaining 60 seats if alleged poll irregularities were fairly resolved.

The King's royal letter came a day after Sam Rainsy set September 7 to hold a massive nonviolent protest against the poll results if the CPP did not resume talks with the CNRP towards the formation of a proposed independent investigation committee into alleged poll irregularities.

The CPP issued a statement on Thursday, saying that the party was ready to resume talks with the CNRP, but ruled out the possibility of talks on the formation of a special investigation committee since it violated the country's Constitution.

"Article 136 in the Constitution stipulates that the Constitutional Council shall have the right to examine and decide on contested cases involving the election of Assembly members and Senate members," the CPP said.

Currently, the Constitutional Council, which is the country's final arbiter, has been resolving complaints filed by the opposition party against the election results, but the opposition accused the Constitutional Council of being loyal to the CPP.

Under the country's Constitution, a new parliament will be inaugurated no later than 60 days after the election.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Aug. 2 that a new parliament and a new government would be established as scheduled despite the opposition's boycott.

According to the Constitution, he said, a new government would be formed by a 50 percent plus one majority, or 63 lawmakers, in the new parliament.

Hun Sen, 61, who has been in power for 28 years, will extend his power for further five years through the election victory. - Philippines News Agency

Japan eyes defence budget increase, Marines-like unit

Japan's defence ministry is looking for its biggest budget hike in two decades, partly to create a Marines-like force, it revealed Friday, as neighbours fret about Tokyo's rising assertiveness.

Military bosses want more than 4.8 trillion yen (US$49 billion) -- three percent up on last year -- with much of their focus on safeguarding remote islands, as a sovereignty row with China refuses to fade.

The move mirrors Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policy of a more assertive diplomacy and a more active military.

Tokyo and Beijing have repeatedly butted heads over the ownership of the Tokyo-controlled islands called the Senkakus, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus, with official Chinese ships and aircraft regularly testing Japanese forces.

Abe has long voiced worries over defence at a time when China is increasing its naval activities in waters around Japan, and as unpredictable North Korea continues its missile and nuclear programmes.

He has also called for a stronger military alliance with the United States, which is in the process of a re-balancing of its forces under President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia.

China and South Korea -- victims of Japan's military misadventures in the first half of the 20th century -- have expressed unease in recent months about noises in Tokyo towards bolstering its military.

The budget request for fiscal 2014, which will begin April, represents a three-percent spending increase, making a second-straight annual increase after a 0.8-percent rise in the initial budget for the current fiscal year to March 2014.

If approved, it would mark the largest rise since fiscal 1992.

Under the request, the ministry plans to create a special amphibious unit designed to protect the southern islands and to take them back in case of enemy invasion.

It would spend 1.3 billion yen to buy two amphibious assault vehicles and increase participation in US-led training programmes with the US Marines.

The Marines are generally regarded as an offensive force, while Japan's constitution bars it from taking hostile acts and limits the role of its already well-equipped armed forces to that of defence.

The air defence force would create a new early-warning unit also in the southern region with radar-capable planes.

The ministry will conduct a full study on future purchases of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that can takeoff vertically like a helicopter.

Among big ticket items, the navy wants to buy a 73.3-billion-yen destroyer, a 51.3-billion-yen submarine, and a 50.8-billion-yen submarine rescue ship.

The ministry also wants to have a battery of PAC-3 surface-to-air anti-ballistic missile systems permanently located at its Tokyo headquarters. The system was deployed when North Korea conducted what is largely viewed as ballistic missile tests.

The ministry wants 24 billion yen for programmes related to cyber defence.

Some 3.7 billion yen would go toward studies of technologies to detect and track stealth jets.

While the shopping list appears quite extensive, the vast bulk of the increased budget request accounts for personnel cost, with the expected expiry of a multi-year salary freeze for civil servants.

The freeze was implemented to pay for the reconstruction of the region hit by the 2011 tsunami-earthquake disasters that prompted the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The increased request also came as a result of foreign exchange fluctuations, with a lower yen boosting the prices of foreign-made military equipment.

The request might also change, as it currently does not account for an expected increase of the consumption tax.

Abe is yet to announce whether he will go ahead with the tax hike from the current five percent to eight percent from April.-Channel News Asia

Friday, August 30, 2013

Indonesia hikes rates to fight economic turbulence

Indonesia's central bank hiked interest rates for the third time in three months Thursday at an unscheduled meeting to calm investors after a plunge in the rupiah and stocks.

Emerging markets have been sent into a tailspin in recent weeks on fears that the United States may taper off its huge stimulus programme.

Indonesia has been particularly badly hit with investors also fretting about its domestic problems, such as a widening current account deficit, slowing growth and high inflation.

As the sell-off accelerated in the past week, Bank Indonesia called an extra policy meeting for Thursday -- two weeks before its board was due to meet -- and announced a 50-basis-point hike in its key interest rate to 7.00 per cent.

Bank spokesman Difi Johansyah said that the board of governors saw much "pressure and uncertainty" weighing on the Indonesian economy.

Investor reaction was positive, with the Jakarta benchmark index closing 1.92 per cent higher. It has fallen heavily in recent weeks, at one point going below the psychologically important 4,000 barrier.

The bank has now hiked rates by a total of 1.25 percentage points since June as it seeks to halt a slide in the value of the rupiah and tackle inflation which hit a four-year high after a hike in fuel prices.

The Indonesian rupiah has lost about 12 per cent his year, hitting four-year lows.

The bank also tweaked monetary policy in several other areas including a hike in the rate it pays lenders for overnight deposits by 50 basis points to 5.25 per cent.

Officials hope this will encourage lenders to leave their rupiah with the central bank, thereby reducing money supply and in theory stopping the rupiah from weakening further.

The bank stood firm at its last scheduled meeting, on August 15, amid fears that too sudden a tightening of monetary policy could hit already slowing growth.

However, the market turmoil of the past week -- which has seen stocks across Asia tumble and the Indian rupee fall to a lifetime low -- prompted the bank to call Thursday's meeting.-Channel News Asia

Philippine Q2 GDP matches China

PH still fastest growing economy in SE Asia

The Philippine economy posted robust expansion in the second quarter, matching the pace of China as the two fastest growing in Asia, as strong fundamentals and domestic spending buttressed the country from the region's fund outflows.

The solid growth pace lifted the peso from nearly 3-year lows and would help the Philippines keep its favoured status among investors amid more market volatility.

The Philippines has overtaken emerging economies such as Indonesia as a safer investment bet due to prudent management of fiscal and monetary policy. It secured investment grade from ratings agencies this year.

The economy expanded an annual 7.5 percent in the second quarter, above the 7.3 percent market estimate, and compared with a revised 7.7 percent in the first three months of the year.

From the previous three months, the economy expanded 1.4 percent in the second quarter, higher than the 0.8 percent forecast in a Reuters poll. It was the slowest pace in a year and below the upwardly revised growth of 2.3 percent in the March quarter.

"The growth came mainly from consumer and public spending, buttressed by increased investments in fixed capital," Jose Ramon Albert, secretary general of the National Statistical Coordination Board, told reporters, adding that the services sector and manufacturing and construction also pushed up growth.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan told a media briefing the economy was on course to outperform its GDP growth target this year of 6-7 percent. He also said the country's strong fundamentals would allow it to manage risks coming from market volatilities and global headwinds.

The Southeast Asian country has sustained annual growth of above 7 percent for four quarters in a row.

Like many of its neighbours in Southeast Asia, the Philippines has not been immune to the global downturn or fund outflows as the U.S. Federal Reserve starts winding down monetary stimulus.

The peso is down nearly 8 percent this year. Exports and imports fell more than 4 percent in the first half of the year.

But with a tenth of the Philippines' 97 million population abroad and sending an average $1.7 billion in remittances every month, domestic demand in the country has remained solid, helping cushion the economy from slumping trade.

Higher government expenditures and spending related to the mid-year elections in May also boosted domestic consumption, economists said, while manageable inflation allowed policymakers to keep interest rates at record low levels, supporting growth.

Public construction jumped 31 percent in the second quarter, lower than the previous quarter's 45.6 percent annual gain.

But the Philippines is expected to face growth risks in the second half.

"Government spending may slow post-election, with some concerns that the ongoing case on the abuse of a discretionary fund may curb state expenditure," said Bernard Aw, analyst at Forecast PTE Ltd in Singapore.

He added delays in public infrastructure projects could create more uncertainty that could affect investments, while recent fund outflows due to Fed tapering fears may potentially lead to destabilising capital flows in the economy.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Amando Tetangco said the latest data should help boost investor confidence, and support the peso and the local stock market. He added that the authorities will ensure monetary policy would support non-inflationary robust growth. 

The central bank next meets to review policy on Sept. 12. It has kept its policy rate steady at a record low of 3.5 percent since December 2012, but has slashed the rate on its special deposit account (SDA) facility by more than 150 basis points this year to divert credit to more productive use. -ABS-CBN News

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Malaysia to launch "biggest" crackdown on illegals

Malaysia will launch what local media on Wednesday called its "biggest-ever" crackdown on an estimated half a million illegal foreign workers, as a crime wave focused the nation's attention on security.

Under the three-month operation to begin on Sunday, authorities would seek to deport some 500,000 foreigners, mostly from the country's vast and less-developed neighbour Indonesia, Immigration Department Director General Alias Ahmad said.

The operation would involve 135,000 personnel led by the department, he was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying.

Normally laid-back Malaysia has been on edge over dozens of reported shootings, many fatal, that authorities have blamed largely on a gang turf war.

While foreigners are not generally seen as a key source of crime, the presence of large numbers of undocumented workers has fuelled security worries.

The violence has added to a widespread public perception of rising crime such as thefts, burglaries, and robberies, despite government data showing crime has dropped sharply.

The figures have been met with wide scepticism.

The national police force, which has endured heavy criticism in recent months as it appeared to be caught unprepared by the shooting spree, launched a separate crackdown on August 17 targeted at gangs.

Police have said 1,400 people suspected of being involved in criminal activity have been detained under that operation.

Alias said authorities decided it was time to go after the estimated half-million people who initially registered under an amnesty scheme for illegal workers two years ago but subsequently failed to come forward to be legalised or deported.

"It is now time for full enforcement," Alias told The Star. "They can hide, but how long can they hide?"

Alias confirmed the remarks to AFP in a text message but he could not be reached for further comment.

Southeast Asia's third-largest economy is a magnet for migrant workers from poorer neighbours Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mynamar, Vietnam, Nepal and elsewhere, who fill low-paid construction, factory and plantation jobs.

The amnesty scheme was aimed at registering illegals, and 1.3 million came forward.

Of those, 500,000 have received documents permitting them to work, while 330,000 were repatriated.

The rest have not completed the process, with some workers expressing fear it would lead to deportation as the scheme requires them to be sponsored by a valid employer. - Channel News Asia

Hagel pushes 'pivot' in Asia talks as Syria clash looms

Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel assured Asian nations on Wednesday that Washington's long-term "pivot" to the region was not just rhetoric even as an escalating confrontation with Syria dominates his immediate crisis planning.

US officials said Hagel also called for restraint in the disputed South China Sea at a gathering in Brunei of defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and elsewhere.

The two-day ASEAN meeting is the main event of Hagel's week-long trip to Southeast Asia but the mounting crisis between Syria and the West has repeatedly intruded.

Hagel told the BBC that American forces were in place and "ready to go" if ordered by President Barack Obama to punish the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.

Syria came up in a meeting between Hagel and South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, with both men voicing grave concern about the use of chemical weapons, a US defence official told reporters.

Hagel told Kim that gross violations of international law cannot go "unanswered", said the official.

The Syria showdown is the latest Middle East crisis to complicate Washington's stated "pivot" towards Asia.

The Obama administration wants to bolster trade and security ties with vibrant Asia-Pacific economies after a decade pre-occupied by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Briefing reporters, Hagel said he had told Japan's defence minister, Itsuno Onodera, that the US alliance with Japan "one of the important keys to our rebalance".

In the BBC interview broadcast on Wednesday, Hagel insisted the United States was serious about the pivot, saying "this area of the world is going to continue to be a significant part of redefining international affairs".

Despite Pentagon budget cuts, US officials say Washington will stick by plans to provide more military aid to countries anxious about China's growing muscle.

Tensions have risen over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with ASEAN countries accusing Beijing of taking an aggressive stance.

Southeast Asian governments have called for a code of conduct to prevent conflict over the rival claims, a proposal endorsed by the United States.

China has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue, but this year promised to enter into future talks with ASEAN.

China also has feuded with Japan over rival claims in the East China Sea.

"This is not about encircling China or anybody else," Hagel said in the BBC interview. "This is about economic interests, it's about the world, it's about prosperity, stability and security."

The Pentagon chief was scheduled on Wednesday to meet China's defence minister, General Chang Wanquan, on the sidelines in Brunei, after having hosted him in Washington earlier this month.

Hagel acknowledged "differences" with China but said "the only way to get through those differences is to work through them".

In his talks with the Japanese and South Korean defence ministers, they discussed the North Korean nuclear threat, calling for vigilance as well as diplomacy, officials said.

"While the Department of Defense remains focused on fulfilling security commitments, Secretary Hagel stated that diplomatic efforts are fundamental to encouraging North Korea to pursue the path of peace," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

North Korean sabre-rattling has eased in recent days but Hagel said the regime must take steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and allow in UN inspectors.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, met his Vietnamese counterpart on Wednesday and accepted an invitation to visit the country in 2014, officials said.

He also was due to meet Myanmar's defence minister in Brunei, before heading to the Philippines on Thursday to wrap up his trip.

The ASEAN gathering brings together defence ministers from 10 Southeast Asian countries plus Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand. - Channel News Asia

South Korea jet trainer crashes, killing 2 pilots

Two pilots were killed Wednesday, August 28, when a South Korean air force jet trainer crashed near the southwestern city of Gwangju, the defense ministry said.

Investigations were underway to determine the cause of the crash of the T-50 aircraft, a spokesman said.

It was the second crash in less than a year involving a T-50, South Korea's first indigenous supersonic aircraft jointly developed by Korea Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin.

A T-50B aircraft crashed into a mountain in the northeast last November, killing a pilot.

Indonesia in 2011 ordered 16 T-50s and Seoul is pursuing other contracts from the Philippines and Iraq. -Rappler

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

China Internet hit by 'largest ever' attack

China has been hit by the "largest ever" attack on its Internet structure, crashing the country's .cn servers, according to a government-linked agency.

The national domain name resolution service came under a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack for around two hours early on Sunday, the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) said in a statement.

Domain name resolution is a key part of how the Internet works, converting a website name into a set of digits -- the IP address -- that computers can recognise. The service in China focuses on websites with the .cn extension.

DDoS attacks are attempts to overload a server with a huge number of requests, so that it interrupts or suspends its functions.

A second wave of the assault in China two hours later grew into "the biggest of its kind ever", CNNIC said, without giving any indication of who might have been responsible.

"The resolution of some websites was affected, leading visits to become slow or interrupted."

Washington has repeatedly accused China of waging hacking attacks on the websites of US government agencies and businesses.

But Beijing has denied the accusations, saying China itself is a victim of Internet attacks. - ABS-CBN News

Indonesia condemns alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria

Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said Indonesia condemned the alleged use of chemical weapons that took innocent lives in Syria, a statement released by the ministry said on Tuesday.

"International community cannot let the condition in Syria continues worsening. If proved, the use of chemical weapons marks the lowest point in the Syrian conflict," the minister said during his meeting with the United Nations (UN) secretary general deputy at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States on Aug. 26.

"We need to support the investigation efforts carried out by the UN into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. The international community should make sure that perpetrators committing the inhumane deeds take responsibility over their behaviors," the minister said as quoted in the statement.

UN inspectors have commenced their investigation into the case on Monday after obtaining clearance from the Syrian government.

Opposition groups in Syria claimed that 1,300 people were killed in the chemical weapon attack carried out by Syrian forces on Wednesday last week. - Philippines News Agency

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Singapore's manufacturing output rises 2.7% on-year in July

Singapore's manufacturing output beat market expectations to post a 2.7-per cent increase in July from a year ago, led mainly by higher contributions from the transport engineering and electronics clusters.

Economists polled had earlier expected July's industrial production output to climb 1.5 per cent on-year.

This is in contrast to the re-stated 4.2-per cent decrease in June.

According to data from the Economic Development Board, total manufacturing output grew 3.6 per cent, excluding biomedical manufacturing,

Compared to June, industrial production contracted 1.9 per cent in July. Excluding biomedical manufacturing, output fell 0.1 per cent.

Singapore's improved factory output in July was driven mainly by a 13.9-per cent on-year jump in output from the transport engineering cluster.

The marine and offshore engineering segment posted a strong gain of 19.0 per cent, while the aerospace segment grew 7.2 per cent with more repair and maintenance jobs from commercial airlines.

Meanwhile, electronics production output rose 3.5 per cent in July, compared to the same period a year ago. In particular, growth was supported by higher export demand in the other electronics modules and components segment, which saw output surge 38.1 per cent.

Output from the general manufacturing cluster also increased 5.4 per cent in July. Growth in the miscellaneous industries segment more than offset the declines in the food, beverages and tobacco and printing segments

The biomedical manufacturing cluster saw its output contract 1.3 per cent on-year in July. The medical technology segment increased 16.3 per cent in July, but pharmaceuticals production fell 4.4 per cent.

Output from the precision engineering cluster also declined 7.4 per cent on-year in July.  

Economists say the latest numbers continue to point to a slow but steady turnaround in the manufacturing sector. But they warn that there are "pockets of risks" ahead. 

DBS Bank's senior economist, Irvin Seah, said: "A lot has to do with the low base effect in the same period last year. We are still looking at a gradual easing off in industrial production.

"Overall manufacturing as well as GDP growth in the second half of the year is likely to be sideway. In fact, I do not discount the possibility that we could possibly see a quarter-on-quarter contraction in GDP growth in the third quarter."-Channel News Asia

US to sell attack helicopters to Indonesia

The United States announced on Monday it would sell eight Apache attack helicopters to Jakarta as it seeks to bolster ties with Southeast Asia despite concerns over the Indonesian military's rights record.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel disclosed the $500 million deal -- which includes pilot training and radars -- on a visit to the Indonesian capital, his second stop on a week-long tour of the region.

It is aimed at strengthening military ties as part of the US "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific amid concern about Beijing's growing assertiveness, but Hagel's attention has been diverted from the trip by a confrontation with Syria.

"Providing Indonesia these world-class helicopters is an example of our commitment to help build Indonesia's military capability," said Hagel after talks with his Indonesian counterpart, Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro.

"A strong Indonesia is good for the region."

A defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that the sale of the Apache helicopters -- the first ever to the Indonesian military -- was "prudent to support security in the region".

Officials did not say when the helicopters, which are made by US aircraft maker Boeing, would be delivered.

The US froze defence cooperation and arms sales to Indonesia over concerns about abuses during President Suharto's three-decade rule, which ended in 1998. Military ties were only restored in 2005.

Under Suharto, the army's special forces were accused of extrajudicial killings, and the helicopter sale comes despite continued concern about the military's rights record.

The Dutch parliament last year rejected a proposed sale of tanks to Indonesia, its former colony, over human rights concerns.

However Yusgiantoro told reporters on Monday that the armed forces had undergone a process of reform since 1998. "We have changed now."

The sale also comes amid growing concern in Washington about Beijing's assertive stance in South China Sea disputes.

While Indonesia does not have competing claims with Beijing over the sea, like others such as the Philippines, it is a major regional power and is seen as holding a key role in resolving disputes.

Hagel began his Southeast Asia tour last week in Malaysia. After Jakarta, he heads to Brunei on Tuesday for a regional defence gathering that will include China.

On Thursday he flies to the Philippines on his final stop. -Channel News Asia

Japan says it could be "main player" in Asia conflict

Japan could be a key participant if conflict breaks out in Asia, the defence minister said on Monday, warning China is seeking to exploit difficulties between allies.

The comments by Itsuno Onodera, who said Japan needs new equipment and must reconfigure its defence, come as Tokyo is embroiled in an ongoing spat with Beijing over disputed territory that has sparked warnings of a possible armed skirmish.

"The crisis that Japan faces now may lead to situations in which the country may have to be involved as a main player," Onodera told a symposium in the capital.

"Before, it was expected that Japan would only be part of a group (involved in any confrontation)," he said, in apparent reference to the US-Japan security alliance.

"Or that a conflict might occur only in areas surrounding the country," he said.

"Japan's defence has been designed for that scenario.

"But Japan (now) needs to have a good defence to protect the country, which can mean equipment, new aircraft, defence systems or cyber protection."

Onodera said Tokyo needed to be wary of China's maritime expansion in the South and East China Sea.

"China has made more and more advancement into the seas," he said.

"When it did not have as much military capability, China tried to promote dialogue and economic cooperation, setting territorial rows aside.

"But when it sees a chance, any daylight between a nation and its ally, it makes blunt advancements. This is what is happening and what we should learn from the situation in Southeast Asia."

Onodera's speech came as he readied to head to Brunei to participate in the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM+) starting on Wednesday.

The group gathers defence ministers from Southeast Asian nations and eight other regional powers -- Japan, China, South Korea, the US, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Onodera said he will "repeatedly explain Japan's position to his Asian counterparts" and that Tokyo's motives were entirely defensive.

Hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this year boosted Japan's defence budget for the first time in over a decade against the backdrop of growing concerns among many countries in the region about China.

But any move to strengthen military capabilities rouses hostility and suspicion in the region, much of which laboured under the brutal yoke of Japanese occupation until the end of World War II.

Since coming to power in December, Abe has repeatedly made noises about altering Japan's pacifist constitution, which bars the country from offensive action.

The defence ministry last month published a paper saying Japan needed amphibious units and surveillance drones to protect its outlying islands.

Japan's moves come against a backdrop of increasing Chinese activity in waters far from its mainland coast.

The two countries have spent the last year involved in a dispute over the sovereignty of the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.

Vessels and planes from both sides have played cat and mouse in their seas, with some observers warning a slip from either nation could provoke a military confrontation, with possibly wide-ranging ramifications.

On Monday, Tokyo scrambled fighter jets after a Chinese government plane approached airspace Japan claims as it own. - Channel News Asia

Monday, August 26, 2013

US, Philippines vow freedom of navigation amid Asia sea quarrels

The United States and the Philippines have vowed to maintain freedom of navigation in a Southeast Asia increasingly beset by maritime territorial quarrels, the two military allies said.

The military chiefs of the two countries made the pledge in the United States on Thursday as their governments held talks on expanding the American military presence in the Philippines, a joint statement said.

"We share a common interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and transit of people and goods across the seas," said Philippine military chief General Emmanuel Bautista and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We resolve to... strengthen the Southeast Asia security environment in a manner that protects the interests of all who value unimpeded commerce transiting through the maritime domain, while deterring those who would restrict it or act in a manner that might place it at risk."

The Philippines has been looking to the United States for military and political support as part of efforts to protect its claims to South China Sea waters from an increasingly assertive China.

Both generals called for a "rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas by peaceful means -- within the framework of international law".

Though the statement did not mention China, the Philippines has accused Beijing of endangering Asian peace and maritime commerce through its claims over most of the South China Sea, including areas close to the coast of the Philippines.

While the United States has insisted it does not take sides in the dispute, it has been seeking to rebuild its military footprint in the Philippines, a military ally since 1951, as part of President Barack Obama's strategic "pivot" to Asia.

"We expect a robust, balanced and responsive security partnership... (through) mutually beneficial bilateral military training, exercises and operations, provided by an increased rotational and temporary presence of US military forces operating from Armed Forces of the Philippines-controlled facilities," the statement said.

The allies held talks in Manila on August 14 to draw up rules for temporary deployments of more US forces and military assets in the Philippines.

The negotiations are scheduled to resume in Washington before the end of the month.

The Philippines had hosted tens of thousands of US soldiers at two bases near Manila, but they were forced to leave in 1992 after the Philippine Senate voted to end their lease contracts amid strong anti-American sentiment.

A new agreement in 1999 allowed US troops to return to the Philippines for joint military exercises every year.

US special forces have also been rotating through the southern Philippines since 2002 to help local soldiers who are fighting Islamic militants. - Channel News Asia