Friday, September 06, 2013

Philippines arrests Taiwanese fisherman

A Taiwanese man has been arrested for illegal fishing in the Philippines, police said Thursday as the two neighbours seek to mend fences after the shooting death of another Taiwanese fisherman in May.

Tsai Po, 54, was detained on Tuesday while diving for lobsters off the coast in the Philippines' Batan group of islands near the maritime border with Taiwan, provincial police officer Victor de Sagon told AFP.

"They have been doing this for a long time. This is rampant poaching," said de Sagon, adding that Tsai was among a group of suspects who were illegally fishing just off Siayan island.

He is to be charged with poaching, which is punishable by a US$100,000 fine, confiscation of his catch, fishing equipment and fishing vessel, the officer added.

De Sagon rejected reports in the Taiwanese press that the detained suspect had been treated roughly.

"We are not violating his rights. He is being fed well, he underwent a medical check-up, and he is in regular contact with his wife and the (de facto) Taiwanese embassy in Manila," de Sagon said.

Taiwan's Central News Agency quoted the fisherman's wife Shih Li-hua as saying he had been handcuffed and asked to kneel on the floor for four hours.

The arrest followed a diplomatic spat triggered by the shooting death of a 65-year-old crew member of a Taiwanese fishing boat on May 9 by a Filipino coastguard patrol.

Taipei banned the hiring of new Filipino workers on the island, where some 87,000 Filipinos are employed according to official figures.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou also rejected an initial official apology and demanded criminal charges against the coastguards for an act that he described as "cold-blooded murder".

The two countries began repairing the rift after Filipino authorities in August recommended homicide charges against the coastguards following pressure from Taiwan, which is not diplomatically recognised by Manila.

Taiwan has since lifted the hiring ban on Filipino workers.

The shooting occurred in waters near the Batan group of islands.

Taiwan also lays claim to the waters. - ABS-CBN News

Philippines recalls envoy to China amid new sea spat

The Philippines has recalled its ambassador to China for consultations, the foreign department said on Thursday amid fresh tensions in a seething maritime territorial row.

Ambassador Erlinda Basilio flew back to Manila as the defence department this week accused China of laying 75 concrete blocks on disputed territory in the South China Sea, foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

"She was asked to come home for consultations, and she will (be in Manila) for the next few days," Hernandez told reporters.

He said Basilio was advising Filipino officials on how to handle the alleged Chinese actions at Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop about 220 kilometres off the main Philippine island of Luzon, within the country's internationally recognised exclusive economic zone.

Philippine defence officials have expressed concern the Chinese block-laying could be a prelude to building structures at the shoal.

The outcrop is about 650 kilometres from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

Asked if Manila would lodge a diplomatic protest or undertake other options, Hernandez said: "We are still studying the matter." 

The Philippine foreign ministry earlier said President Benigno Aquino had also called off a planned trip to China on Tuesday for a trade fair after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on the trip.

The concrete blocks have raised concerns in Manila that China could be planning construction in the waters, as it did in Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in another area of the sea, in 1995.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected the Philippine allegations of block-laying on Wednesday, while asserting China's sovereignty over the shoal.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to the coasts of its neighbours. - Channel News Asia

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Thai rubber protesters target southern airport

Thousands of angry rubber farmers blocked the main entrance to an airport in southern Thailand Wednesday, increasing pressure on the government to provide assistance to cope with a price slump.

The decision to target Surat Thani airport -- used by some foreign tourists to travel to the popular island of Koh Samui -- appeared to mark an escalation in the action by the farmers.

Airport director Attaporn Nuang-udom said flights were still operating but passengers were forced to use alternative access roads.

"We have notified airlines to ask passengers to gather at a certain place and we'll send a bus to pick them up and drive them to the airport," he said.

Riot police with batons and shields stood guard near the airport, which the government has vowed to defend.

Protests by royalist activists in 2008 that paralysed Thailand's main airports dealt a heavy blow to the kingdom's economy.

"We will not allow an airport shutdown because it will affect tourism and confidence," Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnog told reporters in Bangkok.

Thailand is the world's top exporter of natural rubber and farmers say they have been hit hard by weak global markets.

"The rubber farmers' income is not enough to live," said one of the protest leaders, Manoon Uppla, 53.

"We cannot control people. Their feelings against the government are very strong," he said.

The government earlier declined demands to guarantee a rubber price of 120 baht ($3.7) per kilo -- about 50 percent higher than the current price on world markets.

Instead it proposed paying farmers 1,260 baht per rai (0.4 acres) of rubber plantation to help with production costs, along with funds to boost the efficiency of rubber processing -- an offer rejected by the protesters.

"They want us to guarantee the price at 92 baht per kilo," said Surat Thani governor Chatpong Chatraphuti, who took part in negotiations on Wednesday.

He said the government representative would take the proposal to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to consider.

Thailand has been rocked by several mass protests in recent years, with both supporters and opponents of Yingluck's brother -- fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- taking to the streets.

In 2010 two-month demonstrations in Bangkok by the pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" drew 100,000 protesters at their peak before being crushed in a military crackdown under a previous government.

More than 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the demonstrations and nearly 1,900 were injured in Thailand's worst political bloodshed in decades. - Channel News Asia

Economists raise Singapore 2013 growth forecast to 2.9%

Private sector economists have raised their economic forecast for Singapore.

According to the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) latest Survey of Professional Forecasters, economists expect the Singapore economy to grow by 2.9 per cent this year -- up from their previous median estimate of 2.3 per cent in June.

The upgrade comes after the Singapore economy expanded by a better-than-expected 3.8 per cent in the second quarter, compared to a year ago. This was much higher than the median forecast of 1.5 per cent reported in the June survey.

The government also raised the country's growth outlook for the year to 2.5 to 3.5 per cent from an earlier forecast of 1 to 3 per cent.

According to the quarterly poll, GDP growth in the July to September quarter is now estimated at 4 per cent. This is higher than the 3.5 per cent that was reported previously.

Economists said the upgraded outlook for Singapore's economy stems from a few reasons - recovering growth in the US, a bottoming out in China and a brighter economic picture in the Eurozone.

They said the recent market volatility is unlikely to have a crippling effect on Singapore's growth.

But some said other risks remain.

Mizuho Bank's senior economist, Vishnu Varathan, said: "Let's begin with the US. One thing that's been fading into the background is the debt ceiling crisis. They've not resolved that as of October. That could lead to another bout of shakiness in the markets. We can't discount that.

"The other one is China. While the incoming data has been encouraging, China is still walking a very tight rope. So they're not going to go on a no holds barred credit binge anytime soon. So whilst they're trying to balance policy, the net effect may be rather variable, so it could lead to soft patches as well." 

On inflation, economists have also reduced their median estimate for this year's consumer price index to 2.5 per cent, compared to 2.8 per cent reported in the June survey.

For Q3 2013, headline inflation is projected at 2.1 per cent. However, MAS core inflation is expected to come in at 1.9 per cent in 2013, slightly higher than the 1.8 per cent in the previous survey.

Standard Chartered Bank's economist, Jeff Ng, said: "We see limited upside from demand-pull inflation at the moment. The recent cooling measures for the housing market are expected to moderate housing inflation further.

"And for the COE prices, even though they're high, they're likely to be dampened by high base effect. So we will watch out more for supply side inflation where wages could go up and that could put pressure on core inflation to go up this year."

Meanwhile, economists expect certain sectors of the economy such as the finance and insurance sector as well as the wholesale and retail sector to fare better than others in the second half of the year.

Growth in the finance and insurance sector is expected to climb 10.6 percent compared to the previous 6.1 percent forecast in June, while wholesale and retail trade is forecast to increase by 3.5 percent compared to 0.9 percent in the previous poll.

Jeff Ng said: "We look for improvement in manufacturing, especially the electronics in terms of the biomedical sector. For the services sector, we still look for the finance and business services sector to perform very well and in line with the their stellar performance in the first half."

Economists also expect the MAS to stick to its current policy stance of a gradual and modest appreciation of the Singapore dollar. 

Nineteen economists took part in the quarterly survey conducted by MAS in August.  - Channel News Asia

China's Li stresses ASEAN trade, downplays rows

China's trade with Southeast Asia could more than double to $1 trillion by 2020, Premier Li Keqiang told regional leaders, downplaying simmering territorial disputes and stressing their "common destiny", state media reported Wednesday.

Li called for an upgraded version of the free trade deal between the two sides and insisted that "disruptive factors" should not get in the way of regional cooperation, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Trade has grown six-fold over the past decade to $400 billion in 2012 between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), it said.

But Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea -- believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and natural gas -- even waters close to the coasts of its neighbours, and has been increasingly assertive over the issue in recent years.

Li downplayed the disputes while addressing the 10th China-ASEAN Expo and business and investment summit in the southern city of Nanning, reiterating Chinese calls for dialogue.

"We have also noticed that there exist some disruptive factors in the region that are against stability and development, but they are not mainstream," he said according to a transcript of his speech carried by Xinhua.

"The Chinese side maintains that the South China Sea disputes are not an issue between China and the ASEAN, and they should not and will not affect the overall China-ASEAN cooperation."

"China's new government will... more firmly and effectively build a community of common destiny to share peace and prosperity," he said, adding that China and ASEAN "have the power to create a 'diamond decade' in the future".

ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have often overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, and Taiwan also claims it all.

The dispute has rumbled on for decades, but Beijing's actions to support its claim in recent years have raised concerns with its neighbours, particularly Hanoi and Manila.

China rejects international arbitration, preferring to deal with the issue on a one-to-one basis while maintaining it has sole territorial rights.

Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung was present at the trade fair, but Philippines president Benigno Aquino did not attend after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on the trip, Manila said, signalling they were related to the territorial row.

The Philippines accused China on Tuesday of laying concrete blocks on Scarborough Shoal, a small group of reefs and rocky outcrops within its territory in the sea.

After years of resistance China has agreed to meet ASEAN members later this month in the eastern city of Suzhou to discuss a "code of conduct" for the waters, meant as an upgrade from a 2002 non-binding "declaration of conduct".

In Nanning, Li also briefly expressed willingness to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a way to boost trade.

Beijing has not supported the US-led initiative -- which is seen as a trade framework meant to exclude China -- but the state-run China Daily reported in July that authorities were becoming "positive" to it.

China is willing to "discuss exchanges and interactions with frameworks such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement," Li said in his speech Tuesday.

ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. - Channel News Asia

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Philippines says China is building at disputed shoal

The Philippines accused China on Tuesday of laying concrete blocks on a small group of reefs and rocky outcrops within its territory, the latest escalation in a hostile maritime dispute.

Defence department spokesman Peter Galvez released to the media an aerial photograph of what he said were about 30 blocks on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

"It's unfortunate that they keep on doing activities that do not contribute to our pursuit towards regional peace," Galvez told reporters.

Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin briefed members of parliament about the issue on Tuesday, telling them the concrete blocks were a "prelude to construction", according to Galvez.

Galvez said the photograph was taken from a Philippine navy plane on Saturday, and three Chinese coastguard vessels were also observed there.

AFP could not immediately verify the photograph. When asked for comment, Chinese embassy spokesman Hua Zhang told AFP by email: "I will look into it."

Scarborough Shoal is about 220 kilometres (135 miles) off the main Philippine island of Luzon, within the country's internationally recognised exclusive economic zone.

The outcrop is about 650 kilometres from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to the coasts of the Philippines and other neighbours.

The Philippines and Vietnam have in recent years repeatedly accused China of becoming more aggressive in staking its claims to the disputed waters, which are believed to sit atop vast gas and oil reserves.

The Philippines says China has effectively occupied Scarborough Shoal, home to rich fishing grounds, since last year by stationing vessels there and banning Filipino fishermen.

Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and the rivalries have been a source of tension for decades.

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China, in particular, have become increasingly tense in recent years.

The Philippines angered China in January this year by asking a United Nations tribunal to rule on the validity of the Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea.

China rejects international arbitration, preferring to deal with the issue on a bilateral basis while maintaining it has sole territorial rights.

Legislator Walden Bello, who attended Gazmin's briefing on Tuesday, told AFP Filipino politicians were concerned China could be laying the foundations for a military garrison on Scarborough Shoal.

He said the tactics were similar to when Chinese took control of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1995.

"We're worried that this could be the start of the same process of erecting concrete structures and asserting de facto ownership like they also did at Panganiban Reef," Bello said, referring to Mischief Reef by its Filipino name.

In 2002, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted a non-binding "declaration of conduct" for the South China Sea to discourage hostile acts.

All sides agreed then not to use threats or force to assert claims.

They also pledged in the declaration to refrain from inhabiting uninhabited islands or other features in the South China Sea, and to "exercise self-restraint" in conducting activities that would escalate disputes.

But China has since refused to turn it into a legally binding "code of conduct".

In another related issue, the Philippine foreign ministry said President Benigno Aquino called off a planned trip to China for a trade fair this week after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on the trip.

Ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez did not disclose the conditions, saying Chinese foreign ministry officials had "advised" the Philippines not to make them public, but signalled they were centred firmly on the territorial row.

"The president stood firm in the defence of the country's national interest," Hernandez said. - Channel News Asia

Indonesia jails former traffic police chief in US$18m graft scandal

Indonesia's anti-corruption court jailed the country's former traffic police chief for 10 years on Tuesday after he built up an $18 million empire by accepting enormous bribes.

The sentencing of Djoko Susilo brings to an end a dramatic case that has captivated Indonesia, and is a major victory for anti-graft investigators battling against the odds in one of the world's most corrupt countries.

Susilo reportedly earned a humble police salary of $1,000 a month -- but the country's anti-graft agency seized assets from him, including houses, cars and even petrol kiosks, worth 200 billion rupiah (around $18 million).

After taking several hours to read the 3,000-page indictment against Susilo, a five-judge panel unanimously found him guilty of corruption and money laundering.

"It was clear to the panel he had committed acts of corruption," said Judge Anwar, who goes by one name, as the sentence was handed down after the verdict was announced.

Susilo was also ordered to pay a fine of 500 million rupiah ($45,000) at the end of the lengthy trial, which started in April.

Prosecutors had sought an 18-year jail term and a one-billion-rupiah fine.

The case began with the discovery that a tender for driving simulators in 2011 had been rigged, with Susilo accused of syphoning off 32 billion rupiah from the failed project.

Police initially sought to protect Susilo by refusing to let the anti-graft commission, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), handle the case.

But they were finally forced to hand the case over -- and the anti-corruption agency quickly discovered a vast empire built on the back of corrupt payments.

The KPK has been granted extraordinary powers to investigate the rich and powerful in Indonesia, ranked 118th most corrupt country in the world in a 176-nation index compiled by Transparency International.

The commission has helped put senior officials and powerful businesspeople behind bars, in the process winning the fervent support of ordinary Indonesians, many of whom live in grinding poverty. - Channel News Asia

Singapore's electronics sector continues to recover

Singapore's electronics sector continues to recover in August, with its latest Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) rising for the seventh straight month.

However, the manufacturing economy grew slower than expected last month.

The PMI for the manufacturing economy fell unexpectedly, dropping 1.3 points to 50.5 in August, its lowest reading since February this year.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion, while that below 50 shows a contraction.

Economists said the decline was partly due to fewer working days during the month as a result of the Hari Raya and National Day holidays.

However, the electronics sector brought some cheer.

The electronics PMI rose a significant 1 point to a 3-month high of 51.3, on stronger orders.

Electronics exports also grew at a faster pace, with a reading of 54 points -- the highest since May 2011.

Song Seng Wun, CIMB Research's regional economist, said: "Overall orders, particularly... export orders, are picking up pace -- very encouraging, certainly indicating and supporting the recovery in external demand story.

"We are talking about the US economy on firmer growth trend -- we are seeing firming demand for automobiles and other durables.

"In Europe, the area-wide PMI is also showing modest growth as well, with an overall reading above 50 for the second straight month, after basically two years of contraction.

"That should feed into gradual improvement as far as the tech manufacturers and exporters are concerned."

Some economists said that as the electronics sector continues to recover, some manufacturers may face challenges in hiring and managing higher wage cost, amid a tight labour market.

Another downside risk ahead is the geopolitical tension in the Middle East.

Concerns over a military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons sent oil prices up nearly 3 percent last week.

But it has since eased as fears of an imminent strike against Syria faded.

United Overseas Bank's senior economist Alvin Liew said: "If the spike in oil prices is just temporary, I think Singapore is well positioned to deal with it.

"But if this proves to be something more pronounced and more permanent, at least lasting for a few quarters, then that surge in energy prices could have a big impact, definitely, on businesses, especially manufacturing."

Barring unforeseen events, economists expect a modest recovery in Singapore's manufacturing sector this year, and the electronics sector could lend some near-term support to offset the volatility of the biomedical cluster. -Channel News Asia