Malaysia’s Economic Report Card: Positive


July 26, 2017

Malaysia’s Economic Report Card:  “Malaysia is on the right course”, says Prime Minister Najib Razak

In delivering his keynote address at InvestMalaysia 2017 in Kuala Lumpur today (July 25), Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak highlighted the economic transformation under his leadership.

He also launched a scathing broadside at the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, whose chairperson is his former mentor turned nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Among others, Najib claimed that there has been a concerted campaign to send misinformation overseas to damage Malaysia’s economy for selfish political objectives.

“So if you receive these smears, or you read it in publications that do not check the facts properly, please beware,” he told his audience, comprising local and foreign investors.–www.malaysiakini.com

Full Text of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Keynote Address (Salutations Removed)

Image result for Najib Razak at InvestMalaysia Forum 2017

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, addressing some 2,000 local and international investors attending the Invest Malaysia 2017 Forum–July 25, 2017

As the Prime Minister of Malaysia, I want to lay out the foundations needed for our nation to be counted among the very top countries in the world. We want that competitive edge, and to be a knowledge-based society – but we must always work towards those goals in ways that are sustainable, inclusive and equitable. No Malaysian must ever be left behind. All must participate and benefit from this amazing journey that we are on.–Prime Minister Najib Razak

Seven years ago, in 2010, I introduced our New Economic Model – right here, at Invest Malaysia. This model was designed to transform Malaysia into a high- income nation, and our country into a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable society, with no one left behind, opportunity made available for all, and the right fundamentals put in place to secure a stable and successful future.

We had a plan of reform – economic transformation and taking the tough but responsible choices. And it is clear today, that, aided by the hard work of millions of Malaysians, the plan has worked and is continuing to work.

Let the facts speak for themselves:

Between 2009 and 2016, Gross National Income has increased by nearly 50 percent, and GNI per capita using the Atlas method increased to US$9,850. Based on the World Bank’s latest high-income threshold of US$12,235, we have narrowed the gap towards the high-income target from 33 percent to 19 percent.

2.26 million jobs have been created, which represents 69 percent of the 3.3 million target we want to reach by 2020. Clearly, we are making the right progress towards those goals.

Inflation and unemployment have been kept low. We have attracted unprecedented levels of Foreign Direct Investment, which shows the confidence the world has in Malaysia.

But no wonder. For our growth has been the envy of the advanced economies, even during years of turmoil in the global economy. This year, the World Bank has upped their estimate. We are expected to record a rise in GDP of 4.9 percent, considerably higher than their earlier prediction of 4.3 percent.

Others have also increased their predictions – Morgan Stanley now says 5 percent, while Nomura’s forecast is for the Malaysian economy to grow by 5.3 percent this year. Only yesterday, the IMF has reviewed their forecast from 4.5 percent to 4.8 percent. And growth is expected to be higher next year. So we are on the right trajectory.

Other sets of figures support confidence in Malaysia. In the first quarter of 2017 our trade, for instance, recorded an increase of 24.3 percent – up to RM430.5 billion – compared with the same period last year.

In March, exports breached the RM80 billion mark for the first time. At RM82.63 billion, it was the highest monthly figure for Malaysian exports ever recorded.

The capital market increased by nine percent to a level of RM3.1 trillion in the first six months of this year, and now ranks fifth in Asia relative to GDP. It continues to attract wide interest from both domestic and foreign investors. In fact, in the equity market, there were net inflows of RM11 billion in the first half of 2017, compared with RM3 billion of net outflows during the whole of 2016.

The Malaysian bond market grew to RM1.2 trillion in 2016, while our Islamic capital market has recorded a hugely impressive average annual growth of 10 percent over the last six years, reaching RM1.8 trillion in June 2017.

Malaysia is also home to the largest number of listed companies in ASEAN. At US$29 billion, Bursa Malaysia also recorded the highest amount of funds raised in the last five years in any country in our 10-nation association.

And our currency, the ringgit, has been described by Bloomberg recently as, and I quote, “easily the strongest major Asian currency this quarter, climbing twice as much as the next best, the Chinese yuan”.

All of this can point to only one conclusion – our economy continues to prosper, and we are stronger than ever as a result of the reforms and the programmes the government has put in place.

The markets, the business community and companies like strength and stability. They want the certainty provided by a government that understands that the prosperity of its people is best served by being business-friendly, and that sovereignty is not compromised one inch by the record Foreign Direct Investment this government has secured.

No. It will help build the new Malaysia of the 21st century, and bring many benefits, from knowledge and skills transfers to a rise in the standard of living for the people.

The business community wants the certainty of knowing that the government is committed to the necessary reforms, and is committed to fostering a culture of entrepreneurship and to transparency, accountability, and good regulation.

On that note, I can announce that the government has, in principle, agreed to the establishment of an Integrity and Governance Unit at all GLCs, and state and ministry-owned business entities, under the supervision of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, precisely to strengthen the confidence all can, should, and do have in Malaysia.

The international business community knows that it has that certainty – with this government. Indeed, they are voting with their feet. HSBC is investing over RM1 billion to build its future regional headquarters in the Tun Razak Exchange, recognising Malaysia’s increasing status as an international financial and business centre.

Broadcom Limited, one of the world’s largest semiconductor companies with a market capitalisation of nearly half-a-trillion dollars, is going to transfer its Global Distribution Hub from Singapore to Malaysia in 2017, from where it will manage the group’s global inventory of RM64 billion a year.

Huawei, a leading global ICT solutions provider which serves more than one- third of the world’s population, has made Malaysia its global operation headquarters, data hosting centre and global training centre, with a total project cost of RM2.2 billion and employing more than 2,370 people.

Saudi Aramco is investing US$7 billion – that’s its biggest downstream investment outside the kingdom – for a 50 percent stake in Petronas’ Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development in Johor. That is the single largest investment in Malaysia, and shows the confidence Saudi Arabia has in our people, our technology, and our ability to be a strong partner with their most important business.

Others who are already here are expanding their operations. Finisar Corporation, a global technology leader in optical communications, will invest a further RM610 million in its operation in Perak – bringing its total investment in Malaysia to RM1 billion.

Coca-Cola has already invested RM1 billion in Malaysia since 2010. It announced in March an additional RM500 million investment to expand the size and production capacity of its plant at Bandar Enstek.

I could go on and on. The point is that the confidence and certainty global businesses have in Malaysia brings jobs, lifts wages and helps our workforce upskill.

It is this government that offers that certainty to businesses both in Malaysia and overseas. The opposition offers none at all. They are in chaos. Two leading members of one party can’t agree if the old opposition alliance still exists in the state of Selangor. “Yes, it does”, says one. “Oh no it doesn’t!” says the other. It’s like a Punch and Judy show!

And the latest leadership structure the opposition announced is farcical, sounding a bit like a return-to-work programme for old-age political pensioners!

It is also cynical and deceptive, with three leaders but no clarity on who has executive power among them, and DAP kept deliberately invisible despite controlling the opposition behind the scenes with the vast majority of their parliamentary seats.

As for their Prime Minister candidate, the opposition is so desperate that they are now trying to make the people believe it will be a nonagenarian – who isn’t even a member of parliament, and whose party has just one seat!

But the truth is that in a democracy numbers don’t lie, and DAP remains by far the most dominant party in the opposition. The DAP leader of the last half century is now hiding behind the man who jailed him, trying to deceive Malays into thinking that former leader is their interim candidate for Prime Minister.

Neither can the word of the opposition be relied on. Just recently, a leading member in one party said that, if Malaysia had such good relations with Saudi Arabia, why had the hajj quota not been increased? But it has! Twice this year, from 22,230 to 27,900 and then up to 30,200.

That’s another example of the benefits this government’s policies bring to the people of Malaysia – in this case, our foreign policy of forging friendship abroad, rather than holding grudges for decades, as that certain former leader still does.

But you won’t hear about the very real benefits from our engagement with Saudi Arabia, China, India or anywhere else from the opposition. In fact, they’ll tell barefaced lies about it, just as they have been feeding lies about the economy and stoking fears of economic disaster in Malaysia.

There has in fact been a concerted campaign to send such misinformation overseas to damage Malaysia’s economy for their own selfish political objectives. So if you receive these smears, or you read it in publications that do not check the facts properly, please beware.

It is not fair to the Malaysian people, and it’s not fair to the business community, both at home and abroad.

They, and you, deserve the truth. So let me tell you what a cross-section of respected international bodies has to say about this government’s record.

The OECD’s most recent economic assessment of Malaysia stated, and I quote: “Malaysia is one of the most successful Southeast Asian economies… thanks to sound macroeconomic fundamentals and its success in transforming its economy into a well-diversified and inclusive one.”

We are ranked second in ASEAN in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2017 – and 23rd overall, among 190 economies globally.

We were ranked second among the Southeast Asian nations in the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index 2016, up one place from last year’s third spot.

We are ranked third among 190 economies, worldwide, for Protecting Minority Investors, by the World Bank Doing Business Report 2017.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017 ranks Malaysia fourth among 138 economies for Strength of Investor Protection.

We rank eleventh out of 125 countries in the Venture Capital and Private Equity Attractiveness Index, by the IESE Business School in Spain.

The ratings agency Fitch recently reaffirmed our A- rating and stable outlook.

And a recent survey by BAV Consulting and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania declared Malaysia to be the “best country to invest In”. It said, and I quote, “Malaysia is the clear frontrunner in this ranking, scoring at least 30 points more than any other country on a 100 point scale.”

There is clear international unanimity that Malaysia is on the right course, and the figures and accolades I have reported to you today are the direct results of this government’s steering of the economy through uncertain and choppy global waters.

IMF reported that the resilience of our economy was due, and I quote, to “sound macroeconomic policy responses in the face of significant headwinds and risks”. And these sound policies are the reason why they said that: “Malaysia is among the fastest growing economies among peers.”

And lastly, the World Bank has shown that it agrees as well. In its latest report, issued just last month, it said that the government’s “macroeconomic management has been constantly proactive and effective in navigating near-term challenges in the economic environment”.

It concluded, and I quote: “The Malaysian economy is progressing from a position of strength.”

Does that really sound like the Malaysian economy is failing, and that we are in danger of going bankrupt, as the opposition would have you believe?

I think the World Bank, the OECD and the IMF know what they are talking about – and I’m sure, ladies and gentlemen, that you do too.

We have only arrived at that position of strength because we put in place a far-reaching economic plan; and because we have been unafraid to take the tough decisions to build up the resilience of the Malaysian economy.

We have diversified government sources of income, including reducing reliance on oil and gas revenues from 41 percent in 2009 to 14 percent today. Given the huge drop in the price of oil, just imagine how we would be suffering if we had not done that.

We also needed to widen the tax base, and so, in common with around 160 other countries, we introduced a goods and services tax, or GST. It was not popular, but it was the right thing to do – as every reputable economist has confirmed.

GST has helped us in our determination to steadily reduce the deficit – we are on course to reduce it to three percent this year, from 6.7 percent in 2009 – and GST has been crucial to retaining our good assessments by the international ratings agencies.

Yet the opposition says they would abolish it. Tell me, from where exactly would they produce the RM41 billion collected in GST revenue last year? Out of a hat?

If GST was abolished, it would not just be a matter of a revenue shortfall. The deficit would rise from 3.1 percent to 5 percent. Our ability to fund the construction of schools, hospitals and other essentials would be affected.

Government debt would rise above our self-imposed level of 55 percent of GDP. Our sovereign credit ratings would then be downgraded. Lending costs for all, such as loans for personal use, for business and for housing, would increase. The people would suffer, and they would suffer directly.

One of Malaysia’s prominent independent analysts, the Director of Economics at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, had it right when he said the idea of getting rid of GST was, and I quote, “preposterous” and “economically nonsensical”. “I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to do that,” he said.

It is another example of what the opposition do when faced with tough decisions: they seek the easy or the populist way out, regardless of whether it makes sense or is even possible. They are not being straight with the Malaysian people.

This government, however, will always be straight with the people and we will always do right by the people. We will always put their interests first, from economic welfare to security. Even if it is not the most popular thing to do, we will not hesitate – because it is the responsible thing to do for the country.

This is also one of the reasons I am not very popular with that certain nonagenarian. Under his leadership many corners were cut, and the Malaysian people had to pay a very high price so that a few of his friends benefited, even when symbols of national pride had horrendous and catastrophic decisions inflicted on them.

But I say to you now that under this government, we are cracking down on crony capitalism. No more sweetheart deals. No more national follies kept going to stroke the ego of one man. No more treating national companies as though they were personal property.

Because it is the people who suffer, and we will not tolerate a few succeeding – and not on their own merits – while the many are denied opportunities, all for the interests of a selfish few.

Now some of you may be thinking that I have not mentioned national companies where there have been issues. At 1MDB it is now clear that there were lapses in governance.

However, rather than bury our heads in the sand, we ordered investigations into the company at a scale unprecedented in our nation’s history. Rather than funnel good money after bad to cover up any issues 1MDB may have faced – the model embraced by a former leader – I instructed the rationalisation of the company.

And it is progressing well. Indeed, many of the assets formerly owned by 1MDB are thriving. One only needs to drive past Tun Razak Exchange to see the new construction for confirmation.

But let’s not forget that while there were issues at 1MDB, certain politicians blew them out of proportion, and tried to sabotage the company, in an attempt to topple the government in-between election cycles.

At the time we knew the real issue was not 1MDB, and that if 1MDB hadn’t been around they would have chosen another line of attack to try to illegitimately change the government. So we stood steadfast, and resolute, in the face of this orchestrated campaign. Because we will not be deterred from our duty, as the democratically elected government, to serve the nation.

Our priorities were made crystal clear when we introduced the concepts of the “capital economy” – which refers to the macro perspective – and the “people economy”, which is focused entirely on the people, the most precious asset of our great country.

We face challenges ahead, of course. We need to improve productivity. We need to raise the levels of education and skills. We need to put innovation and creativity at the heart of the economy of the future.

This why we have partnered with the Chinese technology leader Alibaba to create the Digital Free Trade Zone, the world’s first special trade zone that will promote the growth of e-commerce, and provide a state-of-the-art platform for both SMEs and larger enterprises to conduct their digital businesses and services.

This initiative is part of the digital roadmap which aims to double e-commerce growth from 10.8 per cent to 20.8 per cent by 2020.

But we can only achieve such targets with the people, and by empowering the people. To ensure the dignity of all, we have virtually eliminated poverty, to less than one percent. We are delighted that the income of the bottom 40 percent households has been increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 12 percent since 2009, when I took office.

But we know that cost of living issues hit those with low incomes the hardest; which is why we distributed RM5.36 billion in 1Malaysia People’s Aid, or BR1M, to 7.28 million households in 2016. This is why we ensured that essential foods and necessities are zero-rated for GST.

At the same time, we have many agencies promoting affordable housing programmes, and why we built and restored nearly 95,000 houses for the rural poor last year. Other affordable housing projects include PPA1M, for civil servants; PR1MA, for the urban middle income group; and the People’s Housing Programme for the lower income group, or Bottom 40, with monthly rents as low as RM124.

Infrastructure, too, is absolutely vital. It is crucial for our cities, and life-changing for rural communities. From 2010 to 2016 we delivered 6,042 kilometres of new rural roads, provided 350,000 houses with access to clean water, and connected 154,000 houses to electrical services.

At the end of last year, the first phase of the Mass Rapid Transit project was completed, and recently, the second phase of the Sungai Buloh-Kajang MRT Line has been launched. We now have 51 kilometres of operational line with 31 stations.

This will take 160,000 cars off road, making Kuala Lumpur more liveable. It created 130,000 new jobs, of which 70,000 are direct employment. And best of all, it was completed ahead of schedule and RM2 billion below budget. We are now planning for MRT 2 and 3.

The Pan Borneo Highway in Sarawak and Sabah will be a game changer for our people there, encouraging greater mobility, boosting industry and tourism and creating thousands of new jobs.

In a few years time, we will have the first high-speed rail link connecting Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, which will cut travel time between the two cities to 90 minutes, as compared to more than four hours by car.

And the East Coast Rail Link will bring huge benefits, jobs and a new connectedness to the people of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan in particular.

In other areas, we are seeing the benefits of our programmes for all the people. The national pre-school enrolment rate rose to 85.6 percent in 2016, for instance, as opposed to 67 percent in 2009; and we have achieved almost universal enrollment for the five years and upwards age group.

Women have seen great strides as well. The female labour force participation rate has increased from 46 percent in 2009 to 54.3 percent last year. That’s over 700,000 more women in the workforce.

And I am delighted to be able to announce that Malaysia has reached its target of women making up 30 percent of top management – that’s 1,446 women, out of a total of 4,960 in top management excluding CEOs, as of December 2016.

We want to go further, though, and have set 2020 as the date by which we want all public listed companies (PLCs) to have at least 30 percent women at board level. Because we know that when women succeed, we all succeed.

Unfortunately, we still have 17 “top 100” PLCs that have no women at all on their board. This just is not good enough, and I call on these companies to immediately address this lack of diversity. I would like to announce that, from 2018, the Government will name and shame PLCs with no women on their boards.

As many of you will know, SMEs make up 97 percent of businesses in Malaysia, and one of the hallmarks of my administration has been its support and encouragement for this backbone of our economy.

So I am pleased to be able to officially launch today the Leading Entrepreneur Accelerator Platform Market, or LEAP Market, by Bursa Malaysia. This is a new qualified market which will offer an alternative way for small and medium companies to raise funds and grow their business to the next level.

It is in line with our SME Masterplan which aims to raise the share of GDP contributed by SMEs, their numbers of employees, and their volume of exports.

And it is another of the many initiatives that my government has put in place in pursuit of our transformation, and that prove our trustworthiness as a business-friendly government of a vibrant economy.

We want you to see Malaysia as a gateway to ASEAN and the region, and with the eventual conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, we want you to see Malaysia as a base from which to access almost 50 percent of the world’s population, and over 30 percent of global GDP.

This year, we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of independence. From relatively humble beginnings, we have grown and evolved into a modern economy and society with a record to be proud of. But we are looking to the future as well – which is why we have produced the 2050 National Transformation, or TN50, initiative.

Through TN50, we want to listen to our rakyat. We want them to be heard. And through our dialogue sessions, we are listening to the aspirations of our youth for what they want the Malaysia of 2050 to be.

As the Prime Minister of Malaysia, I want to lay out the foundations needed for our nation to be counted among the very top countries in the world. We want that competitive edge, and to be a knowledge-based society – but we must always work towards those goals in ways that are sustainable, inclusive and equitable. No Malaysian must ever be left behind. All must participate and benefit from this amazing journey that we are on.

We invite you be to part of that journey, and I hope today we are able to shed light on the tremendous opportunities that Malaysia has to offer. We urge to you to look at our potential; to look at the great achievements the government’s transformation programme has delivered, and continues to deliver; and invest in Malaysia.

 

Promises and Pitfalls of the Belt and Road Initiative


July 20, 2017

Asia Pacific Bulletin
Number 388 | July 19, 2017
ANALYSIS

Promises and Pitfalls of the Belt and Road Initiative

By Bipul Chatterjee and Saurabh Kumar

China’s signature economic and foreign policy project – the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) – is the most ambitious global connectivity project ever launched by China or any country. The project aims to connect 65 Asian, African, and European countries comprising two-thirds of world’s population, through various sub-projects. The estimated investment cost for realizing this project is $4-8 trillion.

The goal of BRI is to connect China with Asia, Europe, and Africa through a network of railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines, fiber-optic lines, electrical grids and power plants, seaports and airports, logistics hubs, and free trade zones.

The promise of BRI

First, a promising aspect of this initiative is the potential reduction in transportation costs which would reduce the price of trade more broadly. At a time when countries are looking for specific measures to reduce trade costs and shying away from free trade agreements, a reduction in transportation costs as a substitute for trade deals can effectively widen the volume of international trade. A Bruegel study pointed out that a 10% reduction in railway and maritime costs can increase trade as much as 2%, while the effects of a reduction in tariffs would take a much longer time to be felt. An Asian Development Bank and Purdue University study estimated that improvements in transport networks as well as trade facilitation measures could increase the gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 % for India and 0.7 % for the South Asian region as a whole.

Second, BRI presents huge business opportunities for companies engaged in infrastructure development. A total of over $900 billion is expected to be invested in roads, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure as part of the project. This could immensely benefit countries suffering from inadequate infrastructure for their economic development.

Third, from the point of view of trade facilitation there are a number of factors that will create dynamic effects. China may accrue significant long-term trade benefits if it reduces tariffs through free trade zones, particularly on products from BRI countries. Beijing is also expected to reduce some of the non-tariff barriers hampering the prospects of foreign firms doing business in China including in those emerging areas such as internet banking and electronic commerce.

Potential Implications

Apart from the sheer number of participating countries, BRI appears to be both economic and strategic in nature. This became visible during the recently held Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The initiative came under scrutiny after European Union officials voiced apprehensions over transparency, labor, and environmental standards. This resulted in the EU’s refusal to endorse a trade statement tied to BRI. India’s non-participation due to sovereignty issues relating to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through part of Jammu and Kashmir also served as a serious dampener.

Even though BRI seeks to create trade infrastructure around India, it also encircles the country by creating a ring through land and sea routes passing through several countries with which India has sensitive relationships. However, India – with around 90% of its international trade through maritime routes and only 10% by rail and road – is comparatively less likely to see much benefit through enhanced connectivity under the initiative. Most of India’s maritime trade occurs from its western ports located in Arabian Sea and via land routes within the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal network.

In presenting BRI, China appears to be unaccommodating with respect to political and diplomatic issues as well as economic concerns. Trade facilitation alone cannot drive trade flow upward. There needs to be smart and secure management of trade routes so that end-to-end supply and value chain networks can be strengthened. In recent times, piracy has emerged as a major potential threat for railways and highways as well as maritime routes. BRI does not address these challenges in a meaningful way.

Although the project was launched around four years ago, it suffers from a lack of key information, operational strategy, terms of reference, and detailed work plan for the role of partner countries. This has eroded trust.

The Next Steps

While it is true that China’s economic and strategic interests are intertwined, it would have been beneficial for the BRI to be planned more holistically in order to give due consideration to the economic and political interests of other participating countries. For a large project like BRI, an international governance structure involving all the participating countries to institutionalize objectives and safeguard the interests of participants has to be established now with a particular emphasis on financial mechanism. The decision-making structure for the execution of BRI should be based on consensus.

“While it is true that China’s economic and strategic interests are intertwined, it would have been beneficial for the BRI to be planned more holistically in order to give due consideration to the economic and political interests of other participating countries.”

Several sub-projects of various Chinese companies to receive political and financial support from the Chinese government are being touted as part of this initiative but have nothing to do with it and should be de-coupled so that ambiguity can be cleared and only official BRI projects can be materialized. Participating countries should also get equal treatment in the financing of BRI, so that they can also reap the long-term benefits of the project, a step in this direction could be the revamping of the New Development Bank. A clear operational strategy for the entire project with an economic and political matrix should now be made to increase trust and transparency. This should clearly indicate relative as well as absolute potential losses and gains of participating countries. Active participation of global institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Arbitration, and International Court of Justice should be included for reliability as well as to resolve a potential dispute.

BRI should be executed in a selective manner with focus on economically viable sub-projects developing trade and economic corridors, for example a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor in the case of South Asia.

About the Authors

Bipul Chatterjee and Saurabh Kumar are Executive Director and Policy Analyst, respectively, at CUTS International. They can be contacted at bc@cuts.org and sbk@cuts.org.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

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Vietnam: A Promising Partner for the Trump Administration


July 12, 2017

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 387 | July 11, 2017
ANALYSIS

Vietnam is a Promising Partner for the Trump Administration

By Huong Le Thu

Image result for Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President Donald TrumpVietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and US President Donald Trump held talks in Washingotn DC on May 31 (local time), discussing ways to develop bilateral ties in a more substantive manner.

 

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first Southeast Asian Head of State – and the third from Asia (after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping) – to meet with President Donald Trump since he took office. During his late May three-day visit, he also visited New York to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Vietnamese membership in the United Nations before traveling to the White House. Phuc’s mission was to forge a personal relationship with President Trump, who has yet to form any consolidated view on policy towards Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea.

President Trump, during the May 31 meeting with Prime Minister Phuc, said that he is glad to see a more “balanced” trade relationship with Vietnam. This new trend of seeking what Trump considers to be more fair trade relationships might be challenging for any Southeast Asian state with smaller size and capacity. However, Vietnam aims to demonstrate goodwill by meeting the White House halfway on such expectations.

Switching Contexts

Almost exactly a year ago, the bilateral relationship reached a new high, with then-President Obama’s visit to Vietnam where he announced the total annulment of the arms embargo that had been in place since the war. In fact, Vietnam’s relations with the United States had been warming significantly over the past few years, coinciding with China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and with the Obama administration’s rebalance policy.

Trump’s victory in the presidential election last November generated some unease in Hanoi that the promising momentum could be lost. Just like other Southeast Asian states, Vietnam rarely figured in Trump’s campaign speeches if at all. He put Vietnam in the same category as China – unfair traders that were dumping their cheap products into the American market. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) posed an existential challenge to the whole project and was a hard hit for Vietnam. Vietnam – the least developed economy of the 12 TPP members – was widely predicted to benefit the most from the trade agreement. More importantly, TPP served as a tool for Vietnamese policy makers hoping to “escape China’s orbit” by reducing economic dependency on Chinese trade. The Trump administration’s declaration that the rebalance is dead only further exacerbated Vietnam’s strategic anxiety.

But Vietnam is no stranger to such difficult circumstances. The visit can be seen as Vietnam’s proactivity in seeking engagement with the United States. With a mission to seek US continuity in its commitment to regional affairs – especially regional maritime disputes – Phuc aimed to lay out benefits for Washington to induce it to keep ties with Hanoi strong. The prime minister tailored his economic agenda for Trump’s business mindset. Phuc – who is viewed domestically as a hands-on economic reformer – was a better fit for the role than conservative party Secretary General Trong or President Quang, who is a former Minister of Public Security.

A “Carrot” for Trump?

Despite Hanoi’s strategic concerns, bilateral economic relations have been doing well. America remains Vietnam’s largest export market; however, it ranks sixth among trade partners with which the United States has the largest trade deficits. Bilateral trade from January through May 2017 amounted to $16 billion, which constitutes an increase of 9.9% over the previous year. US exports grew by 22% compared to last year. The visit aimed at alleviating some of the Trump administration’s concerns about the growing deficit with Vietnam, which totaled $32 billion last year, a fraction of the deficit with China – $347 billion.

Among the deals Phuc signed was a $15-17 billion agreement on the exchange of technological goods and services. President Trump described this win-win outcome as “more jobs for America, more equipment for Vietnam.” In contrast to the US-Vietnam leaders’ exchange one year ago, this meeting avoided values-based talk and was highly transactional in nature. Leaders in Hanoi have taken note of this shift. With such transactional gestures to generate good will, Vietnam hopes not only to boost bilateral relations, but also to draw Trump’s attention to geo-economic and geo-strategic regional developments.

During the Obama administration, Vietnam – along with other Southeast Asian neighbors – was considered a major beneficiary of American engagement in the region, both strategically and economically. The TPP was seen as a “carrot.” Under this administration, countries like Vietnam may need to come up with their own “carrots” to attract Washington’s attention, or at least ameliorate the perception of relative loss.

A New Model for Great Power-Small Power Relations?

Vietnam remains Southeast Asia’s most vigilant actor thus far during the first months of the Trump administration. Despite the apparent challenges – particularly the White House’s low level of engagement in the region – Hanoi can look to a number of advantageous factors. First of all, Southeast Asia’s US treaty allies – Thailand and the Philippines – are growing increasingly distant from Washington and closer to Beijing. Manila’s shift under Duterte is consequential, particularly for Vietnam, because of its role in the South China Sea disputes. The recent 30th ASEAN Summit showed Manila’s reluctance to even raise the maritime issues publicly. Under these changing regional circumstances, Washington should reconsider modes of strategic cooperation beyond the traditional treaty ally framework. While Singapore also remains a US-reliant regional partner, Hanoi will be more hard-pressed to get the relationship right. This means that Vietnam might be the keenest regional actor to invest in this relationship and become Trump’s “America First” connection in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, while the issue of human rights represented an enduring obstacle for the Obama administration, Trump’s less values-based approach means that the government in Hanoi is likely to be more comfortable with Washington’s new foreign policy direction.

Best Timing Ever

For America this could be a golden opportunity to engage with Hanoi. Despite previous efforts, domestic responses to American defense engagement in Vietnam still encounter a level of resistance. At this juncture, however, there seems to be consensus among Hanoi’s domestic leadership that the region cannot afford America’s absence. Thus, Phuc’s trip – as well as his reciprocal invitation for Trump to visit Vietnam – signals more openness than ever before, and certainly a better negotiating position.

The Trump administration needs to realize that the previous lasting investments in this relationship should not be sacrificed for short-term business gains. In fact, it is the Trump administration that is likely to harvest the fruits that previous administrations carefully seeded. Vietnam is now a key actor in the region, and if the United States wants to retain its position in Asia, it should understand that long-term gains from this relationship are worth more than revenues. If Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has a global meaning, then securing the support of partners should come first. And a promising partner is Vietnam.

About the Author
Dr Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at Strategic and Defence Studies Center, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. She can be contacted at LeThu.Huong@ANU.edu.au.

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What is new in Gulf Area: We in ASEAN have seen it all


June 21, 2017

What is new in Gulf Area: We in ASEAN have seen it all, so learn from us about building Win-Win Strategic Partnerships to secure Peace, Stability and Development

by James M. Dorsey

Two competing visions of ensuring regime survival are battling it out in the Gulf.

To Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the 2011 Arab popular revolts that toppled autocratic leaders in four countries and sparked the rise of Islamist forces posed a mortal threat. In response, the two countries launched a counterrevolution that six years later continues to leave a trail of brutal repression at home and spilt blood elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

Virtually alone in adopting a different tack based on former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s principle of “riding the tide of history,” Qatar, a monarchical autocracy like its detractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, embraced the revolts and wholeheartedly supported the Islamists. The result is an epic battle for the future of the region that in the short-term has escalated the violence, deepened the region’s fissures, and put the tiny Gulf state at odds with its larger brethren.</span

Ironically, an analysis of political transition in Southeast Asia during the last three decades would likely prove instructive for leaders in the Gulf. At the core of people power and change were militaries or factions of militaries in the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar that saw political change as their best guarantee of holding on to significant powers and protecting their vested interests.

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The Young People of ASEAN

In the Philippines and Indonesia, factions of the military partnered with civil society to show the door to the country’s autocrat (Suharto). In Myanmar, internationally isolated, the military as such opted to ensure its survival as a powerful player by initiating the process of change.

Sheikh Hamad, and his son and successor, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, have adopted the principle set forward by Southeast Asian militaries and their civil society partners with one self-defeating difference: a belief that by supporting political change everywhere else they can retain their absolute grip on power at home.

In fact, if there is one fundamental message in the two-week-old Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, it is the recognition of the two countries’ ruling elites that they either thwart change at whatever cost or go with the flow. There are no half-measures.

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There is however another lesson of history to be learned from the Southeast Asian experience: change is inevitable. Equally inevitable, is the fact that unavoidable economic change and upgrading rather than reform of autocracy like Saudi Arabia is attempting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the driver’s seat has a limited shelf life without political change.

Gulf autocrats marvel at China’s ability to achieve phenomenal economic growth while tightening the political reigns. It’s a model that is proving increasingly difficult to sustain as China witnesses an economic downturn, a failure to economically squash popular aspirations, and question marks about massive infrastructure investment across Eurasia that has yet to deliver sustainable results and has sparked debt traps and protest across the region.

The Southeast Asian lesson is that political change does not by definition disempower political elites. In fact, those elites have retained significant power in the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar despite radical reform of political systems. That is true even with the rise for the first time of leaders in Indonesia and the Philippines who do not hail from the ruling class or with the ascendancy to power in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi, a long-persecuted daughter of the ruling elite, who has refrained from challenging the elite since winning an election.

The bottom line is that ruling elites are more likely to ensure a continued grip on power by going with the flow and embracing political change than by adopting the Saudi-UAE approach of imposing one’s will by hook or by crook or the Qatari model of playing ostrich with its head in the sand.

The Qatari model risks the ruling Al Thani family being taken by surprise when an inevitably reinvigorated wave of change comes knocking on Doha’s door. More ominous are the risks involved in the Saudi-UAE approach.

That approach has already put the two states in a bind as they struggle in the third week of their boycott of Qatar to formulate demands that stand a chance of garnering international support. Even more dangerous is the risk that the hard line adopted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE will fuel extremism and political violence in an environment starved of any opportunity to voice dissent.

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The ASEAN Way–Building Win-Win Strategic Partnerships to secure Peace, Stability and Development

The lessons of Southeast Asia are relevant for many more than only the sheikhdoms that are battling it out in the Gulf. International support for political transition in Southeast Asia produced a relatively stable region of 600 million people despite its jihadist elements in the southern Philippines and Indonesia, jihadist appeal to some elsewhere in the region, religious and ethnic tensions in southern Thailand and Myanmar, and deep-seated differences over how to respond to Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

That support also ensured that the process of change in Southeast Asia proved to be relatively smooth and ultimately sustainable unlike the Middle East where it is tearing countries apart, dislocating millions, and causing wounds that will take generations to heal.

To be sure, Southeast Asia benefited from the fact that no country in the region has neither the ambition nor the ruthlessness of either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Southeast Asia also had the benefit of an international community that saw virtue in change rather than in attempting to maintain stability by supporting autocratic regimes whose policies are increasingly difficult to justify and potentially constitute a driver of radicalization irrespective of whether they support extremist groups.

Former US President George W. Bush adopted that lesson in the wake of 9/11 only to squander his opportunity with ill-fated military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a flawed war on terrorism, and a poorly executed democracy initiative. The lesson has since been lost with the rise of populism and narrow-minded nationalism and isolationism.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.Image result for Learn from ASEAN embracing political change.

ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability


June 19, 2017

ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability

by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/06/18/aseans-strategic-diplomacy-underpins-regional-stability/

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) stands next to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) during the opening of World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Phnom Penh on May 11, 2017.

Try imagining a world where the Middle East is at peace. The thought seems almost inconceivable. Imagine a world where Israel and Palestine, two nations splintered from one piece of territory, live harmoniously. Impossible? This is what Malaysia and Singapore accomplished. After an acrimonious divorce in 1965, they live together in peace.

Imagine a world where Egypt, the most populous Islamic country in the Middle East, emerges as a stable and prosperous democracy. Impossible? Then ask yourself how it is that Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in Southeast Asia—with more than four times as many people as Egypt—has emerged as a beacon of democracy. Egypt and Indonesia both suffered from corruption. And both experienced decades of military rule, under Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Suharto in Indonesia.

Yet Egypt remains under military rule while Indonesia has emerged as the leading democracy in the Islamic world. What explains the difference? The one-word answer is ASEAN. ASEAN’s success in practising strategic diplomacy over the past 50 years has been one of the most undersold stories of our time.

If one were looking around the world to find the most promising region for international cooperation, Southeast Asia would have been at the bottom of the list. Home to 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists and 7 million Hindus, it is the most diverse region in the world. In the 1960s, when ASEAN was formed, the region had garnered a reputation as ‘the Balkans of Asia’, due to its geopolitical rivalries and pervasive disputes.

Today, ASEAN is more important than ever. It has become more than an important neutral zone for great-power engagement. Its success in forging unity in diversity is a beacon of hope for our troubled world.

As the ASEAN dynamic gained momentum and the organisation moved towards creating hundreds of multilateral meetings a year, the Southeast Asian region became more closely connected. Webs of networks developed in different areas of cooperation, from trade to defence.

ASEAN camaraderie has defused many potential crises in the region. One shining example of the success of ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy occurred in 2007. In August that year, the world was shocked when monks in Yangon were shot during street protests after the unexpected removal of fuel subsidies led to a drastic overnight rise in commodity prices. Since ASEAN had admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, there was pressure on ASEAN countries to make a statement criticising these shootings.

As an ASEAN member state, Myanmar had two options. It could have vetoed an ASEAN joint statement or disassociated itself from such a statement. Then there would have been a statement among the remaining nine countries criticising Myanmar. Many, including the nine other ASEAN foreign ministers, expected this to be the outcome.

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ASEAN–Building Strategic Partnerships for Peace, Stability and Development

To their surprise, Myanmar’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, agreed that all 10 countries, including Myanmar, should endorse the statement. This was a truly remarkable decision—the statement said that the ASEAN foreign ministers ‘were appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators’.

In short, even when there were sharp disagreements between Myanmar and its fellow ASEAN countries, Myanmar decided that sticking with ASEAN was preferable to opting out. Clearly the ASEAN policy of engaging the military regime in Myanmar with strategic diplomacy had succeeded. This story of engagement almost reads as a foil to the EU’s disastrous policy of isolating Syria.

ASEAN’s ability to foster peace extends outside its member states. In an era of growing geopolitical pessimism, when many leading geopolitical thinkers predict rising competition and tension between great powers—especially between the United States and China—ASEAN has created an indispensable diplomatic platform that regularly brings all the great powers together. Within ASEAN, a culture of peace has evolved as a result of imbibing the Indonesian custom of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus).

Now ASEAN has begun to share this culture of peace with the larger Asia Pacific region. When tensions rise between China and Japan and their leaders find it difficult to speak to each other, ASEAN provides a face-saving platform and the right setting to restart the conversation. In particular, ASEAN has facilitated China’s peaceful rise by generating a framework that moderates aggressive impulses. In short, ASEAN’s strategic culture has infected the larger Asia Pacific region.

One of the miracles of the Asia Pacific is that significant great-power conflict prevented, even though there have been enormous shifts of power among the great nations in the region. Of course, the reasons for this lack of conflict are complex. ASEAN’s neutrality, which helps the organisation retain its centrality in the region, is one factor in keeping the region stable and peaceful.

This is why it is important that in the growing Sino–US geopolitical competition, both sides should treat ASEAN as a delicate Ming vase that could easily break. US and Chinese interests will both suffer if ASEAN is damaged or destroyed—delicacy in dealing with ASEAN is critical for both sides.

ASEAN is far from perfect—its many flaws have been well documented, especially in the Anglo-Saxon media. It never progresses in a linear fashion, often moving like a crab, taking two steps forward, one step backwards and one step sideways. Viewed over a short period, progress is hard to see. But despite its many imperfections, in a longer view, ASEAN’s forward progress has been tangible. In these interesting times, ASEAN’s policies and practices of strategic diplomacy deserve appreciation and study by the global community.

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and co-author of The ASEAN Miracle

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.

Trump’s Rogue America


June 7, 2017

Trump’s Rogue America

by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Dr. Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001 and the John Bates Clark Medal in 1979, is University Professor at Columbia University, Co-Chair of the High-Level Expert Group on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress at the OECD, and Chief Economist of the Roosevelt Institute. A former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank and chair of the US president’s Council of Economic Advisers under Bill Clinton, in 2000 he founded the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, a think tank on international development based at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/columnist/joseph-e–stiglitz

America will suffer under Trump. Its global leadership role was being destroyed, even before Trump broke faith with over 190 countries by withdrawing from the Paris accord. At this point, rebuilding that leadership will demand a truly heroic effort. We share a common planet, and the world has learned the hard way that we have to get along and work together. We have learned, too, that cooperation can benefit all.–Joseph E.Stiglitz

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America will suffer under Donald J. Trump

Donald Trump has thrown a hand grenade into the global economic architecture that was so painstakingly constructed in the years after World War II’s end. The attempted destruction of this rules-based system of global governance – now manifested in Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – is just the latest aspect of the US president’s assault on our basic system of values and institutions.

The world is only slowly coming fully to terms with the malevolence of the Trump administration’s agenda. He and his cronies have attacked the US press – a vital institution for preserving Americans’ freedoms, rights, and democracy – as an “enemy of the people.” They have attempted to undermine the foundations of our knowledge and beliefs – our epistemology – by labeling as “fake” anything that challenges their aims and arguments, even rejecting science itself. Trump’s sham justifications for spurning the Paris climate agreement is only the most recent evidence of this.

For millennia before the middle of the eighteenth century, standards of living stagnated. It was the Enlightenment, with its embrace of reasoned discourse and scientific inquiry, that underpinned the enormous increases in standards of living in the subsequent two and a half centuries.

With the Enlightenment also came a commitment to discover and address our prejudices. As the idea of human equality – and its corollary, basic individual rights for all – quickly spread, societies began struggling to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and, eventually, other aspects of human identity, including disability and sexual orientation.

Trump seeks to reverse all of that. His rejection of science, in particular climate science, threatens technological progress. And his bigotry toward women, Hispanics, and Muslims (except those, like the rulers of Gulf oil sheikhdoms, from whom he and his family can profit), threatens the functioning of American society and its economy, by undermining people’s trust that the system is fair to all.

As a populist, Trump has exploited the justifiable economic discontent that has become so widespread in recent years, as many Americans have become downwardly mobile amid soaring inequality. But his true objective – to enrich himself and other gilded rent-seekers at the expense of those who supported him – is revealed by his tax and health-care plans.

Trump’s proposed tax reforms, so far as one can see, outdo George W. Bush’s in their regressivity (the share of the benefits that go to those at the top of the income distribution). And, in a country where life expectancy is already declining, his health-care overhaul would leave 23 million more Americans without health insurance.

While Trump and his cabinet may know how to make business deals, they haven’t the slightest idea how the economic system as a whole works. If the administration’s macroeconomic policies are implemented, they will result in a larger trade deficit and a further decline in manufacturing.

America will suffer under Trump. Its global leadership role was being destroyed, even before Trump broke faith with over 190 countries by withdrawing from the Paris accord. At this point, rebuilding that leadership will demand a truly heroic effort. We share a common planet, and the world has learned the hard way that we have to get along and work together. We have learned, too, that cooperation can benefit all.

So what should the world do with a babyish bully in the sandbox, who wants everything for himself and won’t be reasoned with? How can the world manage a “rogue” US?

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the right answer when, after meeting with Trump and other G7 leaders last month, she said that Europe could no longer “fully count on others,” and would have to “fight for our own future ourselves.” This is the time for Europe to pull together, recommit itself to the values of the Enlightenment, and stand up to the US, as France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, did so eloquently with a handshake that stymied Trump’s puerile alpha-male approach to asserting power.

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“…the rest of the world cannot let a rogue US destroy the planet. Nor can it let a rogue US take advantage of it with unenlightened – indeed anti-Enlightenment – “America first” policies”– Dr. Joseph E.Stiglitz, Columbia University

Europe can’t rely on a Trump-led US for its defense. But, at the same time, it should recognize that the Cold War is over – however unwilling America’s industrial-military complex is to acknowledge it. While fighting terrorism is important and costly, building aircraft carriers and super fighter planes is not the answer. Europe needs to decide for itself how much to spend, rather than submit to the dictates of military interests that demand 2% of GDP. Political stability may be more surely gained by Europe’s recommitment to its social-democratic economic model.

We now also know that the world cannot count on the US in addressing the existential threat posed by climate change. Europe and China did the right thing in deepening their commitment to a green future – right for the planet, and right for the economy. Just as investment in technology and education gave Germany a distinct advantage in advanced manufacturing over a US hamstrung by Republican ideology, so, too, Europe and Asia will achieve an almost insurmountable advantage over the US in the green technologies of the future.

But the rest of the world cannot let a rogue US destroy the planet. Nor can it let a rogue US take advantage of it with unenlightened – indeed anti-Enlightenment – “America first” policies. If Trump wants to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, the rest of the world should impose a carbon-adjustment tax on US exports that do not comply with global standards.

The good news is that the majority of Americans are not with Trump. Most Americans still believe in Enlightenment values, accept the reality of global warming, and are willing to take action. But, as far as Trump is concerned, it should already be clear that reasoned debate will not work. It is time for action.