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Can the ASEAN Economic Community be a success?

Prof. Murray Hunter

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After almost two decades of discussion, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will be proclaimed on 31st December. The AEC is a potentially significant and competitive economic region, should it be allowed to develop according to the aspiration of being a “single market and production base, with free flow of services, investments, and labour, by the year 2020”.

The ASEAN region as a composite trading block has the third highest population at 634 million, after China and India. GDP per capita is rapidly rising. The AEC would be the 4th largest exporter after China, the EU, and the United States, with still very much scope for growth from Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam from a diverse range of activities ranging from agriculture, food, minerals and commodities, electronics, and services. The coming AEC is already the 4th largest importer of goods after the United States, EU, and China, making it one of the biggest markets in the world.

Unlike the other trade regions, the AEC still has so much potential for growth with rising population, rising incomes, growing consumer sophistication, and improving infrastructure.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the upcoming AEC is the expected boost this will give to intra-ASEAN trade. Most ASEAN nations have previously put their efforts into developing external relationships with the major trading nations like the EU, Japan and the US through bilateral and free trade agreements. To some extent, the potential of intra-ASEAN trade was neglected, perhaps with the exception of the entrepot of Singapore.

The AEC is an opportunity to refocus trade efforts within the region, especially when Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia are rapidly developing, and Myanmar is opening up for business with the rest of the region.

The social, cultural, political and business interchange within the region has traditionally been low, until the rapid increase of intra-ASEAN travel, due to the low-cost airline explosion within the region.

Today intra-ASEAN trade is approximately 25% of total trade, growing around 10.5% per annum, and expected to reach 30% of total ASEAN trade by the year 2020.

However the necessary infrastructure to support intra-ASEAN trade growth is lagging behind with a delay in the completion of the Trans-Asia Highway in Cambodia, and vastly inadequate border checkpoints between Malaysia and Thailand in Sadao and Kelantan.

Some infrastructure development projects have been severely hit by finance shortfalls within member states.

There are a number of outstanding issues concerning the growth and development of the AEC.

The ASEAN Secretariat based in Jakarta has a small staff, where the best talent is lacking due to the small salaries paid. The Secretariat unlike the EU bureaucratic apparatus in Brussels relies on cooperation between the member state governments for policy direction, funding and implementation of the AEC.

Thus the frontline of AEC implementation are the individual country ministries, which presents many problems, as some issues require multi-ministry cooperation and coordination, which is not always easy to achieve as particular ministries have their own visions and agendas. Getting cooperation of these ministries isn’t easy.

There are numerous structural and procedural issues yet to be contended with. At the inter-governmental level, laws and regulations are yet to be coordinated and harmonized. So in-effect there is one community with 10 sets of regulations in effect this coming January 1st. Consumer laws, intellectual property rights, company and corporate codes (no provision for ASEAN owned companies), land codes, and investment rules are all different among the individual member states.

There are no integrated banking structures, no agreement on common and acceptable currencies (some ASEAN currencies are not interchangeable), no double taxation agreements, and no formal agreements on immigration.

There is not even any such thing as a common ASEAN business visa. These issues are going to hinder market access for regional SMEs. Any local market operations will have to fulfil local laws and regulations which may not be easy for non-citizens to meet and adhere to.

Even though there are some preferential tariffs for a number of classes of ASEAN originating goods, non-tariff barriers are still in existence, which are insurmountable in some cases like the need for import licenses (APs) in Malaysia, and the need to have a registered company which can only be formed by Thai nationals within Thailand.

Some of these problems are occurring because of the very nature of ASEAN itself. ASEAN was founded on the basis of consultation, consensus, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other members. This means that no formal problem solving mechanism exists, and the ASEAN Secretariat is a facilitator rather than implementer of policy. Illegal workers, human trafficking, money laundering, and haze issues between member states have no formal mechanisms through which these issues can be solved from an ASEAN perspective.

This weakens the force for regional integration.

One of the major issues weakening the potential development of the AEC is the apparent lack of political commitment for a common market by the leadership of the respective ASEAN members. Thailand is currently in a struggle to determine how the country should be governed. Malaysia is in the grip of corruption scandals where the prime minister is holding onto power. Myanmar is going through a massive change in the way it will be governed. Indonesia is still struggling with how its archipelago should be governed. There is a view from Vietnam that business within the country is not ready for the AEC.

Intense nationalistic sentiments among for example Thais, exasperated by the recent Preach Vihear Temple conflict along the Thai-Cambodian border need to be softened to get full advantage out of the AEC. The dispute in the International Court of Justice over Pedra Branca, and the Philippine rift with China over the South China Sea show the delicacy of relationships among ASEAN members. The recent Thai court decision on the guilt of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun in the murder of two young British tourists may also show how fragile intra-ASEAN relationships can be.  

The AEC is going to fall far short of achieving its full potential of becoming a major influence in global trade.

The AEC is not intended to be the same model as the EEC. The AEC is far from being any fully integrated economic community. The lack of social, cultural, and political integration within the ASEAN region indicates the massive job ahead that Europe had been through decades ago. There is still a lot of public ignorance about what the AEC is, and lack of excitement or expectation for what should be a major event within the region. Respective national media are scant on information about the forthcoming launch of the AEC.

Economic nationalism is very strong within ASEAN. Malaysia has its Government Linked Companies (GLCs), State Economic Development Corporations (SEDCs), Thailand its Crown Property Bureau, and family business empires within each country which have vested interests in keeping market access at the current status quo. The AEC is seen as a threat to many existing business empires, which fear open market access. Many of these business empires have enormous political influence upon their respective governments.  

The AEC could be deemed to conflict with the special advantages bumiputera businesses in Malaysia enjoy in areas of government tendering and contracting.

It is yet to be seen how some of these businesses will behave within an AEC environment. However what can be said for sure is that the AEC will not create any level playing field for ASEAN businesses in the foreseeable future.

With the problems the EU is currently facing, maybe it is wisdom in hindsight that the leaders of ASEAN have been extremely cautious in their approach to the formation of the AEC. Any opening up of the labour market could also be a potential disaster. A free flow of labour across ASEAN would potentially put many under-qualified people out of work according to Gyorgy Sziraczki, the director of the ILO in Vietnam.

This could lead to economic downturns in some of the more susceptible parts of the AEC like Lao PDR and Cambodia. The AEC rather than promoting intra-ASEAN trade, lead to a more domestic orientation, where unemployed may see the informal economy looking much more attractive means of making a living.

However, if the leadership of ASEAN see the opportunities of dramatically increasing intra-ASEAN trade, then the AEC has great potential to assist the region withstand any steep economic downturn around the rest of the world.

Projects that are able to boost regional synergies like coordination of education, river system water management, energy, transport, banking and finance, may very quickly improve regional integration. Regional clustering can be developed in education, auto-parts, food production, electronic parts, and the value adding of basic commodities to benefit the economies of the region.

Infrastructure development will be vital to the success of the AEC. For this purpose the ASEAN Infrastructure Fund, financed by member countries and the Asian Development Bank will be extremely important. The recent ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur also reactivated the ASEAN Joint Consultative Committee to resolve trade and investment issues.

The slowness of the AEC should not be seen as a failure of ASEAN. We can see the slow pace that ASEAN makes decisions, with the long period it is taking to admit Timur Leste as ASEAN’s 11th member.

The vital questions here are whether the AEC will be able attract direct foreign investment to the region? Take advantage of rising opportunities like international education? Stop the talent drain from the region with China becoming more aggressive in attracting the best from the region? and Create an ASEAN awareness within the region?

Sadly, one may expect the fate of the AEC to be similar to that of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT), and the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-The Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). They are in existence by name, but with little real substance on the ground.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

In the midst of a pandemic, the EU must suspend its proposed palm oil ban

Nik Nazmi

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The world is finally waking up to the realization that the Coronavirus pandemic could result in a global death toll in the millions – if not higher. Hopefully, that won’t be the case, and a cure or at least a prophylactic medicine can be found soon to end “World War V” (as many are calling the Coronavirus pandemic, with the V standing for Virus)

COVID-19 is already projected to cost the global economy up to $2 trillion according to UNCTAD. Indeed, even before the crisis, the status of the global economy was pretty dire. UNCTAD issued a similar warning in September of last year that 2020 would likely see a global recession.

Contributing to UNCTAD’s outlook in 2019 were a plethora of trade wars around the world. Most notably between China and the United States and of course, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is also tied to similar concerns. 

Those issues may have stolen the headlines but, plenty of minor skirmishes also involved the EU and the United States and even the United States and Turkey have played out of the past view years. Thus, prior to “World War V” the world had seen a plethora of protectionist battles being rage. And now, protectionist tensions are already beginning to impact “World War V” too – with the US recently hitting out at Germany, Russia and Turkey for introducing emergency export controls on medical supplies. 

Though it is not a headline stealer, the plight of my own country Malaysia is worth reviewing. A similar trade war is brewing between the EU and ASEAN. One that will impact millions of lives in a global economy that is already on the ropes given the impact of the Coronavirus. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The European Union’s 2016 Global Europe Strategy hinted that an EU-ASEAN free trade deal was around the corner.

Yet, nearly four years later (despite some progress such as the recently signed EU-Singapore trade deal) such an historic agreement seems farther than ever. This year an EU blanket ban on palm oil importation is to be implemented. This will adversely impact Malaysia and many countries in the Global South. The ban comes over deforestation concerns. Yet, Malaysia has passed several landmark bills to ensure the sustainability of Palm Oil in recent years. The globe’s first government-backed mandatory certification standards for making palm oil sustainable were passed in Malaysia in November 2018. We need no push from the European Union for that to happen -it was something the government had long been working on in line with demand from consumers.

More importantly, an authoritative study from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that if done correctly, palm oil uses fewer resources (in this case land, fertilizer, and other chemicals) than a similar amount of oil produced from rapeseed, soy beans or other conventional equivalents. The overall findings of that report were verified in a second scientific study published in Nature this month by researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

The current EU ban on palm oil makes no exemption for sustainable palm oil and has been a veritable economic death sentence in the current climate. Malaysia’s agriculture sector, of which palm oil is the biggest cash crop, employs over 1.5 million workers in Malaysia or 10 percent of our overall work force.

Since 40% of palm oil is grown by small holder farmers (farmers who have already been hard hit by the Corona onslaught), this regulation will hurt the most vulnerable communities in our nation hardest.

Malaysia, with over 1600 cases now has the worst Corona virus problem in Asia after South Korea and of course, China. Four people have died it what is already the worst outbreak of the virus in all of South East Asia. The economic impact of this is hard to foresee but, already the government of Malaysia has already issued a stimulus package for the economy, and we are set to see a spike in unemployment in our country over the Coronavirus. After all, the Palm oil industry was one of the first in Malaysia (the largest producer of the crop in the world) to respond to the crisis by telling members to go into a lockdown mode over concerns of spreading the virus.

However, coronavirus may ironically, be the trigger that finally compels both parties’ to compromise and agree on an historic trade deal that takes into consideration the needs of both the EU and ASEAN. After all, the EU also cannot afford to persist in a trade stand-off with ASEAN at a time of potential economic catastrophe.

For a trade deal to become a reality, steps must be taken by both parties. Malaysia must renew its commitment towards sustainable palm oil cultivation, something it has already shown a tangible commitment towards. And the EU must accept a longer implementation timeframe given the current global turmoil brought on by Covid-19. Such a deal can be a win-win for both trading blocs as sustainable palm oil could help power the EU’s push for a “Green New Deal” to power a 21st century infrastructure grid.

The alternative – curtailing global trade at a time when it will plunge the world into the most significant recession in living memory and jeopardize millions of lives – in Malaysia and beyond, is simply not an option.

In the aftermath of “World War V” hopefully we can bury protectionism and trade wars in the interest of global recovery. The sooner we act, hopefully, there will be much less to bury.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam as ASEAN Chair and UNSC non-Permanent Member

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc receives ASEAN President’s Hammer from his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on November 4, 2019. Source: vietnamup.com

Vietnam took the charge as ASEAN chair from its predecessor Thailand in November 2019, and the agenda for the year 2020 is diverse and challenging. The ASEAN as an organization accepted few geo-political changes and accepted that Indo-Pacific is a larger framework to which it needs to have a strategy. The result was the Indo-pacific outlook statement and this projected that ASEAN as an organization need to adjust to the evolving power configurations.

The developments in the context of Southeast Asia- be it the recurrent tensions in South China Sea because of assertive China; the Indonesian haze, and the tensions between Indonesia and China on illegal fishing in South China Sea are annual challenges for the ASEAN chair. The problem of Indonesian haze and other environmental problems needs cooperative approach. The ASEAN would have to prepare itself for the global recession which is looming large because of the Corona virus epidemic and the resultant slow down which is likely to affect not only Asia but the entire world. Another challenge this year would be for Vietnam to bring about the required understanding among ASEAN members who are party to the South China Sea dispute to come to a converging point so that the Code of conduct can become a legal document with compliance and penalty provisions. The Draft Code of Conduct (COC) is a large document encapsulating the aspirations and the legal position of each of the claimant parties. However, how to address all concerns and come to a common draft would be an arduous task. Vietnam would have to meander its way through deft diplomacy and skillful negotiations. Further, Vietnam is increasingly seen as an emerging economy and a strong nation which need to undertake a regional role. This needs few changes from the set template for consensus building and have to take measures to bring a common dialogue points. The foreign Ministers retreat which happens in the first quarter of each year would be the agenda maker for the number of meetings which would take place the whole year. Vietnam being the emerging economy as well as an APEC members, and also one of the stakeholder in RCEP process would have to make sure that RCEP is signed ‘with or without India’. However, if Vietnam by virtue of its comprehensive strategic partnership and excellent relations with India can bring the country back to the negotiating table, it would a shot in the arm for the ASEAN chair. India chose not to attend the Bali meeting to discuss RCEP with ASEAN members.

ASEAN chairmanship does have its own share of problems. However, taking cue from Vietnam chairmanship in 2011 when the same set of problems were existent, the country abided by the ASEAN way rather than proposing out of box thinking and solutions. The geo-political scene and the strategic compulsions do not give that easy comfort zone in decision making and it need strong adjustments both in terms of building a consensus and solving problems. At the international level, questions have been raised whether ASEAN centrality is a useful instrument in resolving maritime issues or it has diminishing returns. ASEAN community programme- Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural Community would require midterm review in 2020 given the fact that the year 2025 is the deadline for its blueprint. Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan III (2016-2020), needs a strong effort as only 19 out of 26 actions (73.1%) have been achieved. 

One of the biggest challenge for the ASEAN nations would be to counter the spread of 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)in the region and work out a comprehensive plan of action to control its spread and work out a common collaborative programme in the region. This might include regional centre for public health emergencies, strengthening regional public health laboratories network, monitoring the working of risk communication centres, and draw lessons from China’s experience in fighting the epidemic. Vietnam would have to address it on priority as it might have political, economic and social impact.

In the wake of tensions in South China Sea, the utility of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) is under duress, there is a need to review and redraw the obligations under TAC for all the major powers of the region. For that there is a need to adopt two pronged approach of building trust and confidence among the dialogue partners as well as protecting interests of the region. The converging point for the dialogue partners would be humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), counter-terrorism, and humanitarian mine action.

Taking over as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is a unique opportunity for Vietnam to integrate developmental objectives of ASEAN and synergize it with UN initiatives. The convergence between ASEAN Community Vision 2025, and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Complementarities Initiative) need deep research and effort and in this regard to feasibility study can be commissioned by Vietnam. The challenges related to illicit drug production, trafficking (both human and drugs) needs to be highlighted both at ASEAN and in the UN. ASEAN has adopted the ‘Plan of Action to Prevent and Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ and this needs representation and support from the UN bodies. Vietnam position would be catalyst in this regard so that regional efforts should be promoted in this regard. Cyber security has been addressed in ASEAN also as well as in UN but in terms of regional monitoring mechanisms across the world there is a deficit. Taking cue from ASEAN initiatives such as ‘Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence (ASCCE), and the Cybersecurity Capacity Building initiatives’ undertaken with support from Singapore and Japan respectively ’, Vietnam an make a case in UN for strengthening such institutions. Within ASEAN the efforts needed to streamline and collaborate on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and digital connectivity are insufficient and therefore it requires better dialogue mechanisms on a regular basis among the ASEAN members.

Vietnam would also have to take cognizance of the possibility of Practical Arrangements (PA) between ASEAN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would need special attention at the UNSC so as to create a framework in Southeast Asia on nuclear safety, security, and safeguards. This will have a futuristic utility in terms of nuclear technologies and their applications. Within UN Vietnam will have to make special efforts to gain support for effective implementation of the SEANWFZ Treaty and submit it to the First Committee to the United Nations General Assembly.

ASEAN faces a number of cases related to Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and this needs to be addressed at global level so that a convention on IUU can be adopted. Vietnam would have to make special mention in this regard under the UNSC discussion agenda. Vietnam must also address challenges related to education, promotion and protection of the Women and Children and their rights, skill development and vocational training. Marine pollution and climate change have always resonated in the discussions in UNSC and Vietnam must take these issues to reflect concerns in Southeast Asia and why there is a need for global efforts. Other issues such as peat land management, haze management through financial support and disaster management need careful articulation and proposals in this regard.

While the agenda for the ASEAN requires better efforts as many initiatives need review in the year 2020 and also a comprehensive roadmap for future. On the other hand, issues in the UNSC Vietnam must highlight commitment regarding duties of upper riparian and lower riparian states, water pollution, and disaster risk financing at international level. In fact, the issue of Mekong river pollution and construction of dams would gain attention in this year. Further, Vietnam despite all these challenges would be able to balance the commitments towards ASEAN while at the same time playing a constructive role in the UNSC as non-permanent member. The year 2020 would be a challenging year as well as a year for adopting regional and global commitments towards security, prosperity, development, trade and connectivity.

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Russia-Indonesia: 70 years of friendship

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Jauh di mata, dekat di hati [Out of sight, close to the heart].” This is how Lyudmila Georgievna Vorobieva, Russian ambassador to Indonesia, characterized the relationship between the two countries.

In fact, in the 70 years of the relationship, it has gone through different states of proximity. It was pretty “hot” even before and around independence in 1945 when being leftist was identical with an anti-imperialist stance — and certainly during Sukarno’s presidency (1945 to 1967).

Then, abruptly, with the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 after a now-largely discounted “coup” by the PKI, the relationship suffered a long cold period of over 30 years during Soeharto’s New Order (1967 to 1998). Keeping the communist scare alive was, after all, one of the ways the regime maintained its grip on society.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and Indonesia’s Reformasi in 1998 paved the way for the restoration of warm, harmonious relations.

Mohammad Wahid Supriyadi, Indonesian ambassador to Russia since 2016, said we are now in the second golden age of Russia-Indonesia relations (the first being during Sukarno’s presidency). Wow! Who would have guessed?

For the lay person, these days Russia invariably draws our attention indirectly, e.g. for its alleged interference in presidential elections in the United States or for being the country where Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, has been living in exile for over six years.

I confess Russia hasn’t been that prominent on my screen lately either, until I heard about the Russia-Indonesia 70-year friendship exhibition at the National Gallery from Feb. 3 to 17 (see: “Snapshots: Indonesia, Russia exhibit 70 years of friendship”, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 5). I was keen to go because of my own “Russian connections”.

Yup! I was a sociology student in London (1976 to 1979), and took a course on Russia and China. The focus of my studies was Western industrial societies, so I wanted to know the other side of the Cold War (circa 1947 to 1991). It was also essential for writing my thesis on the People’s Cultural Institute (Lekra), the PKI’s cultural wing. Both Lekra and the PKI looked to these communist countries for guidance, especially the Soviet Union, to emulate their concept of “socialist realism” — art and literature that glorified communist values and supported the party line.

I was also connected to Russia by marriage. My late husband, Ami Priyono, was among the first seven Indonesian students sent to Moscow in 1956. Together with Sjumanjaya, they studied film at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Both eventually became prominent film directors in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ami’s father, Prijono, was culture minister in Sukarno’s first cabinet, serving for nine years (1957 to 1966). Prijono was a leading figure in the Murba Party (sometimes referred to as the second Indonesian communist party) and, like Sukarno, was pro-Soviet. In 1954, Prijono was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.

So, the reason for my interest was partly a nostalgia trip and partly a desire to know more about our current relationship with the “Land of the Red Bear”, as Indonesians sometimes refer to Russia.

I was accompanied by Vladimir Anisimov, head of the artist collective Bureau of Creative Expeditions and curator of the Necklace of the Equator exhibition. A distinguished gentleman in his 70s, sporting a bushy silver-gray beard, a moustache and an artist’s ponytail, he was like a relic of the past, adding to the nostalgic atmosphere.

Vladimir explained in detail some of the 85 paintings on display. They were done by 10 Russian painters who over 20 years had travelled to Indonesia on various occasions, capturing scenes from Java, Sumatra, Madura, Bali, Lombok, Kalimantan and Sulawesi: landscapes, houses, ceremonies, local traditions — mainly focusing on the people. Mostly impressionistic, lots of bright colors and a touch of romanticism here and there, like the Madonna painting of a woman carrying a baby surrounded by flowers and a rainbow. No socialist realism here!

Exhibitions by Russian artists have been held before in Indonesia, in 2000, 2003 and 2005. Vladimir recalled that the opening day was usually full but after that, empty. The situation is completely different now, he said, with 200 to 300 people attending during work days and double that on the weekend.

Vladimir said they received only positive feedback. “People were impressed and spent a lot of time taking selfies with the paintings as backdrops. Maybe more time than just looking at them,” Vladimir smiled wryly.

Among the crowd were a young man and woman intently discussing something related to the exhibition. They were Indonesians but spoke in very fluent English. I approached them and asked them why they had come to the exhibition. “Oh, we are Marxists. We came because we wanted to know more.”

Wow, Marxists in our midst? So young and so brazenly declaring their ideological beliefs at a time when Indonesia’s communist phobia is still alive and well? They really piqued my curiosity, so I took their phone numbers and chatted with them by WhatsApp the following day.

Both were 25 and were members of a group of young Marxist-Leninists who, like them, were disillusioned with the state of the world. “In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, it was the moment where we started really realizing the evil of the US empire and imperialism,” they said.

“One of the things that really moved me,” the young woman said, “was reading DN Aidit’s [PKI chairman] speech for the

[party’s]

44th anniversary, when he said that one of the conditions of being a PKI member is ‘unmeasurable love for the people’.” For her, that’s what communism is: loving each other so fiercely that we fight for a world where no one has to suffer, a world free from exploitation.

Wow, talk about youthful idealism! Truth be told, any ideology, any political or economic system, as well as any religion, can be twisted to harm and oppress the people, however much our leaders wax lyrical about them, or about bilateral and international relations.

Maybe this is a time when our leaders should start listening to the younger generation to save the world. Greta Thunberg is trying hard to do that. Many more are joining her ranks, so all you politicians, bureaucrats and leaders out there, start listening!

Early version of the text published under: “Russia – Indonesia 70 years on: Some like it hot, cold or warm” in Jakarta Post

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