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Belt and Road Initiative: Challenging South and Southeast Asia

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The euphoria about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Indonesia and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia (SEA) has been felt since 2017, particularly following the country’s participation in the BRI Summit in Beijing that year, where Indonesia (along with other SAARC and ASEAN member states) was expected to receive massive investments from China to support several infrastructure projects.

This year, the debates concerning the BRI are again becoming prevalent after Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan as Indonesia’s representative signed 28 BRI projects last April. Among the various debated subjects is the growing concern about the real nature of the BRI. Is that a Chinese developmental initiative or a geopolitical instrument that uses debt-trap as a tool to bring targeted countries into the desired terms.

The BRI as Chinese debt trap

In the realisation of the BRI, China is targeted to spend US $ 4.4 trillion (Rp 62.7 thousand trillion) which is divided into various infrastructure projects in 65 countries. The funds from China will be disbursed from three main institutions, namely the Export-Import Bank of China, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. However, the implementation of the BRI caused various kinds of controversy, one of which was related to the fear of a debt trap.

Sri Lanka is one of the BRI participating countries that must give up on China’s debt. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) project in Sri Lanka which costed US $ 190 million (Rp 2.7 trillion) with an interest of 6.3 percent did not benefit from the airport’s operations.

As a result, the Sri Lankan government is losing money. This made the country unable to pay debts to China. The inability to pay credit or interest, at the end of June 2016, led Sri Lanka to make an agreement with China in the form of equity (surrendering land for lease) for 99 years to the country.

According to a well-known SAARC strategic analyst based in India, Brahma Chellaney, what China does with its BRI is a debt-trap diplomacy effort, where this type of diplomacy is a bilateral relationship that is interwoven on the basis of debt. In its operations, this type of diplomacy involves a creditor country that deliberately extends excessive credit to the debtor country. If the debtor country cannot fulfill its debt obligations, often the creditor country will make it possible to interfere with economic and political conditions in the debtor country.

Acknowledging this, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August 2018 said his country would stop funding-backed projects from China, including a railway line worth US $ 20 billion as there is a possibility that the country would be trapped in huge debts.

“We should avoid binary categorisations… However, a bilateral approach in developmental strategies historically does not bring back satisfactory results. Besides the Bretton Woods instruments – often enveloped in controversies, do not forget developmental champions. All of them are multilateral institutions of fair conditionalities, of balanced and transparent instruments: UNIDO, ADB, but also Islamic Development Bank, OFID or UNCTAD. If not a loan, ask them at least for advice”, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic reminded us recently in Kuala Lumpur at the Economic Forum.

Indonesia and lessons from Malaysia 

The same concern is also prevalent in Indonesia, given that the country, in the midst of many of its own problems, the government seemed to be incessantly ambitious to continue to take part in the BRI. It is important to remember that currently Indonesia’s external debt has reached US$387.6 billion at the first quarter of 2019.  It consists of government and central bank external debts of US$190.5 billion that have slightly rose by 3.1 percent (year-on-year) and private external debts of US$197.1 bilion that have rocketed by 12.8 percent (year-on-year).

Although the ratio of Indonesia’s external debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is relatively safe at the level 36.9 percent and S&P Global Rating has just raised the long-term sovereign credit ratio for Indonesia from “BBB-“ to “BBB”, the Indonesia’s economic foundation is very fragile.

In 2018, for instance, the massive capital outflow made significant depreciation of the Rupiah against the US dollar due to the hike of Fed Fund Rates and the contagion of Turkish lira crisis. The currency hit about 15,000 rupiah against the greenbacks, the lowest level since the 1998 financial crisis, and made it one of the worst performing currencies in the region.

The extreme volatility of the Rupiah causes payments of interests and foreign debts more expensive. The 1998 financial crisis provided a precious experience that many companies faced default and the country’s economy experience chaos with economic growth of -13.1%. With such conditions, how come Indonesia dear to magnify its debts by signing massive BRI projects?

There is also a concern that the BRI projects is, instead of profiting Indonesia, putting the country at a disadvantage. One example comes from the Palembang LRT project, which has the same potential as the airport in Sri Lanka, is empty with little visitors. In fact, this project must suffer losses with an operating burden of Rp. 8.9 billion (US$618, 545) per month.

By looking at the fact that infrastructure projects have not been able to improve economic growth and to the gap in inequality – especially in the East – as well as various other disputes, the government’s decision to sign many BRI projects is certainly questionable. Also ironic is that the implementation of infrastructure development in Indonesia remains suffering from overt corruption practices. Instead of aiming at the welfare of society, infrastructure projects often become fields of concern for interested parties. Overall, there is a possibility that Indonesia will face Chinese debt trap is it is not careful, which would have negative impacts on the Indonesian economy.

The government needs to be able to make sure that participating in the BRI would not led to its loss. As what Malaysia has done, Jakarta may need to renegotiate with China on the terms and conditions of those projects. Indonesia must realise that China needs them more than they need China as the planned maritime route under the BRI would not be realised without Indonesia. Malaysian case demonstrates that negotiation is possible with China. Failure to do the above, it would not be surprising if what happened to Sri Lanka would also happen to Indonesia.

*Dendy Indramawan is a research assistant at Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance.

From our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

Application of PLTU Batubara in the Perspective of Kalimantan people

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Photo: Wikipedia

Indonesia is one of the largest coal producers and exporters in the world. Since 2005, there have been many small pockets of coal reserved on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua. This makes Indonesia increasingly utilize all natural resources that have existed in the ancestral lands to make coal energy sources as a Steam Power Plant (PLTU) in addition of abundance basic materials, this coal-based PLTU is considered to have better efficiency in terms of price. Cheaper and faster in process compared to other energy sources.

Behind the efficiency of coal, which is used as the main fuel, there is a process that is considered ineffective for local residents and the surrounding environment, because in PLTU, coal is burned to take heat and steam, so it can release combustion residue in the air. From this combustion residue, it will spread to aquatic plants or enter the human lungs. Coal is burned to take heat and its steam releases combustion residue in the air. The remainder of this combustion will spread to aquatic plants or enter human lungs.

In the theory, all of this has been filtered so that the smoke that comes out is not dangerous, but the reality can be different from the facts in the field.

Inside the PLTU smoke, there are pollutants which contain dangerous compounds such as mercury and other compounds such as arsenic, lead, PM 10, sox and PM 2.5. These particles stay in the air for a long time and can fly hundreds of kilometers. If humans are exposed to mercury or pm 2.5 continually, there will be asthma, respiratory infections, lung cancer and even damage to the brain, kidneys and heart. It is clear that the air environment and settlements are not good for local residents due to the danger of compound content that will threaten the health of the surrounding community, especially since the PLTU distance from residents’ settlements is not a safe distance. This is evidenced by the case that occurred in November 2018, Sangah Sangah village Kutai Kartanegara, East Kalimantan, experienced 5 houses destroyed, 11 others were damaged and the main road collapsed due to mining activities that were too close to public facilities and settlements.  

Kalimantan, Borneo, some of farmers in the suburbs of Samarinda Timur have lived for 20 years as neighbors that  are very close to the coal mines in this village. Meanwhile, according to the regulations of the minister of environment and regional regulations Kutai Kartanegara the minimum distance between mining activities and settlements is 500 M but in fact, all of the regulations are not applied. While the existence of a coal-fired PLTU has made clean water is only a history. The residents stated that they only relied on rainwater and water from the emblem that brought along the silt Previously, before there was a coal mine, the rice fields were not damaged, the environment was beautiful and safe, but the situation drastically changed since the coal power plant, residents’ crops such as rice fields and so on were exposed to mud so that they produced plants that were not of the same quality as before.

This is very unfortunate because in 1991 this village was designated as a village of rice barns with a production of 2600 tons of unhulled rice in every harvest time. Disappointment and despair began to appear on the faces of the villagers who felt the problems that were increasingly choking local residents, not only polemic about the environment and plants. The existence of a coal company and a PLTU have also claimed the lives of several villagers due to the reclamation of coal mines.

The local community certainly did not remain silent, so they filed a protest by one of the residents of Nyoman Derman from Kertabuana Village, Kutai Kertanegara Regency. Nyoman intercepted heavy equipment but was instead arrested and given a 3-month prison sentence on the grounds of disrupting company operations. When the community takes an active role to defend and protect all assets owned by the government, the government does not protect. On the contrary, this is not in accordance with the constitution of our country which upholds human rights which are emphasized in the 1945 Constitution in article 27 to article 34 of the 1945 Constitution which regulates Human Rights.

The problems do not end with environmental problems but also at the same time claiming the lives of many local residents. The excavation of ex-coal mining holes resulted in many human lives being lost, among others in 2011-2018 in East Kalimantan as a result of the mining excavation hole itself. At least, it has been claimed the lives of as many as 39 people. Between 2014-2018 nationally, there were 115 people who died as a result of mining holes

This can’t be underestimated into an ordinary problem caused by the longer, it continues to claim casualties due to 3,500 former mine pits that have not been properly filled so that it continues.

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The Impacts of the Covid-19 on Vietnam’s Workforce

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By March 2021, Vietnam has experienced 3 phases of the Covid-19 pandemic (phase 1: from March to April 2020; phase 2: from July to September 2020; phase 3: from January to March 2021), with 2,575 infected cases, 302 cases undergoing treatment, 2,234 recovered cases and 35 deaths. Similar to many other countries in the world, Vietnam has suffered serious impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic in all fields: economy, politics, culture, social life, yet the most direct influences were on Vietnamese workforce.

Major impacts that the Covid-19 epidemic has exerted on the Vietnamese workforce can be summarized as follows:

First, the impacts on the employees’ job

This was one of the basic and direct dominant impacts over others. According to the Report of the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO), due to the sudden fall in the labor force in the2nd quarter, the general number of employees (aged 15 and above) in the economy in 2020 sharply decreasedin comparison to that in 2019. The number of working employees aged 15 and abovewas53.4 million people (a decrease of 1.3 million people compared to that in 2019 – arespective decrease of 2.36%). A comparison of the decrease in the number of labor force between 2019 and 2020 is shown in Figure (1). This demonstrated an obvious drop in the number of jobsfor Vietnamese workforce under the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic.

Figure 1: Labor force growth/decrease rate

Unit: %

(Source: GSO)

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only deprive many workers of opportunities for formal employment, but also left them inunemployed. To be specific: generally in 2020, the number of under-employed workers was roughly 1.2 million, an increase of 456.7 thousand people compared to that in 2019. The underemployment rate in the working age group is 2.51%. (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Number of people and underemployment rate by quarter, 2019-2020

(Source: GSO)

With animproving multilateral diplomacy and expanding international relations, Vietnam now has diplomatic relations with 189 countries and territories around the world,maintains close relations with more than 30 countries and three major countries (China, Russia, India) are comprehensive strategic partners. Economic-trade relations play a key role in the international relations of Vietnam and the country is currently considered an attractive destination for investment and international cooperation in Southeast Asia. As a result, the Covid pandemic has influenced Vietnam’s economic relations with their international partners in both ways. Approximately one third of businesses suffered shortage of input materials; the larger the enterpriseswere, the more serious the shortage was; domestic and foreign consumption markets were narrowed, export orders declined and goods circulation faced various difficulties … Due to theweak financial potentials and liquidity in the business sector, the fact thatthe COVID-19 pandemic spread with complicated progressesresulted in production delays, difficulties in production capital, with 52.8% of businesses experiencing a decline in annual business profits4 in 2020. Therefore, businesses were forced to use redundancy, unpaid job leave, shortened working hours … as temporary solutions to maintain their operation and stability.

However, thanks to proactive and creative countermeasures at all levels and decisive policies to prevent economic slowdown, Vietnam’s economy has developedits ownresilience, gradually resumed its operation under new normal conditions, becoming one of three countries in Asia with positive growth in 2020.Accordingly, the number of unemployed and underemployed workers in the fourth quarter of 2020 witnessed a sharp decrease compared to that in the previous quarters and gradually stabilized.

Secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic affected employees income

Loss of job opportunities, shortened working hours, layoffs, unemployment had direct impacts on employees’ income. According to the Report of the General Statistics Office, compared to that in 2019, the average monthly income of Vietnamese employees in 2020 decreased in all three economic sectors. Specifically: In 2020, the average income of employees was 5.5 million VND, a 2.3% decrease compared to that of 2019 (equivalent to 128 thousand VND less). Income of employees in service sector witnessed the highest decrease of215 thousand VND; followed by those in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, with 156 thousand VND. Employees in industry and construction suffered the lowest decrease, with 100 thousand VND /person/ month. This impact was clearly illustrated in Figure 3 below:

Figure 3: Average income of workers by economic sector, 2019-2020

Unit: million dong

(Source: GSO)

Third, the Covid-19 pandemic directly affected the employeesmental factors

When employment and income are affected, workers’ mental health will be direcly influenced too. To be specific, employees may experience frequent anxiety, pessimism, insecurity and mood swings. Results from a scientific survey showed that: only 8% of office employees and managers suffer from stress and pressure during a pandemic, but up to 86.9% of workers have feelings of anxiety, pessimism, insecurity and mood swings. This impact was most evitable among workers with children (including married or single parents), female workers, and especially female migrant workers with children.

In addition, the Covid-19 crisis created aninconsistent impact on relations among employees’ family. In particular, forsome part of employees, family relationships were greatly improved when members stayed at home and spent more time together; on the other hand, a large part had the opposite experience(more disputes, domestic verbal or behavior abuse), especially forimmigrated workers and female immigrated workers with children. This was an evitable consequence when they worried about their health and future. TheCovid-19 pandemic also increased the risk of gender-based violence. Statistics of the Central Vietnam Women’s Union showed that, during Covid-19social distancing, the number of calls from violence-suffering women to the Association’s hotline increased by 50%; the number of victims receiving rescue assistance and acceptance to the House of Peace also increased by 80% over the same period last year.

Some solutions from the Government and businesses to contribute to overcoming the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on Vietnamese workforce

Solutions from the Government of Vietnam

Confronting serious impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on the economyoverthree consecutive phases, the Government of Vietnam actively put their focus on administrating and providing methods as well as decisive actions with the mottos: “Fight the pandemic like fighting against enemies”, “Go to each alley, knock on each door andcheck on each person”; and “dual goals” (preventing and combating the pandemics while promoting socio-economic development), “lightning-speed tracking, zoning”, “four On-sitesguidelines”(on-site commands, on-site forces, on-site vehicles and equipments, on-site logistics), withcore focus on the active role of local governments. These directions were supported by all administrative levels, branches, localities and citizens. The Government as well as their organizations called for and mobilized all social resources for the pandemic prevention; citizens and business groups actively joined hands to fight the epidemic despite numerous difficulties. (For example, when the medical lacked espiratory machines, Vingroup immediately produced their own to provide for the country).

Also since then, the Government has quickly introduced monetary, fiscal, and social security policies in order to support businesses and people during the most difficult period of COVID-19 shock. Specifically: a financial package of 180 billion VND to support business; zero-interests loans to pay wages to workers; Social protection package of 61.580 billion VND (for employees who were distanced, delayed or lost their jobs due to post-pandemic impacts); 11.000 million VND of electricity bill discount; bank loans interest rates reduction; 285.000 billion credit package for commercial banks…..These practical guidelines and measures have assisted businesses to overcome difficulties, improved perseverence, gradually normalized or adjusted their production and business plans, enhancing digital transformation and trade promotion… These activitieshave created positive impacts on stabilization of job, incomes, daily necessity and mental health of the workforce.

Second, solutions from businesses and unions

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the enterprise community quickly came up with new directions and solutionsin order tocontinue their operation duringhard time. Approximately two thirds of enterprises have applied at least one of the abovementioned solutions, trying to adapt their production activities to new normal conditions.

Demonstrating the motto“love and support”, many businesses used different combined measures, such as deferred goods payment (used by 33.3% of businesses), shared orders (used 7.9 % of businesses), barter goods (used by 3.8% businesses), customers loans (used by 2.8% of businesses) …

Besides, in order to join hands with businesses in supporting employees, government organizations, especially trade unions, constantly stand out to help workers overcome their difficulties (for example: The Trade Union of Ho Chi Minh City Industrial  -Processing Zone has organized various activities such as visiting, sending gifts, supporting funding and persuading landlords to reduce house rental, especially for female pregnant workers or those nursing a child under 12 months old …)

In general, the Covid-19 pandemic has created great impacts on all aspects of life in Vietnam, especially the workforce – the most vulnerable group facing numerous difficulties so far. However, the Government and people of Vietnam are determined and strictly follow these policies: “Joining hands to protect the workers’ interests and rights, encouraging workers to overcome difficulties together”;targeting at “dual goals” to secure stable jobs and income for employees, supporting post-Covid-19 business recovery. On the spirit of “Employees First”, the government and enterprises are unanimously determined to overcome theevitable challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, to make Vietnam a spotlight in the region and the world in preventing Covid-19 in generaland protecting the legitimate rights of employees in particular.

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Why Indonesia is keeping a distance from the Indo-Pacific “Quartet”

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Caption: Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, along with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi held the 2nd Japan-Indonesia Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2 + 2”). in Tokyo, Japan, March 30, 2021. (Twitter/MofaJapan_jp)

Japan and Indonesia agreed to expand defense cooperation and conduct joint exercises in the South China Sea. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stated so after meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto. The Indonesian Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs are visiting Tokyo for bilateral talks with their Japanese counterparts and to attend the second 2 + 2 ministerial meetings since 2015. It has not been announced when and the specific location for the joint exercise

In October last year, the parties held a naval exercise in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the west coast of Natuna Island. Indonesia and China are at odds over the demarcation line of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, so observers believe that holding a new joint exercise there could be considered a provocation to China. Furthermore, Japan can, by all means, emphasize that it is developing military relations with its partners in Southeast Asia in response to China’s increasingly assertive policy in this region.

Japan, along with the United States, Australia and India are part of the “Indo-Pacific quartet”, one of the main regional mechanisms against China. Indonesia is unlikely to par- ticipate in this “quartet” soon, it is difficult to have such a plan at this time.

The reason is simple; the contradictions and frictions between Indonesia and China have not yet reached the point where it takes such clear anti-China move. Otherwise this will undoubtedly have a negative backlash against Beijing, and the disadvantages it causes outweighs the advantages it can take into account. Indonesian leaders understand this very well.

Compared with Vietnam, which has a much more tense relationship with China, however shows no sign of any intention of joining the “quartet”. The members “quartet” themselves have not named specific candidates for the new members of the coalition.

In the short term, There’s no such country that can enter the quartet, although the quartet itself is not always consistent, so it is difficult for Indonesia to enter this anti-China force in the near future. Indonesia is trying to balance relations between China and Japan.

This mere incident cannot be regarded as having a certain symbolic signi cance, or that Indonesia wants to join the anti-China Force with the West. Because Indonesia’s foreign policy has always insisted on seeking a balance between major powers. If it joins the United States and the encirclement of its allies against China, can be said to violate its principle, and it is not a good thing for Indonesia’s national interest in the entire region.

So, Indonesia will still maintain neutrality. China and Indonesia are very intense in the South China Sea. The dispute is an issue of maritime rights and interests in the northern waters of the Natuna Islands. Although Indonesia has long insisted on not recognizing China’s “nine-dash line” proposition and the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen in the waters, it is maintaining the so-called territorial water rights.

Indonesia believes that it could be maintained by its strength. Therefore, on the Natuna Island issue, judging by some signs of Indonesia’s past behavior, it does not want external forces to intervene. All parties must eliminate interference from external forces and focus on the negotiation of “norms” involving the interests of the region, to truly turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.

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