Last week an Italian scientist, Roberto Gatti, made headlines in Malaysia when he proclaimed that there is “no such thing as sustainable palm oil”. The only problem is that Mr Gatti is wrong.
Indeed, oil palm producers have for the last 15 years become the lightning rod for the public’s growing anger on issues relating to deforestation, global warming, subpar labour practices, and transboundary haze.
Only a silent few have questioned these allegations, leading the vast majority of the public to swallow these headlines hook, line, and sinker – leaving the narrative unchallenged. It is as if the endless supply of information in today’s modern era, through quick and easy forms of digital content has reached a point of overload. Sadly, it has worn us down and induced a premature form of mental fatigue, taking away our ability to distinguish between credible research and catchy ‘clickbait’, and ultimately what is right and wrong, and whether we should even question it.
The palm industry is a vital agricultural player today, globally. Whilst it only occupies less than 0.5% of the total area under agriculture today, it accounts for 37% of all the oils and fats produced in the world and continues, in spite of the Covid-19 calamity, to secure jobs for well over 5 million people globally, most of which are smallholder farmers who depend on this crop for their livelihood.
Is everything perfect and rosy? Absolutely not. The oil palm – like all agricultural crops requires one thing – LAND. And this is where the dilemma arises. In this context, we must acknowledge that the oil palm has contributed towards large tracks of deforestation, even though over the last 25 years it has accounted for less than 5% of global deforestation. Boycotting palm oil and replacing this with an alternate vegetable oils is of course a decision which people or big brands are free to make. However, the price for such action will be high, as it is proven beyond doubt that replacing palm oil with any alternate vegetable oil will result in using up to 10 times more land to produce the same quantity of oil. Even the International Union for the Conservation of nature (IUCN) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have recognised this urging, and support the production and use of sustainable palm oil, thereby preventing greater impacts on the environment, biodiversity, and communities.
The problem with studies like that of Mr Roberto Gatti, is that his pseudoscience has intentionally singled out the oil palm without putting things in perspective, and informing the reader that commodities such as beef, soy, maize, poultry, timber production and more account for over 90% of the world’s deforestation today, and are still in the infancy when it comes to providing consumers with a supply chain that does not come from recently deforested land.
Palm oil, however, has such a scheme in place today, where buyers can be assured of no deforestation, no new peat development, and no exploitation of workers. It is called the Principles and Criteria, which is set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or ‘RSPO’ – a standard which with supreme confidence, I can state goes beyond any similar sustainability standard in the world today – even when it comes to olive oil production in Spain, rapeseed production in France, soy production in the US, or canola production in Australia.
The palm oil sector is far from perfect and I will be the first to state that there is still a long road ahead in terms of making sustainable palm oil the norm, but the first steps were taken over 15 years ago to create a multi-stakeholder platform, where buyers and consumers could be assured that the palm oil in the products they use and consume has indeed been grown and sourced sustainably. The aspirations remain high, and today we see the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification schemes, providing an amazing platform to raise the floor of the “many” instead of just focusing on raising the ceiling of the “few”.
Together, we will drive the RSPO, MSPO and ISPO standards forward, regardless of the spurious claims by people like Mr Roberto Gatti, and hopefully take inspiration in the words of wisdom from the late Chinese philosopher, Confucius: “It is better to light a candle than to curse darkness”.
Sustainable palm oil is the “light” – it is the future – and any efforts to squash this movement will only move us back into darkness, where we will lose our way, remain silent, and fail to speak up when half-baked truths grab headlines. In the end, this is about taking ownership and holding fast – especially when the headwinds are the fiercest. It is about appreciating that sustainability is a shared problem, requiring individual changes that must start today. This includes you.
Will the US- China rivalry bring back interventionists policy to Southeast Asia?
George Santayana, a Harvard Professor of Philosophy once said that. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Therefore it is relevant for us to remember anything that happened in the past so we could anticipate and know how to respond to a similar future event that has had happened.
History has told us how significant it was the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union to the world geopolitics. Not only for the US and Soviet Union but also for all countries in the world which then had to choose between the US, the Soviet Union, or the Non-Bloc.
To secure US interest at that time, there has been a lot of effort and interventionist policy to assure that “neutral countries” in many of Latin America Asia and will not fall into communist-led regime will then will join the Soviet bloc.
Southeast Asia is one of the important regions in which the US and Soviet Union try to maintain their influence. Many interventionist policies in the region such as in Vietnam during the Vietnam war and Indonesia during the CIA involvement in a coup attempt against Soekarno was an example of how interventionists policy against the government in Southeast Asia to avoid that they will become communist and lean more towards the Soviet Union.
Fast forward to what happened today, the geopolitical contest between the US and China is getting tenser. As many analysts observe that we might face another cold war when the world number one power is competing with the world number two. And there will surely be a geopolitical implication to the rest of the world. Looking back to what happened during the cold war, what can we learn to anticipate the geopolitical implications of the rivalry between the US and China?.
Many experts have been discussing whether the US-China rivalry will bring us back to some kind of cold war, where countries have to choose between one of them. In Southeast Asia for the US-China rivalry has put Southeast Asian countries in difficult positions.
In the case of the South China Sea, for instance, in the last several years we have seen how the US-China rivalry put Southeast Asian countries in difficult positions. China as a claimant and strongest countries in the dispute was often bully its Southeast Asian claimant states, while on the other hand the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo in many events have tried to persuade ASEAN and offer a backup in dealing and responding to China’s threat in the dispute. Even though Indonesia, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian claimants have already emphasized their neutrality in the dispute and will not choose between the two.
Therefore will the increasing US-China rivalry and competing influence will bring them back to interventionist policy in the region?
Indeed, most western countries including the US have a long history of political intervention in the region. In supporting oppositions, rebel groups that were perceived will foster their interest in the countries as well as to prevent the communist regime during the cold war. Even though in international law it is clear that the non-intervention policy is the basic principle in international law ever since the establishment of the treaty of Westphalia, it is was still happened.
Southeast Asian countries in many events have emphasized that they will not choose between the US or China in the geopolitical contest. Instead, they will enhance peaceful and strategic cooperation with the two that will benefit for the peaceful and prosper in the region. ASEAN’s outlook on Indo-Pacific is an example of how ASEAN tries to keep a balance between the US and China in the region and to keep the region in a neutral position.
While Southeast Asia is getting more important and significant in the world economy and politics, it makes sense if it became a major geopolitical contest arena between the US and China, where both are competing for greater influence in the region. Therefore Southeast Asian countries should learn from the cold war on how interventionists policy might happen.
With the advancement of technology, big data, and the internet, intervention might not the same as what happened thirty or forty years ago during the cold war and Vietnam war. Where there was a weapon supplied to a rebel group or even direct foreign military intervention. Observing what happened with the Cambridge Analytica where big data can be manipulated for an election, will presumably what might happen in this new cold war era. And it will be much more difficult to anticipate.
Another possible form of intervention policy could also drive by economic interest such as “debt-trap diplomacy”. In which China has been practicing to some pacific countries in giving them a loan in a huge number which they can’t repay. And it makes China in higher leverage.
This new form of intervention policy which will bring interventionist policy less obvious more difficult to anticipate. That being said, it is important for Southeast Asian countries to anticipate and strengthen its position in the middle of US-China growing rivalry in the region so there will be less or no form of intervention to any states in the region.
Will Japanese PM Suga visit Vietnam as his first foreign visit?
The new Japanese PM Suga is expected to visit Vietnam given the fact that there is increasing interactions between Japan and Vietnam in the last few years. Also it has been seen that the next ASEAN Summit meeting which is expected to be held by the end of November, and will see the participation of the dialogue partners including Japan. Vietnam has managed to control the spread of COVID 19 even after and spike in Danang, Central province and has been relatively free from the new cases of COVID 19.
Japan is trying to shift production and investment from China is looking to get Into Vietnam and explored possibilities related to shift its production facilities from China to Vietnam. Given the geographic proximity of these two countries, it would be much feasible and better for Japan in the current situation. Japan has proposed to engage with Vietnam through trilateral dialogue mechanisms which would include the Philippines. In another trilateral proposition it is suggested that Japan, Vietnam and the US can create another structure which can complement resilient supply chains and also create a sub structure of the Trans Pacific Partnership which was abandoned by the US, given the requirements for liberalizing markets and adhering to the norms which was perceived as not conducive for the US economic interests in the long run.
With regard to Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP) it has been seen that with India excusing itself from signing on the dotted lines in terms of liberalizing its markets and reducing tariffs on more than 80% of the tariff lines, the possibilities with regard to actualization of the RCEP has decreased significantly. It is seen that Vietnam can streamline few of the negotiations, and can entice India to come to the forum with its own blue print. Japanese trade minister as remarked that in the wake of India not joining RCEP programme, it would not be very feasible to enlarge the RCEP market.
Since 2018 that defence ties between the two nations have developed significantly. Vietnam has been trying hard to develop maritime security cooperation with Japan especially after the developments related to China’s aggression in South China Sea and East China Sea have been reported in the last three months. Japan and Vietnam has also agreed on conducting Coast Guard cooperation and developing defence supply network.
In March 2018, during the visit of Japanese Chief of Joint Staff to Vietnam discussions were held with regard to collaboration in areas such as personnel training, developing information technology networks, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, UN peacekeeping operations, military medicine and collaboration between different defence organisations. While military medicine has been an important aspect of the discussions in ASEAN defence ministers meeting plus dialogue which involves dialogue partners also have opened new areas of cooperation. Vietnam which has a growing shipbuilding industry is looking for building military ships and is also accommodating requests from the Japan for liaison visits and training slots in each other’s institutions. Under the defence pact which was signed in 2018 between the two countries, there was agreement that Japan will transfer technology related to shipbuilding and sharing best practices in developing the defence industry of Vietnam.
It has been increasingly seen that the camaraderie which has been developed between Japan and Vietnam during the Abe regime particularly with the respect of investment, high level diplomatic interactions and developing complementarities between the two countries need political support especially when PM Suga has come to power. In fact, both nations have different historical experiences with China and the two civilizations have resisted complete overpowering by the Chinese influence. For Vietnamese leaders Japan acts as an alternative to Beijing rise, and also for Japan a stronger Vietnam provides better stability and security in the maritime waters.
Japan is grappling with the ‘super aged’ population, Vietnam has a relatively young population. Vietnam can emerge as a safe investment destination for Japan which is facing challenges such as shrinking domestic market and relatively reduced labour force. The two countries can benefit from better mutual interactions as investment and technology support from Japan particularly in the field of developing financial acumen, supporting medium and small enterprises, and working on long-term infrastructure projects would benefit Vietnamese economy. Before China became a dominant force in the Southeast Asian politics, it was Japan which because of its aid and assistance programme in Southeast Asia had a wide ranging impact in the developments in this region. The two countries would like to reinvigorate the Japan-Vietnam Extensive Strategic Partnership and ASEAN under Vietnam’s chairmanship would look forward for Japan support in buttressing ASEAN centrality.
Prime Minister Suga is likely to visit Vietnam so as to reinforce the confidence and the support that the administration has reposed in the country. Vietnam is also looking for long-term support projects from Japan so as to reduce its dependence on China on certain sectors. Any shift of Japanese investment from China to Vietnam build complementarities between the two countries. It has been seen that a unified ASEAN would act to China’s disadvantage while other dialogue partners would find it conducive to their larger strategic objectives. Vietnam which is relatively free from COVID-19 can also act as a large scale manufacturing base for Japan in the field of medicine, health care equipment, and even promoting tourism between the two countries. In fact, Japan was one of the very few countries with whom Vietnam has opened air links and it was seen as the commitment to promote better relations between the two countries.
In case Japanese Prime Minister visits Vietnam as its first foreign visit it is likely to address challenges related to the post pandemic order, addressing economic challenges and generating employment while at the same time addressing non-traditional and traditional security issues such as developments in East China Sea and South China Sea. The representations that have been made by European countries -France, Germany and the UK in the UN and also the approach which have been adopted by the US and the other Quad members during the meeting in Tokyo highlights that Vietnam has being successful in bringing to the notice of the international community that China cannot be given a free hand in deciding the law of the sea in these contested regions.
PM Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe has been a towering personality and has buttressed greater strategic ties between the two countries, the challenge for Suga would be to help Japanese economy which is decelerating, and therefore it has become pertinent for the two countries to look forward for time bound economic objectives and working out template for CPTPP, RCEP, and other regional economic organizations.
Japan which is a member in the Blue Dot network along with US and Australia, would look forward for some infrastructure projects under this initiative and Vietnam would provide the perfect location to kick start the initiative. Further it has been seen that in defence sector particularly with regard to the visit of the ships and joint exercises which have been conducted by Japan and US as well as the group sail in the South China Sea with like-minded countries has built confidence among the peripheral countries in this region. For Prime Minister Suga it would be important to highlight the programmes and initiatives that Japanese Premier would be undertaking in Vietnam so as to build on resilient supply chains and also explore new emerging markets such as Vietnam. This comprehensive approach under the rubric of strategic partnership and developing economic complementarities would benefit the two countries which are looking forward for the post COVID-19 economic resurgence and supporting each other in terms of regaining the economic growth in the pre COVID-19 times.
Vietnam continues its miracle through higher education
Vietnam’s declaration to open up,in mid-June 2020 was hailed around the world as a model in the fight against the Covid 19 pandemic. For Mali student, Aolama Mallé and his classmates, the announcement was more than good. They are students of the International Francophone Institute (IFI), a member of Vietnam National University, the largest higher education system in the country. As universities re-opened, they could now return to the traditional face-to-face classroom learning with professors and friends since all were weary from boring e-learning and the draconian pandemic control measures imposed by the government.
IFI’s Student Affairs Department claims that the scheduled educational discovery trip, that was postponed suddenly because of the pandemic, was now possible. This extra-curricular cultural activity is organized annually by IFI for its new students. This year, it included a visit to Vinfast’s auto manufacturing plant and Halong Bay.
The bus left the campus at 7:30 a.m. with over thirty students on board and took the modern expressway that cuts across the dizzying development of high-rise skyscrapers in sharp contrast to the ancient and fragile Old Quarter influenced by French colonial architecture.
This startling transformation and opening up to change, development, industrialization and integration with the West, was spurred by the nation’s Doi Moi (Renovation) policy established in the late 1980s. That policy began to introduce sweeping liberalization in all sectors of Vietnam’s previously hardline, centrally planned and closed economy. The adoption of this open policy brought about dramatic changes in all aspects of society, especially in the lives of Vietnamese farmers, workers, and their households. The reforms also led to breakthrough innovations in the higher education system.
Vietnam has in a single generation leaped forward from a poor, insular economy to a middle-income country with a globally integrated, socialist-oriented market economy. Now in its dual global leadership roles at ASEAN and the UN Security Council, Hanoi reaffirms the principles of the UN Charter to maintain peace, security, and international cooperation.
The international students gathered together on the school bus sang songs in both English and French and sometimes, also in the many African language dialects. In so many ways, the higher-ed led excursion reflected the government’s redesigned post -renovation curriculum calling out the new slogan ‘Opening of the school to life, a social life in its full development.’ Furthermore, the planned trip to a state-of-the-art auto factory, reflects the government ‘s model curriculum that all educational programs establish collaborative programs with enterprises to enable both students and educators to learn from real production factories.
The choice of Vinfast for this international student visit was not a random selection.
“Vinfast is the first truly national automobile trademark of Vietnam”, explained Dr. ĐàoTùng, director of IFI’s Department of Cooperation and Development. “By organizing this visit, we want to show different aspects of modern Vietnam. Halong Bay is widely known as a world natural heritage, and Vinfast is a symbol of Vietnam’s economic dynamism”.
The conglomerate reflects why innovation is the driver for the growth of Vietnam’s economy even during this pandemic. Local companies across multiple industries have been developing quickly in areas which have been traditionally dominated by foreign companies.
Vinfast, created in 2017 and situated in Đình Vũ industrial zone (Hải Phòng, is the third-largest automobile manufacturing complex in the world. It is a subsidiary of Vingroup, the largest private corporation in Vietnam, whose empire covers the sectors as diverse as real estate, tourism, healthcare, retail, education, and smartphone production. Apart from traditional cars, Vinfast also produces electric cars and scooters. Vingroup’s CEO Phạm Nhật Vượng declared that Vinfast plans to sell electric cars in the USA by 2021.
Vingroup is just one of many examples of Vietnam’s economic achievements over the last three decades. Others include, Viet Jet Air, Vinamilk, Trung Nguyên, and of course, Viettel, which is now operating in10 countries and recognized as one of the largest telecommunication companies in the world.
UN bailout helped Vietnam at critical post-war junction
The picture was completely different 40 years ago. When Vietnam became an official member of the United Nations (UN), on September 20, 1977, it was one of the poorest countries in the world with per capita GDP around US$100. In the 1977 – 1986 period, the country was placed under an embargo imposed by Western countries after Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. Fortunately, the $500 million received from UN assistance enabled the nation to tackle post-war difficulties.
The Communist Party’s reform policies introduced in 1986 led to opening the country to the outside world and adopting a new “socialist-oriented market economy model.” During the last three decades, Vietnam’s GDP increased at an average rate of about 7 percent, and per capita GDP increased from under US$100 in 1989 to over US$ 2,700 in 2019 (World Bank), transforming Vietnam from a war ravaged and starving country into a recognized emerging economy. Vietnam is set to become one of the most dynamic markets in the world by 2030, according to Euromonitor International, a global market research company. GDP growth is expected to reach 91.4 percent in the 2020-2030 period and disposable income to reach $9,740 per household by 2030.
Aware of its delicate geopolitical position in relation to China, Vietnam has been very active in expanding its foreign relations, which forms today a large network of 30 strategic and comprehensive partnerships.
Vietnam and the United States normalized bilateral relations in 1995 and are now comprehensive partners. The US-Vietnam bilateral trade is about US$77 billion in 2019 compared to only US$450 million in 1994. Recently, Vietnam signed and approved the Vietnam-European Union Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), which is considered as “the most ambitious” Free Trade Agreements that the EU has ever signed with a developing country.
According to Japanese media, Japan’s newly appointed Prime Minster Suga Yoshihide has chosen Vietnam and Indonesia for his first state visits in mid-October reframing Vietnam’s rising global reputation.
The international students on the bus, the 30,000 Vietnamese students studying abroad in the US and millions in Vietnam know the educational impact of the current economic progress.
As living standards and market demand for qualified human resource are now higher, the number of universities continue to increase rapidly. Although this rapid expansion has been facing criticism from some scholars who remain concerned about quality, Vietnam’s higher education has been advancing steadily.
By renouncing the Soviet-style model, mobilizing private funding resources, allowing the use of foreign languages as means of instruction, and fostering research and scientific publication, Vietnamese universities have been emerging on the most prestigious global rankings. In 2020, Tôn Đức Thắng University is ranked in the TOP 400 by Academic Ranking for World Universities, and Vietnam National University Hanoi in the TOP 1000 according to The Times Higher Education.
Gradually, Vietnamese universities have entered the world education market. IFI is one of the best examples. Established by the merger of Institut de la Francophonie pour l’informatique, Vietnam’s pioneer in information technology, founded in 1993, and the Center for French Universities, founded in 2004, IFI has recently opted for an ambitious global strategy and is recognized as an exceptional internationalized higher education institution in Vietnam. IFI is an academic home for hundreds of international students from two dozen countries who are studying in advanced fields, such as information technology, digital communication, and financial technology. According to Dr. ĐàoTùng, the institute is completing the final steps to open its first Masters of Science program in information technology at the University of Kinshasa, Congo.
Aolama Mallé is a Masters’ degree student in Digital Information and Communication. His elder brother, Zoumana Mallé, now living in Paris, is an IFI alumnus.
“When my brother announced, five years ago, to go to study information technology, nobody in my family opposed his decision.” Said Aolama. “My parents are intellectuals. They had had some information about Vietnam and knew that the country had made some progress. But when my brother sent home his Vietnam photos, we were all surprised at what the country has become. It is my brother who advised me to come to Vietnam.”
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