The U.S. government aims to take another bite out of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia with a partnership to aid five countries that traditionally tap Beijing for help, experts in the region say.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership, formed September 11, will give Washington more clout in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam by offering aid for various projects ranging from COVID-19 relief to anti-drought measures.
U.S. officials hope the Southeast Asian partners will favor their largesse over China’s, analysts say. China aggressively builds infrastructure in Southeast Asia but threatens their water supplies with upstream dams and leaves some countries under the threat of debt, the experts say.
China and the United States, rival superpowers, compete in much of the world for the support of smaller countries, as the government in Beijing expands offshore economically as well as militarily. In Southeast Asia, the United States backs Vietnam in resisting Chinese expansion in the South China Sea where the two Asian countries have overlapping claims.
“The U.S.-Mekong partnership was I think high on the agenda for the United States because the U.S. has recognized the importance of the Mekong subregion, where China has been making some vital gains,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
“The more the competition between the U.S. and China increases, the more important the Mekong subregion is,” Vuving said.
Washington’s partnership effectively replaces an 11-year-old Lower Mekong Initiative also backed by the United States. The countries involved signed a joint statement four days after forming their partnership to pledge stronger “transparency” along with “respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, rule of law [and] respect for international law.”
Specifically, the partnership will bring U.S. pandemic relief to the five Southeast Asian countries – building on $52 million in U.S. support already offered this year – and extend another $6 million for work that will include steps to help the Mekong countries make informed decisions involving water flows. Data would help governments decide on allotments to farmers and flood control measures.
Expect “high-quality energy infrastructure” along with steps to help prevent the illegal trade in wildlife, and measures to control both floods and droughts, the joint statement says of the region that spans the 4,350-kilometer Mekong River.
The five Mekong nations hope to avoid becoming overly dependent on Chinese aid, especially because dams on the river’s upper reaches in China can dry up the lower segments in Southeast Asia, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. China uses releases of water from the dams as “bargaining power” in Southeast Asia, Thitinan said.
“What the U.S. provides is a counterbalancing, countervailing force,” he said. “No one around here among the CLMTV wants to be dominated by China,” he said using an acronym for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, where 60 million people rely on the river for a living.
Laos faces a growing debt to China, the world’s biggest lender, following hydroelectric and other infrastructure projects in the small, landlocked country. The Lao debt comes to 45% of its GDP, according to the Lowy Institute research group in Australia. Myanmar’s auditor general cautioned his government in June about overreliance on high-interest loans from China, news reports around Asia said at that time.
Chinese investment projects in other parts of Southeast Asia have fanned resentment over use of Chinese workers instead of local labor.
“The thing is, China doesn’t ask difficult questions as to what the conditions would be if it invested, and they are very flexible,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
In Cambodia, for example, the information minister called Chinese projects “crucial to boosting economic growth and making communication easier and faster,” China’s Xinhua News Agency reported last year. Xinhua cited 31 Chinese-built highways and eight bridges in addition to hydropower stations.
Asian Markets Mixed Wednesday
Asian markets are mixed Wednesday as concerns grow among investors over a new surge of coronavirus cases across Europe and the United States.
Japan’s benchmark Nikkei index closed 0.2% lower. In Australia, the S&P/ASX index finished 0.1% higher. The KOSPI index in South Korea rose 0.6%, while Taiwan’s TSEC index dropped 0.6%
In late afternoon trading, the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong is down 0.1%, Shanghai’s Composite index is up 0.4%, and Mumbai’s Sensex is down one percent.
In commodities trading, gold is selling at $1,908.40 an ounce, down 0.1%. U.S. crude oil is selling at $38.55 per barrel, down 2.5%, and Brent crude is selling at $40.35 per barrel, down 2%.
All three U.S. indices are trending negatively in futures trading.
US to Open Embassy in Maldives Amid Geopolitics Competition with China
The United States is opening an embassy in the Maldives to strengthen economic and security cooperation five decades after the two nations established diplomatic ties.
The move reflects “the continued growth of the U.S.-Maldives relationship and underscoring the United States’ unshakeable commitment to Maldives and the Indo-Pacific region,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement Wednesday after his meetings in the Maldives with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid.
The latest move is seen as part of Washington’s push for a free and open Indo-Pacific to curb Beijing’s influence in the region.
The United States does not have a consulate or embassy in Maldives currently but operates an American Center in Malé. The U.S. ambassador and embassy staff in Sri Lanka are accredited to Maldives and make regular visits to the island archipelago.
Pompeo’s travel to the South Asian nation comes after the U.S. and Maldives signed a defense agreement on September 10 to “deepen engagement and cooperation” in the peace and security of the Indian Ocean, according to the State Department. India, historically skeptical of foreign military presence close to its borders, has blessed the deal, U.S. officials say.
In recent years, U.S. naval vessels have regularly conducted port calls at Maldives. The nation of islands has provided support to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism and terrorist financing.
The U.S. has provided $2 million in assistance to Maldives for COVID-19 recovery during the pandemic. Washington has also pledged millions in economic support aimed at strengthening Maldives’ fiscal transparency, maritime security, and counterterrorism.
The U.S. established diplomatic relations with Maldives in 1966 following its independence from Britain.
After Maldives, Pompeo heads to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he will underscore religious freedom and human rights in the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation, according to U.S. officials.
The secretary of state has told reporters that it is in the best interest of Southeast Asian nations to protect “their maritime rights” and the ability to conduct business, ensuring “that their sovereignty is protected against” threats from the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing has built strong economic and diplomatic ties with Jakarta. China was the second largest source of foreign direct investment in Indonesia in the first half of this year.
Southeast Asia is the region most impacted by China’s territorial claims and militarization of disputed land features in South China Sea.
Six Asian governments—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with China’s claim.
While Indonesia is not seen as a party to the South China Sea disputes, it has on multiple occasions detected Chinese fishing or coast guard ships in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea.
For Filipino Journalists, Local Politics Can Be a Dangerous Beat
The phone calls came to his newsroom and his home. The person on the line told whoever answered that Joe Torres should “take care.” But the threats didn’t stop there. Armed men would follow the veteran Filipino journalist and “really show themselves.” Once, someone fired shots outside Torres’ house.
At the time, Torres was covering the armed rebels, the Abu Sayyaf Group, and digging into the criminal history of a local political clan. The clan was the bigger menace.
“I traced several killings to [a political] family,” said Torres, 54. “The government even actually investigated them. My story started it all, so I think that’s why I received a lot of threats.”
This was in the mid-90s, but it could have been yesterday. Journalists in the Philippines still face serious threats for independent reporting that makes powerful people look bad. By many accounts, conditions are more dire than ever for reporters like Torres.
Of late, the big press freedom story has been about autocratic President Rodrigo Duterte and his fight with the national media, including the trial of Rappler and its executive editor, Maria Ressa. But it is coverage of local politicians, particularly those in the drug trade, that pose more danger to press freedom than anything else, said Torres and other Filipino journalists.
Overall, press freedom is at its lowest point in the country since the 1970s, media watchers say, as politicians and criminal elements act with impunity, using legal action to intimidate national figures such as Ressa and pressure news outlets — especially those in the provinces — to decide between chasing a story or censoring it just to survive.
These risks came to the fore on September 14, when gunmen shot dead Jobert Bercasio, a former radio journalist in central Philippines. Bercasio covered issues such as illegal logging on his social media news website, Balangibog. Days before his killing, the journalist reported on unusual activity near a quarry. The killing grabbed the attention of UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, who called for an investigation.
In a separate incident the same week, a former city councilor, Plaridel Nava, allegedly sent private messages to the editor of the Daily Guardian, threatening physical violence after the paper reported on his dismissal from office, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines reported.
“The impunity with which journalists continue to be attacked and killed is the same impunity that drives the continued killings in the government’s war on drugs and the continued assassinations of activists and human rights defenders,” the union said in a statement posted to the Bulatlat news website.
The family influence
Duterte’s disregard for the media and his war on drugs have created a poisonous atmosphere for independent news. A report last month by the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch places the total killed without trial in the anti-drug campaign at 5,810.
Philippines Denies Claim of Increased Police Drug-Related KillingsHuman Rights Watch says killings rose 50% from April through June as Filipinos stayed indoors to slow COVID-19 spread; presidential office rejects the findings
Local reporters seldom tangle with Duterte, who came to power in 2016, because they cover central government less. But they face a lot of what Torres found: political families with deep business connections who sometimes run provincial media outlets or threaten reporters who dig up problems.
Wealthy families have powerful sway in parts of the southern Philippines because of their history as plantation owners in a region with spotty land reforms, said Eduardo Araral, a Philippine-born associate professor at the National University of Singapore's school of public policy.
Economic power lets the families wield political control, and they may see newcomers as rebels, Araral said. He described their outlook as “clannish” and “tribal.”
Political families also use official channels to steer news coverage. Some have stakes in newspapers and radio stations, or try to use influence at press clubs to try to pressure journalists either through direct orders on coverage or indirect means such as funding and job security.
Gualberto Laput, a 54-year-old career reporter, says he has tried to bring local journalists together so they can cover news free from influence.
But while president of a press club on the southern island of Mindanao in 2004, Laput said he found that politicians controlled that organization as well as a second club in his province. The politicians tried to use their influence at these clubs to steer coverage toward their economic or political interests, Laput said.
At the club, he set up workshops and lectures on journalism to “eradicate political intervention.” But, he said, he found that intervention would creep back in ahead of elections. “I constantly reminded [people at club events] that if we are together, politicians will listen to us, and will not throw their weight on us,” Laput, who now reports for Rappler, said. “But when election season begins, we're back to our political divide — for money.”
Each of three political families in Zamboanga del Norte, a province in Mindanao, where Laput works, has its own newspaper. The province is ever on edge for attacks by rebels and, as in other parts of the country, wealthy families compete for political control, usually in a single city or province.
Politicians know nothing about “media ethics,” Laput said, and use their publications as tools to attack their opponents or harass journalists who write critical reports.
“Because of the setup of our media here in this part of Mindanao, the readers no longer know what news is,” Laput said. “The warring politicians — each side has their own media.”
Laput cited an ongoing 2018 between an electric company and a local governor as an example. He says that the provincial governor, Roberto Uy, used a local radio station under his control to criticize the company’s managers.
A person close to the governor’s office, who asked for anonymity to speak about the case, told VOA in October that the governor’s son owns a radio station. But they did not directly respond when asked whether the airwaves were used to slam the power cooperative. The electric cooperative owns a station, as well, the source said, and “bought airtime on other stations to attack the governor.”
The source added that customers had been overcharged and provincial officials suspected “something fishy.”
Uy’s office did not provide official comment to VOA.
Positive spin for a price
Low wages for Filipino journalists exacerbate the problem of political influence. The average salary for a Filipino journalist is $280 per month (13,776 Philippine pesos) and many reporters work too many hours to take on side jobs.
With such economics, some take cash from the very people they cover, then report what those sources — police for example — want to hear, veteran journalists say.
That cycle adds to corruption instead of exposing it. Some crime beat reporters take the equivalent of $100 from police in exchange for agreeing to say that a suspect was found carrying drugs, Torres said. Officers from the same police plant the drugs, he said.
Poor working conditions increase the likelihood of bribery, a report by the U.K.-based independent Ethical Journalism Network found.
The report, published in 2015, found evidence of unethical practices in several countries including Ukraine, Nigeria, Colombia and the Philippines.
It listed conflicts of interest in the Philippines including working for political campaigns while employed as a reporter or being asked by media outlets to secure advertising from local businesses. Other unethical behaviors cited were payments to use news reports to attack a rival, kill off an article or take bribes from police or security officials, the report found.
Newsroom bottom lines also factor into discussions on coverage.
“The Philippines, just like other countries in Asia, is experiencing what I like to call a ‘publish and perish’ phenomenon,” said James Gomez, regional director of the Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based think tank.
“If the media outlet publishes noncritical information news, then they are very much left alone. However, if they publish information critical of the political regime or lead political figures, then these outlets and specific journalists come under [legal or financial] attack,” Gomez said.
Officials unhappy with news content either target high-profile reporters and editors or use legal sanctions, Gomez said. They intervene in licensing and withdraw advertising to weaken a media outlet’s business.
Paid-off journalists still face threats from the political rivals of whoever offered the money.
Jose Jaime Espina, chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said, “[c]onditions such as these do push many journalists toward corruption, not difficult in a country where patronage politics remains the norm.”
“In many cases, politicians retain journalists to promote them and attack their foes. This often exposes the journalist to possible retaliation by the patron’s foes, as has been the case in a number of media killings,” Espina said.
The Philippines has had a poor record for securing justice in journalist killings, according to data from the press freedom organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Its record improved in the 2020 Impunity Index, released Wednesday, in part because a 2009 massacre, during which 58 people, including 30 media workers, were kidnapped and eventually killed, no longer fell within the index period.
Progress Is Slow Securing Justice for Journalists Entrenched impunity and lack of political will is slowing efforts to bring killers of journalists to justice, annual Impunity Index finds
A regional court last year convicted 28 people for their involvement in that attack. But the Philippines still has 11 unresolved cases from the past decade.
“The bulk of media killings remain unsolved, a dismal record,” Espina said. “Hopefully, when a better, more humane government comes along, proposing reforms will not be such an exercise in futility.”
In many cases, killings can be traced to local politics and local issues, said Torres, now a writer with the Catholic news website LiCAS News Philippines. Journalism trade groups should train frontline local reporters — those most likely to be killed — on how to keep safe while getting their jobs done, he added.
When Torres received threats, his family’s “political friends” on the island of Mindanao “had to talk to the other political family not to touch me,” he said.
Torres was able to stay safe, but threats can carry over into physical violence.
Nearly all the journalists killed in direct retaliation for their work in the Philippines over the past decade were threatened beforehand. Nearly all covered corruption and politics, according to CPJ, which documents journalist killings globally.
Reporters doubt that truly independent journalism will flourish anytime soon. The Philippine government should enforce labor laws to ensure reporters are treated properly as media company employees, Espina said.
Perceptions that the media collude with sources are disillusioning Filipino news audiences, Espina said, in turn numbing them to reports of journalists being killed.
“Ethics are … a major problem, not just among severely underpaid community journalists but also among more established practitioners in major outfits,” he said. “And because trust in media has plunged, there is also little sympathy from the public when journalists are attacked or killed.
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