Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Cashew Kingdom of Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the unique treasures of the business world. Foreign investments, start-ups, entrepreneurial spirits and innovative ideas has transformed the country into one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. People are getting more and more engaged into the business world, opening their new companies and sharing their constantly flowing ideas. Foreign organizations, on the other hand, open their offices or factories in the country because of the affordable labor costs and the availability of resources. The whole atmosphere in Vietnam has its own unique and vibrant charm. That is why I chose to do my internship in this dynamic country!

As a fourth year Trade Management for Asia student at the Rotterdam Business School, I wanted to learn more about the trade connections between Far East Asia and the Western world. Topics such as import, export and supply-chain management intrigue me very much. Moreover, in the Netherlands and Japan, I acquired insight of the Southeast Asian economics and their current and future developments. So, what a better idea could be than experiencing the business dynamics at a place where there is a ‘boom’ of opportunities.

Currently, I am doing an internship at Red River Foods. It is an American company whose head quarters are located in Richmond, Virginia. The company is one of the major importers of nuts and dry fruit in the United States. Red River Foods has a worldwide reach – it serves a loyal base of over 150 customers with over 50 different varieties sourced from more than 20 countries around the globe. The branch I am having my internship at is located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The director of the branch is Robert Hoeve who is also my supervisor. Our office is dedicated to the company’s cashew operations – determining which suppliers meet all quality, health and safety standards. Red River Foods Vietnam has operated for about 3 years and it already has opened two factories! It is very exciting to be a part of such a fast-developing company and learn from an expert like Mr. Hoeve!

I have been in Red River Foods Vietnam for 2 months (in total 4 months). I have had the chance to have a grasp on how the business is operated in terms of supply chain and how trade relations between Vietnam and USA are controlled. My main task as an intern is to develop a business plan in order to find out if it is feasible to expand some of the company’s operations to Cambodia. Due to this assignment, I learnt more about outsourcing, financial outlooks and I got a greater insight on how the cashew nut industry is operating. Moreover, I had the opportunity to execute a field research – visit cashew nut seedling suppliers and learn more about the Vietnamese farmers and their plantations. Another exciting visit was the one to the company’s processing factory. I discovered how the cashew nuts are processed, inspected and finally packaged – ready to be exported to USA. This whole new experience has been very enlightening. I gained so much knowledge about the supply chain management of a product such as the cashew nut – from the small seed in the cashew garden of the Vietnamese farmer, through the processing of the cashew and its careful inspection, to the ready-for-export package. It is fascinating to find out how many stages one cashew nut has to go through in order to be found in the supermarket!

Another aspect I am really grateful to Mr. Hoeve for teaching me is the business relations with the local people. He explained me how tricky and stressful is to have a business in Southeast Asia but that’s the fun of it. My supervisor shared his experience of how to deal with risky situations and also how to solve problems with Vietnamese suppliers. The most important lesson is “Know your market well, your suppliers even better and mitigate your risks”. I would like to thank Red River Foods Vietnam and Mr. Hoeve for having me! I hope the next 2 months of my internship are full with exciting experiences and more business insights!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

My exchange semester in South Korea

Why South Korea?

Studying at The Hague University of Applied Sciences has led me to come in contact with a vast number of students, each with their own unique cultural backgrounds. Although each student had a story to tell, the ones that interested me the most were those that came from foreign students from Asia. The complexity of each individual Asian nation made for some interesting stories and viewpoints on global issues, depending on the country the students were from. For these reasons, I started to become interested in Asia even more.

Eventually, I chose a Korean language ECA during my 2nd year, as I heard the alphabet was easy to learn. Hearing the interesting stories from my Korean professor convinced me to choose the Business in Asia Minor during my 3rd year. During this minor, my professors shared stories about their times and experiences in Asia. Since I had already chosen the Korean language ECA, it was a fairly easy decision when I chose Seoul, South Korea as my exchange semester location. After researching the many partner universities, I eventually ended up choosing Hanyang University (
한양대학교), one on the top private universities in South Korea. 


When I first arrived at Seoul-Incheon International Airport I immediately felt the euphoria of being in a new country. I was finally in South Korea and I was ready to start a new adventure ! I was the first student from my study to arrive in South Korea, so I had to do everything alone. The first thing I did was withdraw money from a global ATM. It felt pretty good to hold 500,000 Korean won in my hands (even though that’s only about 370 euro!). I quickly grabbed my luggage and went straight to the airport’s bus terminal. After waiting a couple minutes, I boarded bus 6007 and I was off to the mega city known as Seoul…

After stepping off the bus and trying to find my student apartment I noticed something that was strange to me. It was something that I would notice for the rest of my exchange semester. There. Are. People. EVERYWHERE. ALWAYS. For the past 9 years of my life, I have lived in The Netherlands together with roughly 17 million other citizens. The city of Seoul together with its surrounding metropolitan areas are home to 25 million Koreans. I had to share the city with an enormous amount of people.

Korean people

During my exchange semester I had to get used to some cross cultural differences between me and Korean students and teachers. "Power distance" immediately came into play when I started attending classes.
Respecting those who are older than you is very important to Koreans. This means that students will bow to teachers, children will listen to their parent’s every word and younger students will pour the drinks of older students. The Western sense of equality amongst peers is almost non-existent in Korea. 

"Forwardness" is also a very strange topic in South Korea. Asian cultures have a phenomenon known as “saving face”. This means that Koreans tend to avoid confrontations or arguments in front of others to save face and ensure nobody gets embarrassed. This is one of the leftovers of Confucianism in North-East Asia. Although this sounds noble, I found it extremely frustrating as Koreans will dance around certain topics and not be direct about their opinions or actions. During group work with Korean students this issue was apparent. However, by being patient and talking things out I was able to complete my tasks at school.


I attended Hanyang University during my time in Korea. The school has a beautiful campus that’s the size of a small town in the Netherlands. Students from my study who do their exchange programme in South Korea are typically required to take five courses. However, I chose three. I could do this because I took an Intensive Korean Language Programme course, which exchange students do not normally take.  While other students were out partying every day, I had to go to 4 hour language classes every day for 10 weeks.

During this time I learned the basics of the Korean language, together with other internationals, who were there because they had ambitions to work in South Korea. It was a difficult time, but very rewarding. It was pretty nice to be able to understand the signs across the city, with my limited language knowledge. Also, since the programme was only 10 weeks long I only had 2 courses (Services Marketing & Tourism Management) for the final few months of the exchange programme, compared to my friends who had 5. 

Work hard play hard

Korean student life truly lives up to the saying “Work hard, play hard”. The first aspect to this is work hard. From a very young age, Koreans develop an intense focus on academics. For example, high school students will attend regular class during the day. Afterwards, they’ll head to cram school and continue studying. This leaves very little time during the day for Koreans to play or focus on their hobbies. To Koreans, higher grades in high school will get you to the SKY universities (Seoul National University, Korea University & Yonsei University), which are the best. However, when they reach university it’s a very different story. Attendance is not always mandatory and their parents don’t have a ton of control anymore. This all leads to the “Play hard” aspect…

Korea has a drinking culture. After attending university during the week, Korean students will head to a Noraebang (karaoke bar) or one of the many clubs in Seoul. When you go with them, you should already expect it to be a night of heavy drinking. A bottle of soju, Korea’s most famous alcohol, costs less than $3. This means that, to the delight of money conscious foreign students (like me!), you can get pretty intoxicated without spending a whole lot. I’ve often woken up after nights of heavy drinking with friends to find out that I only spent around 10-15 euros.

Best and worst memories

My best memory of South Korea would be a school trip to Muwol village. Muwol village is a traditional village in the south of South Korea, roughly 4 hours by bus away from Seoul. I stayed there for 3 days together with about 30 other students from Hanyang. During this time our guides let us participate in many traditional activities. These included activities such as handkerchief dyeing, making floating lanterns, preparing rice in bamboo sticks and making Korean sweets. I had a lot of fun participating in all these activities. Also, I made a lot of friends during the trip. The guides made sure we interacted with each other and had a great time. This trip was exactly what I envisioned myself to be doing in Korea. It was great and I learned a lot about Korean culture in the process.

I don’t really have a many bad memories about my exchange semester. However, if I had to choose one that stood out, it would be the public transportation. Now, it’s not all bad. The metro and bus lines themselves are so integrated you can easily travel within the huge city. Also, they’re always on time and come every 5 minutes or so. It’s cheap, too. The standard fee is 1250 won, which is about 1 euro. The problem is that there are millions of people who live in Seoul. So during rush hour the metros and busses can get very full. So full in fact, that the temperature actually rises significantly since there are so many people together. Sometimes I couldn’t even reach for my phone in my pocket. There were just too many people there. Since I had to use public transportation everyday this got a little annoying. Also, all those people in one tight space doesn’t really smell good!

Final thoughts

Looking back, I had a pretty amazing time in South Korea. I met a lot of great students at my university. Some of them turned into lifelong friends who I try to talk to several times a week. Throughout my time in Korea I’ve visited traditional villages, a ton of museums, the DMZ and also travelled to other cities (Suwon, Busan and Damyang). Exploring a foreign country has made me realize that I would really like to graduate and find a job in which I can travel. I think visiting other countries will lead you to gain invaluable cultural awareness. This is something that I certainly gained during those 5 months. 

The exchange semester also led me to mature a bit more. When I arrived in South Korea I was still used to living with my parents and not having to do a lot. When I left Korea I was used to being independent and having to take care of myself. I feel strange being back in the Netherlands. After all those months Korea ended up feeling like “home”. I’ll miss meeting up with the friends I made, both Korean and international, and going to karaoke bars and clubs. I’ll miss taking trips to historical sites and learning about Korean culture. I’ll also miss the incredible city vibe that Seoul has. But I’m not sad, though. It may have been the first time I went to South Korea, but it won’t be the last ! 

About the author: Jonathan Hodge is 3rd year Bachelor student, International Business and Management Studies at The Hague University of Applied Sciences

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Falling in love with Japan

Everyone has heard of the "Land of the Rising Sun”. A country of advanced technology, rich traditions and the most polite people in the world! Some people have had the chance to visit this mesmerizing place. But I have had the opportunity to live and have my study abroad in Japan. For almost 4 months I have been living in Tokyo as an exchange student in Sophia University. This has been one of the most wonderful chapters in my life – my dream becoming a reality.

One of the main reasons I chose to study "Trade Management for Asia" back in the Netherlands was to go to Japan. In 2011, I had the chance to visit Japan for 2 months for a summer language program. I fell in love with this country and I needed more! So after 3 years of classes in the Netherlands, here I am in Tokyo.

Currently, I study in Sophia University – the first Catholic university in Japan. Funny enough my home city is also called Sofia (Bulgaria) so many people here enjoy this fact. I met many new friends from all over the world – Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, USA, Spain, the Philippines and Thailand. Living in an international dorm helped me expand my network but also create long-lasting relationships. In the beginning of the exchange, it was very interesting to explore Tokyo together, finding our way to the final destination and getting acquainted to the Japanese culture. One of my favorite examples is when we had to meet at one of the biggest train stations in the world – Shinjuku. This is one of the biggest mistakes – we were looking for each other for 2 hours simply because the station has over 200 exits. Some of my friends have had similar experience which lasted for 4 hours. So my advice to everyone who wants to meet at Shinjuku would be: Don’t do it!

In the past months I also made a lot of Japanese friends. My most favorite aspect is that if I know one Japanese person, he or she will introduce me to their friends. One of the best places to make new friends in Sophia University is the cafeteria, during lunch time – every week I get introduced to at least two new people. I also joined the boxing circle. I decided to try something new since I had started a new chapter in my life. It is hilarious when my senpai (another student who is more experienced than me) wants to explain me boxing in Japanese. I found out how to develop my linguistic and physical skills at the same time. (Thank you body language!) During my stay in Japan, I try to expand my network as much as possible. I visited other universities and participated in business seminars. I met young entrepreneurs, people who have international experience, and, of course, I made many new friends.  My stay in Japan has been filled with lots of unforgettable memories, funny stories and life lessons.

The life in Tokyo for me has been simple – study, meet my friends and travel. During the week, the time passes by studying Japanese, preparing for my other classes and sharing experiences with my friends. Every weekend I try to travel as much as possible. The last time I was in Japan I didn’t have the chance to explore so much. But this time I wanted to make it the time of my life. I visited many places around Tokyo – I climbed a mountain in Nagano, visited beautiful places such as Chiba and Yokosuka, went to the biggest Chinese market in the world in Yokohama. I also had many “first” experiences – relaxing in an "onsen" (traditional Japanese bath), eating all kinds of raw food (fish, squid, octopus, even horse), visiting an aquarium, travelling with a no-machinist train but also get pushed in a train (in rush hour is quite ‘packed’), and singing karaoke. Also, for the first time, I haven’t met another Bulgarian for almost 4 months. However, when Japanese people find out where I come from, they become quite interested and excited. One of the reasons is because the most famous yoghurt in Japan is called “Bulgarian yoghurt” and two popular sumo players are Bulgarian. It is very heart-warming to see how many people want to know more about Bulgaria.

During my exchange in Japan, I have experienced and learnt a lot. Studying here gave me new opportunities such as expanding my business and personal network but also improve my Japanese language skills. I am happy that I made so many new friendships and found out something exciting about different cultures. Japan has offered me many ‘first’ experiences which enriched my stay here. Unfortunately, I am leaving soon and the thought brings sadness but also a warm feeling. Japan was great to me and I am really grateful to all my friends here. But I am pretty sure I will come back some day! And next time will be even better!

About the author: Polina Arabadzhieva is 3rd year Bachelor student Trade Management for Asia at the Rotterdam Business School 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

UNCTAD Investment Policy Monitor

In the March 2017 issue of its Investment Policy Monitor, UNCTAD reports that, during the review period (October 2016-February 2017), several countries took noteworthy investment policy measures at a national level. Among them are the issuance of a comprehensive circular to attract foreign investment in China. Another important featrure was new privatisation measures in France, Greece, South-Korea, The Netherlands and the Russian Federation. On the other hand, Indonesia introduced a foreign ownership limit on electronic payment service firms.

The universe of international investment agreements (IIAs) is expanding, as countries continue to sign and negotiate new IIAs, including megaregional initiatives. During the reporting period, countries concluded 11 bilateral investment treaties and 2 treaties with investment provisions, bringing the total of IIAs to over 3,300.


Entry/Establishment of investment 

18 countries - Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, (South-) Korea, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Romania, Russian Federation, United States of America, Uzbekistan ad Viet Nam -adopted new policy measures relating to the entry and establishment of foreign investors. The majority of them relaxed restrictions on foreign ownership or opened up new business opportunities.

Among the most noteworthy investment liberalisation measures are:

* China issued a circulat setting out the blueprint for its policies on attracting foreign investment. Inter alia, the Government decided to revise the "Catalogue for the Guidance of Foreign Investment industries", and to further open various industries.

* The Central Bank of India amended regulations in order to further liberalise and rationalise the investment regime for foreign venture capital investors and to encourage foreign investment in startups.

New regulatory or restrictive investment-related policy measures included:

* Indonesia imposed a 20% limit on foreign ownership in companies that offer electronic payment services

* The United States prohibited the acquisition of a U.S. subsidiary of Aixtron by a Chinese company on the basis of national security concerns.

Treatment of established investment 

10 countries - Argentina, China, Colombia, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Myanmar, Poland and Romania - took measures with respect to the treatment of investors after establishment in the host country. For example:

* Indonesia increased the minimum local content requirement for domestically-produced 4G smartphones that are sold in the Indonesian market from 20% to 30%.

* Myanmar revoked the ceiling on the amount of funds that foreign-local joint venture trading firms can use in their operations. This removes the obligation to register any additional amounts of foreign currency required for investment purposes.


International investment agreements (IIAs) signed

During the reporting period, 11 bilateral investment treaties (BITs) were signed, including:

* BIT between Nigeria and Singapore (4 November 2016)
* BIT between Chile and Hong Kong SAR (18 November 2016) 
* BIT between Israel and Japan (1 February 2017) 

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

On 1-10 December 2016, the 16th round of negotiations for RCEPT. involving the 10 members if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus 6 other countries from the region, were held in Tangerang, Indonesia. Discussions focused on trade in goods, trade in services, investment, intellectual property rights, competition and e-commerce. The chapter on Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises was concluded during this round. This is the second chapter to eb concluded since the inclusion of the chapter on Economic and Technical Cooperation at the 15th round in Tianjin, China. The 17th round of RCEP negotiations took place in Kobe, Japan, from 27 February - 3 March 2017.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP)

On 30 January 2017, the United Stats issued a letter to signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) that it has formally withdrawn from the agreement and that it has no legal obligations arising from its signature on 4 February 2016. The TPP was originally signed between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Viet Nam on 4 February 2016. 

Lima Declaration of the Free Trade Area Asia-Pacific 

On 20 November 2016, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting was held in Lima, Peru, where the Declaration on advancing quality growth and human development was adopted. Annex A to the Declaration, entitled "Lima Declaration on Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP)". encourages the "conclusion of comprehensive and high-quality" regional trade agreements and free trade agreements. 

Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement between the EU and India

On 20 February 2017, EU Parliamentarians visited India to discuss matters cncerning EU-India ties, in particular, India BITs with EU member states, which will cease having effect on 31 March 2017. However, investments made prior to the termination would enjoy continued protection under the sunset clauses of the old BITs. The EU delegation discussed with India the possibility of extending the effective termination dates of the BITs by at least 6 months. Discussions also focused on the negotiations of the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement with India, which have been ongoing since 2007. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Land of a thousand smiles

My name is Danica Djermor and I am a student at the Rotterdam Business School. I study "Trade Management focused on Asia" and I just got back from one year studying in Indonesia. This 4-year course allows you to visit, study and work for one year in the country which you applied for. These countries are all based in Asia and consist of China, Indonesia, Japan, India and Vietnam. During my third and fourth year, I went for my minor 6 months to Jogykarta in Indonesia to follow a semester at the Universitas Atma Jaya, followed by an internship of 6 months on the Indonesian island of Bali at a scooter-rental company. 

The reason I chose Indonesia was because of the fact that my family comes from the Mollucan Islands. This sparked my interest and passion from a young age and I had the urge to know as much as possible about this beautiful and diverse country. I can say it was one of the best years of my life. The challenge to stand on your own as a individual and make important decisions really made me a strong person along this whole journey. 

After a long flight alone to Indonesia, I just realised that I had embarked on a adventure which would have me 1 year from home. I was quite anxious and I have to admit, utterly scared,  to know that it would just be me and I in Indonesia. After a couple of days I became a bit used to the weather and all those people staring at me. Despite me being half Mollucan, I was quite the attraction in the neighbourhood even though Jogyakarta is a big student city and becoming very modern and trendy nowadays. 

School life is very different from that in The Netherlands. People are much more humble and treated with respect. There is also a warm feeling of unity everywhere you go. For example, it is perfectly normal to eat outside with friends or even strangers at their local “warung”; a small restaurant outside where your “mama tua” (female cook) serves you one of the best Indonesian food there is. During this semester I made a lot of friends at the University, among them a lot of Indonesians. I never experienced such a warmth and kindness. They took me to unknown and beautiful places hidden in Java and taught me to appreciate life as it was presented to me. 

Everyday on the scooter back and forth to the University while eating Indonesian snacks became a lifestyle where I found total peace in the chaotic traffic with the ricefields passing by. I was feeling completly at home and classes were fun to do and the people were very friendly and nice. 

After doing my final exams, I moved straight away to Bali to work at my internship the following week. Bali, however, was really different than Java. Tourism had taken hold of the Island and for an instant it took me back to Ibiza or Mallorca. It took me quite a while to get used here. The Balinese were rigid and not welcoming, because of the many tourists consuming and partying without any recognition of their Hindoeist beliefs and traditions. 

Even though the island was very beautiful, everywhere I went it was very crowded and I was more surrounded by tourists than locals. Even at my internship it was hard to be polite to tourists as they were ignorant and a bit arrogant. In the meantime, I picked up some volunteer work at a orphanage and some animal shelters. I felt like I wanted to do something for the community to show my appreciation for them welcoming me and tried to make me feel at home the best they could. In Bali, I saw a lot of beauty, especially on the other Islands and the nothern part of the island. 

The first month I was in Bali I went to some temples in Ubud. While visiting I stumbled upon a white little puppy in the ricefields. As I looked for the mother or the nest, I layed him back in the field as I didnt want to take him home. A lot of people would think, that would be really selfish. But as I started tot think about this, it is more selfish to take care of the dog and leaving him shortly after you go back to your home country again. A lot of foreigners do this in Bali. 

Nevertheless, I went back on the scooter after almost getting home. When I got back for him, he was already soaking wet of the rain and shivering. So I did the most dumbest thing you could do in Bali. I adopted a pup and took him in my skirt on the scooter back to Kuta.

Fortunately I had a lot of good friends who would take “Milo” (named him after the chocolate milk in Indonesia) in when I went back to Holland. This little fellow gave me great joy when being there in Bali. After the internship, we would go on the bike and drive to the beach and play with the other dogs. 

I can’t describe in words, what a year it has been for me in Indonesia. The people that I have met, the experiences that come with it, made me feel truly blessed. This country is so diverse in its people, landscapes and cultures. Every mile you go on the road is always different than the last one. Indonesia never failed to ashtonish me and made me such a bigger person. Being a year away from home out of your comfort zone, makes you see things from a different perspective. This study made it possible for me to prepare for my thesis and also to see a new chapter, which I surely see myself going for.  I came back with a full heart and a clear mind. These things all will hopefully make me a better person  while aiming for goals which will not only benefit me but hopefully also other peopleI lost my heart in Indonesia and soon I will go back to retrieve it along with my dog Milo.

This story appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Future of ASEAN

Ambassadors to the Netherlands of Lao People's Democratic Republic, 
Indonesia and Thailand attended ICAD 2016 
On 3 September 2016, I was one of the speakers at the International Conference on ASEAN Development (ICAD) at Leiden University. Goal of the 2016 edition of ICAD was, as stated by its organizers PPI Belanda (Indonesian Student Association in The Netherlands), “to build a bridge between the EU and ASEAN and to learn from the EU in the fields of Law, Politics, Economics, Culture and Technology for a deeper integration and development of ASEAN”.

Although my speech focused on economic parallels between the EU and ASEAN, whereby economic integration in the fields of trade and investment and economic  disparity of its member states were highlighted, it struck me that my fellow speakers as well as the audience at the Conference were quite sceptical on the (future) achievements of ASEAN. They did not have much confidence in ASEAN gradually assuming a leading, both political and economic, role in the region and beyond. The Conference’s audience was made up of approximately 120 Indonesian students, pursuing Bachelor-, Master-, and PhD-degrees in The Netherlands and other EU countries, representing the around 1500 Indonesian higher education students in The Netherlands and over 5000 in Europe. 

Recent surveys held in Indonesia and neighbouring countries show that the “awareness” of ASEAN is increasing. In addition to large multinational companies, now also SMEs and individual entrepreneurs are seriously eyeing cross-border opportunities . However, apparently, there is still quite a large number of young people in the region that are hesitant when it comes to truely believing in the concept of ASEAN. The Indonesian students who attended ICAD 2016 pointed out the economic disparity between ASEAN member states and the unwillingness, or incapability, of showing leadership and decisiveness.

I am far most optimistic than some of these Indonesian students and strongly believe that ASEAN will in due course develop into a powerful union. But ASEAN will have to do it the Asian way, looking at the EU for some guidance, in particular from an institutional perspective. Jakarta could become a kind of Brussels, but nevertheless assume its own definition of a central role. Where the EU is struggling to keep its member states on board and is having a hard time enforcing agreements on them, politically as well as economically, ASEAN will work out its own way of dealing with geo-politcal and geo-economic issues. This may be regarded as being indecisive, but quick decisions and agreements without true support lack  credibility. The monetary crisis, the refugee crisis, the Brexit, are all examples how NOT to deal with political, economic and humanitarian issues.

As I said earlier, from an institutional perspective and as far as intra-union trade is concerned, the EU is a good example. ASEAN can definately learn from the EU how to better “organize” its institutions and how to boost intra-ASEAN  trade and investment. But as far as aligning individual member states on common (?) political and economic (monetary) challenges, ASEAN should create its own framework, whereby initial disparity between member states may not necessarliy be an obstacle. However, its geo-political and geo-economic balancing act is even more delicate than Europe’s. ASEAN is embarking on a cautious and careful course whereby a non-confrontational approach will prove to be far more effective than going head-to-head on matters of national interest or on geo-political sensitivities. 

Will this road be a mere “walk in the park”?  Definately not, ASEAN will stumble every now and then, face set-backs occasionally. It is a complex journey.  As in Europe, ultra-nationalism and populism are also on the rise in Southeast Asia. National governments will have to explain policies in a convincing way in order to avoid xenophobia coming along with migration. There is bilateral friction between member states. Philippine newspaper, The Inquier, as well as the Japan Times, this week expressed their concern on the political indecisiveness of ASEAN. Both articles referred to the ASEAN meeting in Vientiane, Laos, last week, where ASEAN failed to take a firm stance against China’s interference in the South China Sea. The articles questioned China’s commitment to ASEAN’s Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and the international ruling of the arbitral court of the UN Convention of the Law and the Sea (UNCLOS).  Concluding  the meeting in Vientiane, ASEAN failed to align all member states to issue a joint statement in which it would stand up to China in this maritime conflict.

And how to deal with “different leadership styles”, to put it euphemistically in the case of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, for example ? Are the rulers in these member states a threat to the cohesion within ASEAN ? They could be, although their unpredictable, radical way of governing their countries may have a greater effect on their relationship with the "international community" in the West, than on their dealings with neighbouring states in Asia.

These are all enormous challenges that ASEAN faces, I have to admit. But the outcome of the Laos meeting is no surprise to me as ASEAN will have to perform a balancing act between being friend or ally with China, and/or with the so-called “international community”. Earlier I mentioned the “Asian way”: addressing regional conflicts or interfering in eachother’s national affairs will not be done “bluntly”. A quick solution putting a superficial plaster on wounds, will not be the way ASEAN will resolve its problems. Complex problems will have to be tackled by means of bilateral talks between individual member states on various levels of government.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Winning the hearts & minds

In this second decade of the twenty-first century, China has become a superpower. In particular, in the last 10 years, the country has established itself firmly in the global political and economic arena. Was it Europe that dominated the world in the 19th Century and the U.S. in the 20th Century, this new era may well be China’s !

Geopolitically and geoeconomically, China is making its presence felt in the region and in the rest of the world. Numerous acquisitions in Europe and the U.S., economic expansion into Africa and, of course, trade and investment in its own “backyard”, Asia. 

The One Belt, One Road initiative, the “claiming” of territories in the South China Sea, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its prominent role in the recent Paris Climate Conference, are all signals that China is not only spreading its wings economically but also politically. China is letting the world know that the days that Western nations solely dominated the political and economic agenda are over. 

However, China faces a tough battle. Although large parts of the world do turn away from Western influence, whether in Africa or in Asia, this does not mean that China is automatically embraced as the replacing superpower. Just as the U.S. is struggling with “winning the hearts & minds” in large parts of the world, China is having to deal with this on maybe an even larger scale. Where the U.S. at least has loyal Europe unconditionally on its side, China is having a hard time lining up “allies” even within Asia. Whether historically-determined, or driven by more recent events, China’s gesture of goodwill is not seldom met with a lukewarm response. 

It takes more than just money and know-how to be accepted by the world as a leading superpower. In the years to come, China will have to work hard on “winning the hearts & minds” of other nations in Asia and in the rest of the world.

This article appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia