Archive for July, 2012

Analysis – ASEAN path to economic union muddied by South China Sea

July 31, 2012

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Discord in Southeast Asia over how to deal with Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea comes as the region struggles to overcome competing national interests and form a European Union-style economic community by 2015.

Political leaders and officials say the row may not directly affect plans by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the economic integration of countries ranging from wealthy Singapore to impoverished Myanmar.

But what doesn’t help is China’s growing investment in the bloc’s poorer members, which critics say gives it influence that it has effectively used to block a unifiedASEAN stance in the South China Sea dispute. The South China Sea, which stretches from China to Indonesia and from Vietnam to the Philippines, lies atop what are believed to be rich reserves of oil and gas.

“It’s not going to hold progress (on integration) hostage,” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told diplomats in Jakarta, referring to a recent meeting in Cambodia, where rifts over the South China Sea prevented the group’s foreign ministers from issuing a communiqué for the first time in its history.

“It is an early warning sign … this will not be the last.”

Southeast Asia is a hot destination for investors seeking returns that are drying up in Europe, still to recover in the United States and slowing in the rest of Asia.

Estimated net flows into offshore ASEAN funds stood at $1.4 billion in 2012 through June, according to data reported until July 10. By comparison, China and India offshore funds saw net outflows worth $1.6 billion and $185 million respectively.

Investors have high hopes for plans by the 10-member ASEAN for a single market and production base for a combined economy of $2 trillion, with free movement of goods, services, investment and skilled labour among 600 million people.

While there is consensus in ASEAN for economic union, the group struggles with political differences ranging from a land border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia to a cultural spat between Malaysia and Indonesia. The most destructive is the inability to deal with claims by four of its members, and China and Taiwan, in the South China Sea.

Since only some elements of the economic plan will be in place by 2015, such as zero tariffs, more developed members may have to push on with integration in a two-tier model, just as the European Union did, leaving the others at risk of missing out on regional investment.

By Neil Chatterjee

ASEAN’s older and more developed members are Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar joined later.

The two-tier model could leave fringe members further exposed to influence from China — and the United States — as they seek influence through investment and diplomacy in a “Great Game” played out in the tropics.

China is already the top investor in Cambodia and Myanmar and is catching up with investment by Europe, Japan and the United States in the region overall.

“The difference is that China is giving something that Cambodia needs, while ASEAN is promising something that is abstract,” said Aleksius Jemadu, dean of the school of political and social sciences at Pelita Harapan University in Jakarta.

“ASEAN countries will act based more on their domestic needs … When this community is built we can’t expect them to be in unison, just like what happened to the South China Sea.”

ACRIMONY

At the Phnom Penh meeting of foreign ministers, some diplomats said Cambodia blocked the South China Sea dispute being put on the agenda at China’s behest. Cambodian diplomats in turn accused the Philippines and Vietnam of trying to hijack the meeting.

China has maintained it wants to deal with the issue bilaterally.

The Philippines has said it deplored ASEAN’s failure to address the row and criticised Cambodia for its handling of the issue.

Cambodia had GDP per capita of $900 in 2011 and foreign direct investment (FDI) of $800 million in 2010, according to World Bank figures. That compares to Singapore’s $46,241 per capita and $39 billion in FDI.

The China Daily has said Beijing’s investment in Cambodia from 1994 until 2011 was $8.8 billion.

Even without the economic and political differences, a lack of capacity among some of ASEAN’s members is making it hard to implement economic agreements.

Completion of measures towards a single market in its 2010-2011 phase was only 49 percent overall, according to ASEAN’s latest scorecard, with reform lagging in food and agriculture.

“Early achievements were based on low hanging fruit … The process of transposing regional commitments into national laws is the biggest (challenge),” said Subash Pillai, ASEAN’s director of market integration.

The Philippines struggles to send officials to meetings sometimes and can be slow making decisions, insiders say, and may even risk falling into the weaker group of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. These four are already being given more time to fully reduce tariffs.

“They might not be up to the same level,” said Pillai.

A recent Reuters visit to Myanmar’s central bank found just a few idle computers, a stark contrast to the soaring towers that control banks and policy in Singapore and Indonesia.

ASEAN MINUS X

The bloc’s ASEAN Minus X mechanism allows “flexible” implementation of commitments, by enabling members to opt out of economic schemes if they are not ready.

This has already been used. Singapore and Laos are the only members pushing ahead with an agreement on education services. Six countries including Vietnam signed an agreement to link their stock markets by the end of 2011, to spur electronic cross-border trading, but only Singapore and Malaysia are implementing it.

“You cannot expect all countries to be moving ahead at the same time. The ones lagging behind will suffer,” said another senior ASEAN official, who declined to be identified.

The South China Sea spat also shows the problems ASEAN has resolving major disputes. Unlike the European Union, an inspiration if not a model, ASEAN lacks elected members of a central parliament, a powerful executive body or a regional court to make law and enforce its will.

Instead, it has the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat, a body with little clout.

“Without a strong central mechanism it is very difficult to coordinate and survey all the issues that could become big issues,” said Surin.

The bloc will face further challenges as it tries to standardise customs procedures and open up protected industries such as financial services to competition from within. It has implemented free transfer of profits and dividends but needs to remove further barriers to intra-regional investment flows.

“They are behind schedule (on the economic community) and clearly not going to make it … they are not going to see much action on services,” said Hal Hill, professor of Southeast Asian economies at the Australian National University.

And China’s expanding influence looms large.

“The Phnom Penh meetings in July were significant not just because China sought to divide ASEAN by leaning on Cambodia, but because China was happy to do so, so brazenly,” said Bryony Lau, a researcher on the South China Sea for the International Crisis Group think-tank in Jakarta.

(Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu and Martin Petty; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Olympics: China vs U.S. In New Cold War

July 31, 2012

Is China the new Soviet Union at the Olympics? It sure is looking like it today.

At the centre of this new Cold War is Ye Shiwen,  a 16-year-old Chinese swimmer who snagged gold  on Saturday in the 400 meter individual medley at a pace that shattered the world record  by more than a second and knocked five second seconds off her personal best in the final 50 meters of the race. She was even faster in that last lap than American medal winner Ryan Lochte in the men’s race.

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More than a few eyebrows were raised and commentators watching the the race called it “unbelievable.” But John Leonard, head of the American Swimming Coaches Association went a big step further saying her race “was reminiscent of some old East German swimmer.”

Call that the Olympic equivalent of nuclear warhead.

Anyone old enough to remember Soviet and East German competitors at the Olympics will  remember the hulk-like bodies of their athletes in the 1960′s, 1970′s and 1980′s and the doping scandals that constantly discredited them.

Leonard was very clearly accusing Ye of taking some form performance-enhancing drugs.

“History in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable,’ history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved,” Leonard told the Guardian newspaper here in London.

Adding to the tension is China’s domination of the  gold medal count in the opening days of these XXX Olympic Games. The U.S. has been a distant second.

If Leonard’s comments were a figurative nuclear bomb, they response from the Chinese was, well, ballistic.

“If there are suspicions, then please lay them out using facts and data,” Xu Qi, head of the Chinese swimming team told the state news agency Xinhua. “Don’t use your own suspicions to knock down others. This shows lack of respect for athletes and for Chinese swimming.”

Today, the final world from Olympic officials cleared the Chinese swimmer’s name. “She’s clean. That’s the end of the story,”  said Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association reporting on the results of official drug tests.

Of course, there is good reason to be wary of Chinese athletes who shatter world records. China was plagued by a series of  drug-tainted scandals in the 1990′s. Seven Chinese swimmers tested positive for banned substances at the Asian Games in 1994 and in 1998 four more Chinese swimmers failed drug tests in advance of the World Championships in Australia. A swimmer and her coach were expelled after being caught with a cache of growth hormones at the airport in Sydney.

That’s all history now, say the Chinese, who insist they have cleaned up the sport and invested heavily in rigorous drug testing. Yet just last month 16-year-old swimmer Li Zhesi was dropped from the Chinese Olympic team.

To some that might suggest the Chinese really are cleaning up the sport, but to others it is evidence that they continue to cheat.

Leonard may have voiced what many are thinking, but he’s finding it awfully lonely.

“We need to get real here,” said International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams. “These are the world’s best athletes competing at the very highest level. We’ve seen all sorts of records broken already all over the place.”

Adams said the top five athletes in each event, plus two others, are tested as part of “a very, very strong drug-testing program, and we are very confident if there are cheats we will catch them.”

“We can’t stop speculation. It is inevitably a sad result of the fact that there are people who dope and who cheat,” Adams said. “It’s very sad we can’t applaud a great performance. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the athletes.”

Ye is known for her large hands and feet, but otherwise she’s smaller than other swimmers at 5-foot-7 and 141 pounds.

“I don’t think that 4:28 is an impossible time in the 400 IM, I think it’s a perfectly logical time for someone to go,” said Bob Bowman, American swimmer Michael Phelps’ coach. “I trust the testing service and I know that Michael was tested nonstop and we’re very careful about what goes into his body, and I assume that other competitors are, too.”

Add it up: The prediction models look dismal for Obama. Can he still win?

July 31, 2012

I got into writing and thinking about politics because I was told there would be no math.

Boy, was I misled. It’s not just the torrent of polls that we have to deal with, but the numbers that supposedly forecast Presidential elections with uncanny accuracy. Depending on whom you turn to, the key lies in second quarter real GDP growth, the optimism or pessimism of the electorate, individual or family real income growth or a dizzying mix of these and other measurements.

By Jeff Greenfield

They’re usually economic, although one prognosticator—Allan Lichtman, history professor at American University—uses broader measurements, asking whether the incumbent or challenger is charismatic or whether the incumbent party has presided over a major change in social policy. (This is considered a positive, although I don’t know if we’ve ever had a case like the Affordable Care Act, which—unlike every other major social change—passed without bipartisan backing and remains broadly unpopular.)

I’m a skeptic about the predictive power of these numbers for many reasons. For one thing, the “sample size,” which totals about twenty or so Presidential elections since most of these measurements were first made, is too small. For another, they work—unless they don’t. In 1968, strong economic figures were trumped by a divisive war and by social unrest. In 2000, every economic forecasting model predicted that Al Gore would win a comfortable or landslide plurality. They were “right” in the sense that he got half a million more votes than Bush; they were “wrong” in the fundamental outcome they offered.

So it’s with that skepticism in mind that I offer, not a prediction, but a flat pre-election assessment: If President Barack Obama is to win, he is going to have to overcome a set of numbers that no incumbent President, or incumbent party, has ever managed to surmount.

The jobless rate has been stuck at just above 8 per cent for months; you have to go back to 1936 to find a President re-elected with a higher unemployment rate. And in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s case, it was a far better number than he had inherited. Plus, growth was booming.

Today, real growth is at 1.5 per cent. In the economic forecasting models, this portends what even the liberal arts majors have been predicting: a very close election.

The core question for many voters—“Are you generally satisfied with the country’s direction, or has the U.S. gone off on the wrong track”—gets a 32.7-60.7 negative answer, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Generally, an incumbent party needs to have at least a 35% positive response to this question to win the election, says the Gallup Organization.

The consumer confidence level is now about 60 per cent. No incumbent party has ever kept the White House with a number anything like that. (It was slightly higher, at 65 per cent, in 1980 when Carter lost in a landslide.)

Now, try this as a thought exercise. Forget who is running, what the latest gaffe of the day is, who is outraged and what latest insult to what group has been perpetrated by the candidate or his staff. Ignore whom you’re rooting for, and just look at those numbers with the ice-cold heart of a bean counter.

What you would conclude, I think, is that there is no way an incumbent President could get re-elected given these current numbers.

In this sense, the 2012 election is going to test just how predictive many of these “fundamental” models are, and whether the assertion of some forecasters—that the outcome can be known irrespective of candidates and campaigns—is valid.

Why? Because, to put it bluntly: The Republicans have nominated a bad candidate.

Some (very) brief history and a hypothesis. Six years ago, Mitt Romney and his team realized that he could never win the Republican nomination as the pragmatic, moderate-conservative with moderate-to-liberal views on everything from abortion to gun control to the environment to health care. (The mandate was a conservative position back then, but put that aside.) When Team Romney saw Sen. George Allen, the likely 2008 social conservative hero, lose his re-election bid in 2006, they found an opening, and decided to reach, or lunge, for that slot.

And so, throughout the 2008 campaign and throughout this one, Romney has been running as if to claim that his four years in higher office was a case of mistaken identity. I think it has forced him to campaign in mortal fear of every word he utters, to pander to local pride and political constituencies in a manner that seems a parody of the clumsy politician.

At root, Romney is a candidate in the grip of performance anxiety. And whether on the tennis court or in more intimate settings performance anxiety is a near-guarantee of poor performance.

It’s often said that a re-election campaign is always about the incumbent; like many political observations, that’s partly, but not wholly, true. Even when the electorate is disposed to replace the President, it has to be satisfied that the challenger is up to the job. Mitt Romney has yet to meet that test.

The Obama campaign, however, can take very limited comfort from Romney’s discomfit. If the “fundamental” numbers continue to be as grim as they now are, the desire to change course will deepen. And the more that longing intensifies, the lower the bar Mitt Romney will have to clear.

Jeff Greenfield is a Yahoo! News columnist and the host of “Need to Know” on PBS. A five-time Emmy winner, he has spent more than 30 years on network television, including time as the senior political correspondent for CBS News, the senior analyst for CNN, and the political and media analyst for ABC News. His most recent book is “Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics.”

Putin foe charged, Russian opposition fear KGB tactics

July 31, 2012

Prominent anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny gestures after leaving the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in Moscow July 31, 2012. Russian authorities charged Navalny on Tuesday with a financial crime punishable by prison, increasing pressure on one of President Vladimir Putin's leading foes. REUTERS-Mikhail Voskresensky

(Reuters) – Russian investigators charged street protest leader Alexei Navalny with theft on Tuesday and banned him from leaving the country, threatening a heavy jail term in what supporters say is a growing crackdown on dissent by President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has organized demonstrations that have dented Putin’s authority, dismissed the charge as absurd and other opposition leaders accused Putin of using KGB-style tactics to try to silence his critics.

Other moves which the opposition depict as a crackdown on dissent since Putin began a six-year term in May include a law increasing fines for protesters, closer controls of the Internet and tighter rules for foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.

Russia’s federal Investigative Committee said in a statement that Navalny, 36, had been charged over the theft of timber from a state firm while he was advising a regional governor in 2009, and he could face a 10-year sentence.

“I have been charged and ordered not to leave,” Navalny said after emerging from the Investigative Committee headquarters, where he had been summoned for the presentation of what he had expected would be a less severe charge.

“This is really quite absurd and very strange because they have completely changed the essence of the accusation, compared to what it was before,” Navalny, who had been questioned repeatedly since the case was opened in 2010, told reporters.

He made clear he would not be silenced. “I will continue to do what I have been doing, and in this sense nothing changes for me,” said Navalny, a lawyer. “We believe that what is happening now is illegal. We will use the methods of legal defense at our disposal. What else can we do?”

Navalny is one of the few people seen as capable of emerging as a viable leader of the fractious opposition, although critics say he has nationalist tendencies.

He gained prominence by fighting corruption at state-controlled companies and used the Internet to do so, appealing to a tech-savvy generation of urban Russians who have turned away from the mainstream media.

Before parliamentary elections last December he helped to energize a struggling opposition, popularizing a phrase referring to the ruling United Russia party, then headed by Putin, as the “party of swindlers and thieves”.

He was also among the leaders of large protests prompted by allegations of fraud in the election on behalf of United Russia, which saw its big majority in parliament cut to a handful of seats despite the accusations that it had cheated.

“MORTAL FEAR”

“This case has been fabricated from beginning to end,” said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is a prominent Putin opponent. “The true reason for what is happening is Putin’s mortal fear of losing power … He is wildly afraid of the opposition, including Navalny.”

In a reference to the Cheka secret police, a precursor of the Soviet KGB, Nemtsov said: “Putin is using traditional Chekist methods … Fabricated cases, charges, arrests, jail.”

Putin won a presidential election on March 4 despite the largest protests since the start of his 12-year rule, during which he has served as president for eight years and as premier for four. At times attendance at the rallies reached more than 100,000, witnesses said, although they have become less frequent since Putin returned to power.

But opponents say a series of steps he has taken in recent months to tighten control show the former KGB spy is worried about losing his grip on the world’s largest country.

Putin, who has repeatedly warned against rocking the boat in speeches since his election, signed a law on Monday toughening punishment for defamation and another on Tuesday that opponents say could be used to censor the Internet.

In a case which critics say will indicate how he plans to treat opponents during his new term, three women from the punk band “Pussy Riot” went on trial on Monday over an unsanctioned protest performance at the altar of Russia’s main cathedral, where they called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out!”

Their trial entered its second day on Tuesday in a Moscow court, and they face up to seven years in jail over a protest they say was aimed against the close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Navalny had been detained and served brief terms in custody several times over administrative offences linked to the protests, but had never been charged with a more serious crime.

Lawyers for Navalny had said on Friday they expected he would be charged over the case in Kirov province. But they had expected him to face a different charge punishable by up to five years in jail, rather than 10.

The Investigative Committee said more than 10,000 cubic meters of timber were stolen as the result of a plot between Navalny and two company chiefs, causing the regional government to lose more than 16 million roubles ($497,000).

(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritageand David Stamp)

Unease, anger as Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen fights doping doubts

July 31, 2012

LONDON (Reuters) – Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen should be basking in the glow of Olympic glory – aged just 16 she has a world record, a gold medal and a great chance of another to come.

Instead, she has been forced to fend off questions and insinuations of cheating in a doping row that has no solid basis in fact, yet threatens to overshadow the early stages of the Games and a thrilling few days in the pool.

By Mike Collett-White and Alan Baldwin | Reuters

Privately, her 396-strong team and the big Chinese media contingent at the Olympic Park in east London are furious.

Ye, they say, has been unfairly targeted by the media in a way that athletes from other countries have not.

Xu Qi, head of the Chinese swimming team, summed up the mood in the camp.

“Ye Shiwen has been seen as a genius since she was young, and her performance vindicates that,” he told the state news agency Xinhua.

“If there are suspicions, then please lay them out using facts and data. Don’t use your own suspicions to knock down others. This shows lack of respect for athletes and for Chinese swimming.”

In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hinted on Tuesday that Ye had not tested positive for drugs.

She was tested after her Olympic gold and is most likely to have undergone further tests in the immediate build-up to the Games and over a longer period.

Anti-doping agencies have sought to beat cheating using target testing and intelligence gathering ahead of London 2012.

“We would only comment if we had any adverse finding,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said on Tuesday. “I am not commenting, so you can draw your own conclusions.”

That may not be enough to quell conjecture, and as Ye prepares for the 200 meters individual medley final later on Tuesday, another gold may only add to her problems. After posting the fastest qualifying time on Monday, she is favorite.

ECLIPSING MEN

Doubts over Ye’s display, and whether it was humanly possible without performance-enhancing drugs, surfaced after her stunning 400 individual medley display on Saturday which swiftly became the talk of the Olympic village.

She trailed American world champion Elizabeth Beisel after the penultimate breaststroke leg before a devastating finish over the final two freestyle lengths.

Ye covered the penultimate one in 29.75 seconds, faster than medal-laden Michael Phelps in the men’s medley final, and the last in 28.93, quicker than Ryan Lochte did in winning the men’s event.

She also became the first female swimmer to break a world record since the ban of hi-tech suits, taking more than a second off the previous benchmark.

“Interesting” and “insane” were two words used to describe the race by former Olympians quoted in the New York Times, although many coaches and athletes rallied behind Ye on Tuesday as the furor grew.

Question marks appeared in newspaper columns, as in the British Guardian’s: “Ye Shiwen’s world record Olympic swim: brilliant, or too good to be true?”

Television presenter Clare Balding, working for the British Games broadcaster the BBC, asked aloud how many questions would be asked, and media outlets picked up remarks John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association.

“The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved.”

He cited the example of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, who won gold in the same event as Ye at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics but was banned from swimming for four years in 1998 for tampering with a drug test.

Ye, nicknamed the “young general” at home, has brushed aside doping suspicions.

“My results come from hard work and training and I would never use any banned drugs,” she told reporters in London. “The Chinese people have clean hands.”

Read the rest:

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/unease-anger-chinese-swimmer
-fights-doping-doubts-161507701–spt.html

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Romney Aide Tells Media to “Kiss My Ass (Video)

July 31, 2012

Mitt Romney’s aide on Tuesday added a fresh incident to the Republican White House contender’s growing list of gaffes, telling journalists to “kiss my ass” as they chased the candidate for answers.

Romney’s spokesman Rick Gorka lost his cool when journalists pressed Romney, who was visiting a war memorial in Warsaw, over the embarrassments that have plagued him during a tour that has also taken him to London and Jerusalem.

Gorka also told a reporter to “shove it”, before calling journalists half an hour later to apologize.

Gaffes have dogged Romney ahead of the November 6 presidential election.

Romney campaign spokesman Rick Gorka traveled with the candidate to the U.K., Poland and Israel. Charles Dharapak/AP

In Britain, Romney — who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — ruffled feathers by questioning the security readiness for the London games.

In Israel he backed Israel’s right to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but drew fire from the Palestinians for endorsing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

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The latest dust-up on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’sworld tour is a memorable moment where a frustrated press — disrespectful or doing their job? — attempted to ask questions of the Republican hopeful.

Video:

http://www.govexec.com/management/2012/07/romne
y-spokesman-reporters-shove-it/57123/

The reaction from Romney spokesman Rick Gorka: “Kiss my ass.”

Romney’s tour to the U.K., Israel and Poland has been so media-averse that even Fox’s Greta Van Susteren took to her blog and complained of the press being treated like animals in a “modified petting zoo.”

Gorka went off after the media peppered Romney with questions about gaffes on the trip. His complete response to reporter: “Kiss my ass, this is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.” He later apologized, saying the comment was inappropriate.
Here’s that moment:

http://blog.sfgate.com/nov05election/2012/07/31/romney-spoke
sman-to-press-in-poland-kiss-my-ass-video/

Philippines gets 4 bids for disputed S.China Sea oil, gas blocks

July 31, 2012

By Erik dela Cruz

MANILA, July 31 (Reuters) – The Philippines accepted on Tuesday four bids for three oil and gas exploration blocks in the South China Sea, including two prospects in waters claimed by China, a weak turnout for the last phase of the country’s biggest petroleum exploration tender.

Only six firms showed up for the bidding out of the 38 domestic and foreign firms prequalified early this year. In all, 20 firms, most of them domestic, participated in the auction of rights to explore 15 sites around the Southeast Asian country.

Energy officials were quick to play down the South China Sea territorial dispute as a reason for the poor turnout.

“We don’t think the tension in the West Philippine Sea area had a negative impact on our efforts,” Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug told reporters.

Foreign exploration firms that were prequalified, including Nido Petroleum Ltd of Australia, Spanish energy company Repsol, French gas and power firm GDF Suez, Italy’s Eni, and Shell Philippines Exploration BV did not show up.

“As to the reason why the big players did not submit a bid, we are not aware of that. Presumably, among other factors, it’s perhaps their own appreciation of the data that is available,” Layug said.

“Depending on their own assessment of the data, that’s when they consider submitting a bid. We’re very happy with the turnout,” he said.

The Department of Energy auctioned rights to explore on areas 3, 4 and 5, with the first two near the Reed Bank in the South China Sea. The contracts are for the last of 15 sites it tendered this year.

It accepted the sole bid for area 3 from unlisted domestic firm Helios Petroleum and Gas Corp.

“The number of prequalification is not meaningful. Most prequalifiers register to get data from the Department of Energy for future reference,” Vincent Perez, a former Philippine energy minister, told Reuters.

Helios also submitted a bid for area 4 along with a consortium composed of state-owned PNOC Exploration Corp , Philex Petroleum Corp and PetroEnergy Resources Corp.

Also accepted was the sole bid for Area 5 off the southwestern Palawan province from the group of The Philodrill Corp and Pitkin Petroleum Ltd, which is partly owned by Philex Petroleum.

RIVAL CLAIMS

China claims almost the entire South China Sea while the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts of it.

Layug said the three areas were the “most prospective” of the 15 exploration blocks offered this year to investors.

The three sites off the southwestern island province of Palawan are near the Malampaya and Sampaguita natural gas discoveries. Malampaya is the country’s biggest source of natural gas.

Owned by a consortium led by Shell Philippines Exploration B.V., a unit of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Malampaya produces more than 2,700 megawatts, or 30 percent of the power requirements of the main Luzon island.

Read the rest:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/31/southchinasea
-philippines-idUSL4E8IV3M420120731

Drought, Ethanol Big Part of July’s Spike in Gas Prices

July 31, 2012

U.S. drivers saw prices at the pump rise 5.1% in July, the largest increase for the month in more than a dozen years. On top of oil speculators and geopolitical tensions, ethanol also played a role this time.

According to AAA, national average gasoline prices rose 17 cents a gallon over the course of July, to $3.50. About four to five cents of the increase were due to higher ethanol prices, making it “a serious contributing factor,” says Avery Ash, AAA’s spokesperson.

By Carolyn Cui

Wall Street Journal Blog

A field of dead corn sits next to the Lincolnland Agri-Energy ethanol plant in Palestine, Ill.

Almost all the gasoline that’s used in the U.S. has a 10% blend of ethanol in it, and most ethanol is produced from corn. As corn raced to a record high amid hot, dry weather, ethanol prices soared, up 17% in July.

Just like the change in crude oil prices, when the underlying price of ethanol changes, it goes all the way through to the price at the pump. For every 10 cents the price of ethanol changes, the price of gasoline is going to change by one cent.

July’s increase reversed a steady decline at the pump since March, and represented the biggest price increase for July going back to at least 2000, when AAA’s records began. Except for ethanol, higher crude oil price and increased gasoline demand during the summer driving season contributed to the rest of price increase.

Traditionally, ethanol has been a small part of the overall gasoline price, helping keep it down as ethanol is generally cheaper than gasoline blendstock for oxygenate blending, or BOB. Record corn prices this year have upended this small additive. Ethanol prices gained 37.9 cents during last month.

Protests Seek Women’s Rights In Afghanistan; End To Killing For Adultery

July 31, 2012

Dozens of women and men staged a peaceful demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan,  on Tuesday, July 31, 2012, calling on government to stop violation against women. (Omid)

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Dozens of people took to the streets of Kabul on Wednesday, July 11, 2012,  to protest against a recent execution-style killing of an Afghan woman accused of adultery. Her death, about 10 days ago in Parwan province, north of the Kabul, was caught on video, showing the unidentified woman in her 20s being shot multiple times. The gunman was encouraged by people who stood nearby, smiling and cheering.

The Taliban have denied police allegations that they were behind the killing.

President Hamid Karzai, the US embassy and the top Nato military commander in Afghanistan have all denounced the killing. It was a reminder that girls and women still suffer shocking abuse in Afghanistan, but the protest also indicated that people’s views on women’s rights here could be slowly changing.

“We want the government to take action on behalf of these women who are victims of violence and who are being killed,” said Zuhra Alamyar, an activist who was at the Kabul rally. “We want the government to take serious action and stop them.”

See more plus video:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/11/killing-afghan
-woman-adultery-kabul-protests

Drug ring moved cocaine, Ecstasy across border

July 31, 2012

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. and Canadian authorities said Monday that a smuggling ring used the remote northern border to move more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine into Canada and 1.3 million tablets of the designer drug Ecstasy into the United States over more than two years.

U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter said the international investigation seized 414 kilograms of cocaine and 29 kilograms of Ecstasy, and 17 people were arrested in the U.S. and Canada, making it one of the largest drug busts on either side of the border.

Matt Volz (AP)

“This is certainly the largest seizure both here in Montana and Saskatchewan,” Cotter said in a news conference in Great Falls.

Authorities revealed details of the operation and the investigation for the first time as U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon sentenced one of the ring’s drivers to five years in prison Monday.

Cotter and officials from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Department of Homeland Security , the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Border Patrol described how from 2009 until last fall, the ring would use rental vehicles to transport cocaine from southern California to small border outposts in Montana. The cocaine would then be delivered across the border and driven to British Columbia for distribution.

The suspects also hid Ecstasy and marijuana from British Columbia in vehicles that would head south into the United States for distribution.

The estimated street value of the drugs seized is $17.5 million, Cotter said.

Authorities first became aware of the ring after an arrest was made at a border post last year, said Aaron Heitke, deputy chief of the Border Patrol in Montana.

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http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Drug-ring-moved-cocaine-
Ecstasy-across-border-3746835.php

U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter, left, speaks with Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer In Charge Mercer Armstrong, center, and Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Kumar Kibble, right, before a news conference in Great Falls, Mont., on July 30, 2012. Canadian and U.S. authorities gave details of a drug ring that smuggled more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine and 1.3 million ecstasy pills across the border. Photo: Matt Volz / AP

U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter, left, speaks with Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer In Charge Mercer Armstrong, center, and Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Kumar Kibble, right, before a news conference in Great Falls, Mont., on July 30, 2012. Canadian and U.S. authorities gave details of a drug ring that smuggled more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine and 1.3 million ecstasy pills across the border. Photo: Matt Volz / AP