2010/04/03

Next-generation mobile broadband network expected to be ready within 2 years

SINGAPORE: The next-generation mobile broadband network, dubbed "Long Term Evolution" may be commercially-ready within two years. 

Singapore could be among the region's first to experience mobile broadband capacity of up to ten times that of current networks. 

All three telcos in the country, SingTel, StarHub and M1 are conducting technical trials with the system. 

High definition gaming on the go and that's not the only possibility. 

Imagine watching a high-definition video on your smartphone. You then decide to make a conference call to a few friends to ask them out for drinks and proceed to switch on an application to check real-time traffic conditions before heading out - all in a seamless manner not currently possible with the existing 3G network. 

Now, this is what the Long Term Evolution network promises when it finally rolls out. 

Yuen Kuan Moon, executive vice president, Consumer Group, SingTel, said: "We are trying to take this to the mass market, basically to make it accessible, first of all, in terms of positioning and pricing. Secondly, more importantly, to make it user-friendly." 

So will consumers bite? 

Said one man in the street: "Most likely I will take it up because of the faster broadband access." 

"Maybe I'll use it in the future. But not now because I'm still a student so I'm not earning my own expenses yet," said one student. 

With lots of testing still to be done, Singapore telcos are working hard to make the tech-lover's dream, a reality. 

So it'll take a while before consumers can decide if Long Term Evolution, or LTE, really is a thing of beauty. - CNA

Obama urges Hu to back Iran sanctions

US President Barack Obama urged Hu Jintao to work together on pressing Iran over its nuclear activities, but Hu did not openly commit to new sanctions on Tehran, according to official reports on Friday.

Obama and Hu discussed the growing international push to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions in an hour-long telephone call that followed China reported agreement on Wednesday to enter into serious negotiations over possible new UN-backed sanctions against Tehran.

Western powers say Tehran wants the means to make nuclear weapons, but China – which buys large amounts of oil from Iran – has for months fended off calls to back sanctions.

Together with Beijing's announcement on Thursday that President Hu will attend a nuclear security summit in Washington this month, the in-depth talk between the two leaders also augured lower tensions between Washington and Beijing after a rash of disputes.

"President Obama underscored the importance of working together to ensure that Iran lives up to its international obligations," the White House said in a statement after the telephone call, which took place later on Thursday Washington time – Friday morning in Beijing.

Western powers say Tehran is violating international nuclear safeguards and have told it to curtail uranium enrichment work, which could eventually be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and says its nuclear activities are peaceful.

In remarks reported on state television, Hu told Obama that he opposes the spread of nuclear weapons, but he did not directly broach Iran or sanctions.

"China has always taken seriously the issue of nuclear security, and opposed nuclear proliferation and terrorism," said Hu.

The mainland president's reported comments, and remarks from his foreign minister, showed that while Beijing may be ready to consider new sanctions against Iran, it is not prepared to publicly commit to supporting such sanctions, leaving room for haggling in the UN Security Council.

China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, each wielding the power to veto any resolution and thus block proposed UN sanctions.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for "flexibility" during talks with Iran's top nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili, who flew to Beijing on Thursday.

Yang's brief published remarks from his meeting with Jalili did not mention backing sanctions, but they also did not repeat China's long-standing line that sanctions are not the "fundamental" cure to the dispute.

Yang "urged all sides to enhance diplomatic efforts and demonstrate flexibility, and to create the conditions for resolving the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on its website on Friday.

Beijing and Washington have jousted in recent months over internet censorship, Tibet, US weapons sales to Taiwan and US charges that the yuan is undervalued, raising the possibility that those tensions could spill over into dealings over Iran.

"I don't think China wants these bilateral issues to overshadow negotiations (over Iran), which is really an international issue," said Guo Xiangang, China's former diplomat to Tehran.

"China has always understood that it will take some time for relations with the United States to overcome the tensions, but also that the tensions would never overwhelm the whole relationship," said Guo, now a vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.

At the UN, diplomats said the United States, Britain, France and Germany expect to meet with both Russia and China next week to begin drafting sanctions proposals.

A diplomat with knowledge of the talks said on Thursday China probably would support US proposals to blacklist banks, impose travel bans and freeze assets, but would not blacklist Iranian shipping firms, ban arms imports, or target oil and gas sectors.

Dam debate looms large over Mekong summit

BANGKOK: Leaders of Southeast Asian nations straddling the shrinking lower Mekong River are set to lean on China at talks Sunday as controversy builds over the cause of the waterway's lowest levels in decades. 

Beijing's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao will join the premiers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin to discuss management of the vast river, on which more than 60 million people depend. 

A crippling drought in the region and the much-debated role of hydropower dams are due to dominate the two-day summit of the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) - the first in its 15-year history. 

China, a "dialogue partner" of the MRC, is expected to staunchly defend its dams, which activists downstream blame for water shortages, after the Mekong shrivelled to its lowest level in 50 years in Laos and Thailand's north. 

Nations in the lower Mekong basin may press China to share more information on the river, said Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional Centre, which researches environmental change. 

In addition, "they will request resources from China, ie, more money. I don't think there will be confrontation, at least from official appearances, but behind closed doors there will be strong debate," he told AFP. 

China - itself suffering the worst drought in a century in its southwest, with more than 24 million people short of drinking water - says the reason for water shortages is unusually low rainfall rather than man-made infrastructure. 

It says the dams, built to meet soaring demand for water and hydro-generated electricity, have been effective in releasing water during dry seasons and preventing flooding in rainy months. 

"China will never do things that harm the interests of (lower Mekong) countries," Yao Wen, a spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, said at a recent forum in the Thai capital. 

The crisis has grounded cargo and tour boats on the so-called "mighty Mekong" and alarmed communities along what is the world's largest inland fishery. 

The chief of the MRC's secretariat, Jeremy Bird, last week hailed Beijing's agreement to share water level data from two dams during this dry season, saying it "shows that China is willing to engage with lower basin countries". 

Yet questions remain over the impact of the eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river in China. Vice Minister of Water Resources Liu Ning said Wednesday more were needed to guarantee water and food security. 

China should continue to share information on the river, said Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator at the campaign group International Rivers. 

"The drought is obviously important but the real question is: what relationship will China have with the MRC in the future?" 

Campaigners fear that the settling of political scores could block co-operation over the Mekong - especially the current animosity between Cambodian premier Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva. 

Hun Sen has not visited neighbouring Thailand since the two countries became embroiled in a row late last year over Cambodia's appointment of ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economics adviser. 

"That's what worries me quite a lot, that the debate will be more political, and not even related to water," said Anond. 

Thailand has invoked a tough security law and will deploy more than 8,000 troops in Hua Hin to ensure protesters do not disrupt the summit, in light of mass anti-government "Red Shirt" rallies in Bangkok since mid-March. 

A year ago, regional leaders were forced to abandon a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after demonstrators from the same movement stormed the Thai venue. 

- AFP/sc 

2010/04/01

Taiwan-China ECFA talks fail to produce “early harvest” list

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – China promised not to ask Taiwan to open up its market to more farm products, but no agreement was reached on an "early harvest" list, officials said after the early conclusion of the second round of talks on an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement Thursday.

Two days of meetings at the Ta Shee Resort in Taoyuan County finished prematurely at Thursday noon.

Contrary to expectations, the two sides failed to come up with an "early harvest" list of products and services which would enjoy priority for tariff cuts under the eventual agreement.

"We have not completed the talks yet, and we have not yet reached an agreement," Chinese chief negotiator Tang Wei replied to reporters' questions about the list.

He denied the lack of results at the talks was to blame on China's insistence that the final ECFA text should include a passage about the normalization and liberalization of cross-straits trade. Taiwan has reportedly objected to the phrase as too specific, fearing that it might strengthen Beijing's case to demand agricultural liberalization.

Taiwan's chief negotiator, Huang Chih-peng, said China had agreed not to demand low tariffs for its farm produce, but Taiwan wanted to promote the export of its agricultural products. Over the past few months, Taiwanese farmers have voiced fears about facing competition from cheap and low-quality Chinese imports.

Huang, the director-general of the Bureau of Foreign Trade at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, called for a quick decision on holding a third round of talks.

The Mainland Affairs Council said the most important thing about the ECFA talks was that Taiwan made an effort to obtain what it wanted and to hold on to what it didn't want to open up.

This was the government's basic principle during the negotiations with China, and would remain so during future talks, according to the MAC.

The MAC said the size of the "early harvest" list should not be the focus of attention, following reports that it would be much shorter than originally planned.

Before the latest talks began Wednesday, it was already announced that financial services would not be included, contrary to expectations.

The second day of the meeting was disrupted for a short time when an opposition Democratic Progressive Party politician entered the hall and shouted "Taiwan, China, One Side, One Country," reports said. The man was a former Formosa Television talk show host who managed to fool security checks by pretending to be a journalist, according to media reports.

President Ma Ying-jeou, who has been the driving force behind the ECFA, told visiting young business people that he hoped Taiwan could sign an agreement everybody could accept.

Ma said ECFA would lead to a lowering of Chinese tariffs on Taiwanese products and would make the latter more competitive with goods from its rivals, South Korea in particular.

He acknowledged it was not certain that Taiwan would be able to sign Free Trade Agreements with other nations once ECFA had been concluded.

ECFA Talks Achieve Positive Results

The Chinese mainland and Taiwan reached "a series of agreements" for a long-awaited economic pact during a second round of expert-level talks, according to a statement released Thursday after the meetings.

During the two-day talks in Tashi, Taoyuan County, the two sides exchanged views on operational and technological topics for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is intended to normalize mainland-Taiwan economic ties and bring the two economies closer. 

According to the statement, it was agreed that both sides' most urgent and necessary issues shall be considered when deciding what products and services are to be included in the early harvest program. 

The mainland side said that it fully considered the interests of Taiwan farmers and did not require the island to expand its imports of mainland farm products. It is not going to include farm products in the early harvest program. 

The mainland said it would "do its best" to ensure that medium- and small-sized companies and vulnerable industries on the island are not negatively affected by the program. 

The two sides also reached agreement on a timetable for consultations concerning rules of origin, the statement said without giving details. 

In addition, the mainland will consider Taiwan's request to expand the tax reduction items in the livestock and farming categories that the island will send to the mainland. 

The pact will not involve the mainland sending labor to Taiwan. 

The two sides also agreed to hold the third round of expert-level talks on the mainland "as soon as possible," according to the statement. 

The mainland side is composed of directors from the mainland's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), experts and economic affairs officials.

The expert-level meetings focus on preparing a framework for formal ECFA discussions at the next round of talks between ARATS and its Taiwan counterpart, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), which will take place in the first half of the year.

Shanghai's prime housing prices soar highest globally

SHANGHAI topped major cities around the world in 2009 by posting the biggest annual price increase for houses located in prime areas as China's quick recovery from the global recession helped boost capital gains, according to a joint wealth report by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank.

According to the annual report which tracks 56 locations worldwide, prices of prime residential properties in Shanghai soared 52 percent last year, followed by Beijing with a 47 percent jump and Hong Kong with a 40 percent gain, from 12 months earlier.

"Prime residential properties around the world registered a mixed performance last year with prices falling in nearly 75 percent of the 56 locations monitored by Knight Frank," said Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, a global property consultancy. "Boosted by China's fast economic recovery, the prices of prime properties in cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong rose at a phenomenal rate last year."

House prices in Dubai and Dublin fell 45 percent and 25 percent respectively in 2009 from a year ago.

By region, prime residential property prices grew 17 percent in Asia Pacific and 7.8 percent in South America on average from a year earlier. But they fell 12 percent in Europe and 7.7 percent in North America year on year, according to the report.

While the world's wealthiest investors remained cautious about prospects for their investments this year, property continues to be a key long-term part of their portfolios.

"The attraction of tangible assets remains strong, with property taking up 30 percent of the average investment portfolio, the single largest allocation," said Aamir Rahim, CEO of Citi Private Bank's Asia Pacific operation. "Residential property is the most popular asset in the sector followed by commercial property."

Shanghai Daily

HK-Shanghai in talent tug-of-war

Battle may be decided by personal tax concessions and cost of living, Timothy Chui in Hong Kong and Jessie Xu in Shanghai report

Hong Kong and Shanghai may complement each other as the nation's premier financial centers, but the competition between the two cities to attract talent rages on.

Hong Kong enjoys some advantages. It's a mature financial city with its own pool of local talent, experienced in dealing with the broad range of financial instruments and familiar with the practices of overseas markets, including mainland markets. By contrast, Shanghai remains the upstart, aggressively courting ambitious young professionals to come and reap seemingly unlimited opportunities.

Shanghai has the sponsorship of the State Council in its efforts to become established as an international financial center by 2020. Financial reforms are being shifted into place, so that the regulatory environment in Shanghai is brought up to internationally accepted standards. With reforms in progress a high-profile campaign is underway - as headhunters make every effort to lure from afar, experienced professionals in banking, investment, insurance and other financial fields.

The reaction in Hong Kong to all the frenetic activity up north has been fairly sanguine thus far. The view in Hong Kong is that the two cities are serving different markets.

till, there can be no question that the two cities are locked in fierce competition to attract talent, observed former Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Frederick Ma Si-hang

Speaking at a University of Hong Kong lecture, Ma said people are the key to creating a competitive advantage in any international financial center.

The eventual winner, he said, may be decided on the battleground of personal taxation.

Hong Kong has a flat tax on salaries - 15 percent across the board. That beats the approximately 40 percent tax rate on the mainland by a long way. Shanghai is moving to get around this, by offering tax refunds for qualified professionals. The best Shanghai can do, however, is to lower the tax rate to around 25 percent.

Tax concessions can be a major asset in the recruitment arsenal, Ma said. An even more important issue, however, is the issue of retaining key talents, Ma said, and that issue is far more complex. "Many people would like to live in London simply because the quality of life is good, they can go to see musicals in the evening, they have a lot of places to go, to Oxford, to Cambridge during weekends."

In this respect, Shanghai has a decided advantage. The city is within a few hours drive of scenic, quaint water towns and unique historic sites. Xitang, the colourful town that provided the locations for Mission Impossible III starring Tom Cruise, is only a short train ride away.

Recruitment teams have spread out from Shanghai in recent years, full of confidence. Shanghai headhunters turned up in New York, London and other global financial centers ready to scoop up professionals spun out of work amid the global financial crisis.

With some of the world's leading financial institutions brought to ruin through their orgy of rampant speculation and bad investments, employment in the New York financial sector dropped 11 percent to 313,000 from October 2008 to last October. Financial houses in London shed some 60,000 jobs.

Hong Kong recruiters weren't sitting idly by either as top professionals overseas scrambled to find work.

"The manpower situation in Hong Kong benefited twofold from the financial meltdown. More talent became available from companies affected by the credit crisis in and outside Hong Kong," said Nita Law, Regional Head of Human Resources, North East Asia, Standard Chartered Hong Kong.

"Secondly, international talents who normally prefer to stay in the West began looking for opportunities in Asia, especially in big markets like Hong Kong and Singapore. Growth in Asia presents more long-term opportunities. We have seen talent come here at senior levels from New York, San Francisco, London, and other Western cities," she said. Before the crisis it was difficult to attract high calibre people from these places, she added.

The high cost of living in Hong Kong is a handicap. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places to live, ranking fifth highest in the world and that acts as a deterrent for the recruitment of top talent. Shanghai is ranked as 12th highest. The figures emerge from the 2009 cost of living survey taken by Mercer's, a major human resources firm. Both cities also share some advantages, says Loretta Chan, a partner in the executive search company Wellesley Partners.

In Hong Kong there is strong demand among financial institutions for Mandarin-speaking professionals eager to find talent to manage growing business with mainland companies based in Hong Kong. Hong Kong citizenship also serves as a strong draw for mainland talent, she said.

On the other hand, for Hong Kong financial professionals, aside from some of the perks offered here, heading north gives them a shot at promotion, greater responsibilities and a chance to enhance their resumes, she said.

Over a cup of coffee near his office after work, a Hong Kong professional working for the mainland subsidiary of HSBC, said that more "promising prospects" drew him to Shanghai. He was one of the victims of the financial crisis, laid off from his last job in New York, soon after the crunch hit. "I could have returned to Hong Kong," he said. But instead, "I chose Shanghai because it has more opportunities for me to develop my career," he added.

His colleague, a Dutch national who had worked in Amsterdam and Brussels, agreed. "Compared with the financial environment of London and Hong Kong, I think there is still a long way to go for Shanghai. The number of financial products is limited. But it's developing and getting better," he said.

Hong Kong recruiters try to raise the issue above the level of simple dollars and cents. "People chasing the money will inevitably grow roots and demand more than big salaries and low taxes. Hong Kong's strong international links and focus on business and the arts would be a big draw for overseas talent," said Pradhumn Wadhwa, alumni of the Stockholm School of Economics.

Citing the prevalence of English as one major attraction for expatriates from the West, he said, "The work is the same for the most part from city to city. It comes down to issues such as how dynamic a city is and the quality of living. If I had to choose between larger quarters and having after-work drinks at an art gallery, I'd pick the latter."

Singapore Airlines tops survey on world flights

SYDNEY - Singapore Airlines has topped an Australian survey as the best airline to fly with internationally, while British Airways trailed with the lowest satisfaction rating for flights from Australia to Britain.

In a survey about 9,000 members of Choice, a consumer advice organization, were asked to rate their satisfaction on recent international flights on cost, in-flight service, seat comfort, leg room, timeliness, food quality and check-in process.

Singapore Airlines was voted the best airline for 11 out of the 12 most popular international destinations for Australians.

This list included to Britain, the United States, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and Japan. The one destination where it was not No. 1 was to New Zealand, as its flights are operated by Air New Zealand.

V Australian, Virgin Blue's transpacific carrier, was ranked second in terms of satisfaction for flights to the United States while bankrupt Japan Airlines came second for flights to Britain.

Australian airline, Qantas, was criticized for not delivering on cost or in-flight service, lagging ninth when it came to flights to Britain and fifth on flights to the United States.

For flights to Britain, British Airways came last in overall satisfaction, beaten by Japan Airlines, Emirates and Thai Airways among others due to its poor scores for cost and in-flight service. Travelers heading to New Zealand rated Emirates as the best carrier with the airline beating Air New Zealand and the Australian carriers in terms of value.

Choice advised passengers flying internationally to check out at least three airlines before booking, taking into account the in-flight service, number of stopovers and type of plane.

"Passengers who have flown to the UK on the new A380s for example, say the aircraft have wider seats with a deeper pitch, which can make the difference between getting some sleep and being awake for 24 hours," said Choice spokeswoman Elise Davidson.

Chinese navy build-up no threat to ASEAN countries

BEIJING - Chinese military experts have told their counterparts from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy will never be a threat to the region.

China would not build a navy capable to strive for global hegemony, said Senior Colonel Chen Zhou, a researcher with the PLA's Academy of Military Sciences, at the China-ASEAN Defense and Security Dialogue concluded in Beijing on Wednesday.

Chen was responding to Mariano S. Sontillanosa, a retired Commodore and vice president of Philippine National Defense College, who asked Chinese military scholars what guarantees China could give to the ASEAN members that its growing maritime power would not be used aggressively.

"ASEAN countries should be assured that China's development of its navy is only to maintain the country's own maritime interests and regional peace and stability," Chen said.
Chen cited Chairman Mao Zedong's remark that "We must build up a powerful navy" since most of the foreign invasions the Chinese people had suffered came from the sea.

"China is the only member of the UN Security Council which has not realized complete reunification," Chen said. "We still face many challenges, such as maritime disputes with other countries, that the army cannot handle alone."

China is speeding up construction and acquisition of new modern navy weaponry, which has stirred up fears over its military and political intentions.

To safeguard merchant vessels passing through the pirate-ravaged Gulf of Aden and waters off the coast of Somalia, China has deployed new destroyers and frigates to the region since the end of 2008.

Last year, the PLA Navy unveiled its previously secret nuclear-powered submarines and new amphibious assault ship at an international fleet review on April 23 to celebrate the navy's 60th founding anniversary.

Chen, a frequent participator in drafting China's biennial national defense white paper, stressed that although the PLA Navy was improving its capabilities in transforming from coastal defense to offshore defense, it would not build a navy for global power projection and engagement like the US Navy.

The latest Chinese defense white paper issued in 2008 said the PLA Navy would cooperate with foreign counterparts to deal with non-traditional security threats.

In recent years, the PLA has jointly conducted maritime exercises with fleets from the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. It also held joint military training and exercises with the ASEAN members such as Singapore and Thailand to counter terrorism and other security threats.