In his opening address at the World Economic Forum on East Asia, Vietnamese Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung said that efforts to boost the region’s engines of growth are needed to help reinvigorate slowing growth rates. And according to a number of other leaders at the event, there are a variety of ways to achieve this.
Chief among these is the growth-enhancing potential of ASEAN’s full economic integration in 2015. The ability to function as one industrial and production base was seen by leaders as critical to the region’s competitive advantage—putting it possibly on par with the regional power of the European Union. ASEAN’s ability to participate and negotiate as one region in a range of free-trade agreements—including the Trans Pacific Partnership and the bilateral ASEAN Plus One agreements—also provides considerable opportunity to attract foreign investment to its markets. With the burgeoning middle class of a country like Indonesia—where consumers are now more and more in a position to buy cars and electronics—the draw is strong.
Leaders at WEF East Asia also pointed to the importance of regulatory reform as a means to spur growth and competitiveness. To this end, a minister from Cambodia touted his country’s receptivity to investment, noting that “every sector is open to FDI” and that there are no “alien investor” laws in his country. One Malaysian government official emphasized that his government is “pushing hard” for reforms to improve competitiveness. Already, ASEAN countries have made significant progress on lowering barriers in the trade in goods across the region—with tariffs on more than 99 percent of goods expected to be at zero by 2015. ASEAN is now working on liberalizing regulations pertaining to services to ease access across borders in such sectors as banking.
The focus on services and the difficulty of moving to this next stage, however, points to a continuing stumbling block in ASEAN’s ability to function as one region—the lack of connectivity. Not only do services like finance need a strong ICT network to facilitate transactions and connectivity among countries, businesses in both services and the manufacture of goods alike need well-developed physical transport to ease movement in this geographically dispersed area. The ASEAN Open Skies initiative, which will allow all airlines within ASEAN to compete on intra-ASEAN routes, is one initiative that aims to promote better connectivity among ASEAN nations and there is hope it will be implemented in 2015. But rail, roads, seaports, airports and broadband are all areas in need of investment. On the bright side, the scale of the transport infrastructure requirements—as a minister for transportation from Singapore noted—can represent a substantial opportunity for international financing institutions as well as for public-private partnerships.
All of these efforts can accelerate the engines of growth and help rev up East Asian economies. But will they bring high-quality growth—that is, the kind that encourages innovation and stimulates quality job formation? There are indications that this may be the case. President Aquino in his opening address noted that the Philippines’ rates of employment for graduates in IT, business processing operations, and electronics exceed 70 percent, with some sectors exceeding 90 percent. And the greater competition that ASEAN economic integration brings is expected to spur businesses to become more innovative and compete more keenly for talent, according to the minister from Cambodia mentioned above.
However, there is one thing that all of these efforts to drive engines of growth need—and that’s stability. The prime minister from Vietnam made this clear in his remarks: “Development is not possible without peace and stability.” He pointed out that any disruption in the region’s shipping lanes—a distinct possibility given recent tensions with China—could mean major disruptions to East Asia’s economy and the world’s. So even if East Asia gets the engines of growth to again fire on all cylinders, the geo-political environment may turn out to be the most critical—and most challenging—factor holding the region back.
Gary Coleman is Managing Director, Global Industries, of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. He is a member of Deloitte’s Global Markets Committee and is the lead partner in Deloitte’s strategic relationship with the World Economic Forum. Follow him on Twitter @gcoleman_gary.