The American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with AmChams throughout the ASEAN region, surveyed 475 business executives from U.S. companies on their investment plans, outlook for the region, and perceptions of some of the key challenges and opportunities in the ten ASEAN countries - the ASEAN Business Outlook Survey 2014 includes responses from American business representatives in all ten ASEAN member countries, adding Brunei, Laos, and Myanmar to this year's edition.
According to the Thailand Board of Investment(BOI) reporting on their Investment Reviews newsletter:
Regarding the path towards economic union, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), most respondents (77%) say that ASEAN integration is important in assisting their companies to do business in the region.
63% of respondents report that over the past two years, ASEAN markets have grown as a portion of their companies' worldwide revenues.
33% report that ASEAN markets' importance has held steady over the past two years.
The majority of respondents (73%) say that ASEAN markets will become more central to their companies' worldwide revenues over the next two years.
Business executives highlight economic recovery (57%)
Limited growth opportunities in other regions (55%) as the top reasons ASEAN markets will continue to grow in significance for worldwide operations and revenues over the next two years.
Business executives are optimistic about their profit outlook in ASEAN for 2014, with 84% of executives expecting an increase in profits.
Over the last two years, 79% of U.S. companies report that their level of trade and investment has grown in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, only 2% indicate that it has decreased.
Looking ahead, respondents are optimistic, with the overwhelming majority (91%) expecting their companies' trade and investment in ASEAN to increase over the next 5 years.
The potential for business growth (83%), increasing market share (46%), and diversification of customer base (32%) as the top reasons for expansion.
The majority (73%) report that their enterprises will expand within their respective countries. The top reasons why companies plan to follow such a course of action in their current locations are the potential for business growth (74%) and an increasing market share (50%).
The largest portion of respondents (68%) consider the Framework Agreement on Services to be crucial, while 56% say the Trade in Goods Agreement is essential for their future development plans.
The majority of business leaders regard "ASEAN +" free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, and South Korea as opportunities rather than as threats. However, the arrangement with China draws the most concern, with 14% considering it a threat, while only 2% to 6% view the other economic pacts as threats.
When asked to describe the "most significant barrier to conducting business within ASEAN," an overwhelming number of respondents answered corruption. Respondents also emphasized a lack of consistency and transparency in both governmental agencies and regulations across the region, with a particular emphasis on customs agencies. Other factors are: lack of uniform regulations across ASEAN, language differences, currency depreciation and imperfect market information as other issues that discourage their companies from conducting business within ASEAN.
(note: of the companies responding to this survey - the primary activities of 53% of these companies are in the services sector, while only 32% are manufacturing firms.)
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
Finally, there is the Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP). This economic arrangement aims to lay the foundation for a comprehensive, integrated free trade area of the Asia-Pacific region encouraging diversifying investments from China into ASEAN over the next two years. Currently four ASEAN members: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, are among the twelve countries negotiating the agreement. The TPP is intended to be a "21st Century" pact in which high-standards are being sought in many new areas that have not been fully addressed in previous agreements, including IP protection and enforcement, competition with state-owned enterprises, regulatory coherence, trade facilitation and supply chain, enforceable investment rules, and other areas. According to the respondents, regulatory coherence and intellectual property protections are the most critical aspects of the TPP. Companies across the region have mixed views on whether the TPP will impact future investment planning. According to the Survey", respondents from the four participating ASEAN members were slightly more certain that the TPP will impact their planning, with 40% responding "Yes," compared to only 31% of respondents from the other six ASEAN countries.
In January 2014, the Bangkok Post reported that talks on a 12-nation Pacific trade pact might be hard to finalize in 2014 after a deadline for completion was missed in Dec. 2013, a Malaysian minister said. Malaysia has expressed wariness over some parts of the deal, including those related to state-owned enterprises and government procurement. The TPP, championed by US President Barack Obama, goes beyond typical trade deals that focus on tariffs and market access, with discussions on protection for companies that compete against government-backed businesses and stricter safeguards for patents and copyrights. Furthermore, the TPP is being designed as a living agreement that can incorporate new members, as well as new issues.
The countries in the pact are the US, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
The TPP in our opinion will be a double edged sword the brings benefits but also may have some negative effects to the host Asean countries. We believe that the benefits of entry to TPP may have been over-sold in Vietnam. Further, we question whether President Obama has the “political muscle” to achieve passage of the TPP in the U.S. Congress as we get closer to the time that both parties will start campaigning for election. Further, the reality is that China’s is competing for influence in Southeast Asia and that it is opening parts of its economy to Asean as a means of ensuring that it is not disadvantage by TPP. We think that considering these factors that TPP needs to be noted but that readers should be careful about some of the overly optimistic projections on its passage and/or effects.
About the Author:
Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (www.business-in-asia.com)
Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations.