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Global Trade Talk: Navigating Geopolitical Currents in a Changing Southeast Asia

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Global Trade Talk: Navigating Geopolitical Currents in a Changing Southeast Asia

Global Trade Talk is part of an ongoing series highlighting international business, trade, investment, and site location issues and opportunities. This article focuses on the conversation between Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Keith Rabin, President, KWR International, Inc.

Hello Simon. How have you been? Before we begin can you tell our readers about your background and current activities?

I am Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). We focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization comprised of ten countries in Southeast Asia, as well as the wider Asia Pacific and Singapore’s role as a hub for trade and investment and greater integration in the region. This includes a range of geopolitical issues including the rise of China, the role of the US, and most recently the coronavirus pandemic, which is serving as an accelerator for changes that have been occurring over the last decade.

Professionally, I am an attorney and was a member of Parliament from 1997-2001, serving during the Asian financial crisis. Then during the 2008 global financial crisis, I was stationed in New York at the Asia Society where we first met. These experiences have given me a unique perspective on the impact of globalization and other trends we have experienced over the past two decades.

While ASEAN currently possesses the third-largest economy in the Indo-Pacific and fifth largest in the world, many foreigners have never even heard of the regional group nor do they recognize its potential. Can you talk about how ASEAN evolved, what it represents as a commercial market and investment destination, and in terms of security and its global importance? What opportunities and obstacles and investment themes are of particular importance to foreign companies and investors in the coming years?

I don’t blame people for not knowing ASEAN. When one looks to Asia, one’s eyes are first drawn to the giants. China in particular has done very well over the past twenty years and no country has grown faster during that time. As it developed and labor costs and standards of living rose, Southeast Asia began to capture the attention of businesses, and deservedly so. ASEAN now has growing appeal, because of greater integration as we create an ASEAN Community with increased consumption and growth. That is why many people refer to us as the fifth largest economy in the world.

The reality, however, is a bit short of that – as we are not really one country or one system. We are, however, working to realize the “ASEAN 2025 Vision.” This is a roadmap adopted in 2015 to articulate regional goals to create a more cohesive ASEAN Community. SIIA is currently working on the ASEAN mid-term review, which is examining our progress, and how crises such as the pandemic can strengthen our will to more fully integrate. While an unfinished project, given the diversity in the region, it is — in some ways — every bit as ambitious as the establishment of the European Union (EU). The trend is toward closer integration.

Before the Asian financial crisis, which began in the summer of 1997, the region was mostly viewed, at least in the US, through the lens of the Vietnam War. Over the last twenty+ years we have advanced, however, and growth in ASEAN has been reinforced. This is true both in developed countries such as Singapore and Thailand, developing nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar, and those in between. Before the pandemic, ASEAN as a whole was growing at a faster rate than China. While the pandemic is hitting our people and economies hard, the region should still outperform the world.

The fundamentals are real. ASEAN is ascending from a lower base, leaving substantial room for further growth. There are many opportunities as countries raise consumption and leapfrog using software, digital innovation, and a greater online presence. Diverse sectors can do well, including labor-intensive manufacturing, infrastructure, services, consumer markets, and others that are part of the new economy.

As you note many people view ASEAN as being similar to the EU, a vehicle grouping together a group of countries into a more integrated market, though without a common currency. Is that fair and can you talk about both the diversity of ASEAN as well as the steps being taken to link these ten nations into a more cohesive entity? Is it possible for companies to have an “ASEAN strategy” or should they be looking at individual markets?

Given what I said about ASEAN, and how it is not yet a cohesive union, that is a very good question. The answer is yes and yes. Movement toward greater integration is very clear but we are not like China or the EU where you can put up one office and that’s it for the region. In a way, this is an economic strength as well as a political challenge.

In ASEAN you have an opportunity to link supply chains from a hub like Singapore, which offers first-class amenities, to less developed markets with eager and driven populations rising out of poverty and looking for jobs in factories and a more modern lifestyle. Myanmar for example is a sizable country with a pool of young people looking for jobs and a government seeking to develop. Myanmar also has a sizable expatriate population that has lived and worked in countries such as Singapore and Thailand, as well as Australia, Europe and the US, where they received education and training. Now their economies are opening – and they are returning with capacity, experience and ideas to implement change. So these countries are not starting from zero.

In between, you have countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Labor there remains hungry for work, the land is relatively cheap and demand is growing. Today, a lot of attention is focused on Vietnam in particular. This is a country of almost 100 million young, dynamic, and hard-working people, which is well on its way to becoming a competitive supply base for many products.

ASEAN also benefits from not being China. Our diversity offers a decentralized model that adds diversification to global supply chains. It can be more complex to work across ASEAN — there is no one President or government to go to – but it is also less risky for those who can manage across borders – as it is not a case where if one government or economy fails, then the investor also fails. Moreover, ASEAN is not a threat to anyone politically. Vietnam for example has a trade surplus with the US whereas Singapore has a deficit.

Those who invest in ASEAN benefit from having an alternative to China, though are still located in this growing region. This allows synergies with production clusters based there. Being in ASEAN allows companies and investors to benefit and participate in this growing regional economy without putting more eggs into the China basket.

You mentioned the US has enjoyed strong ties with ASEAN since its birth in 1967. This was a time when the US sought to develop regional allies in the face of the Vietnam and Cold Wars. Today, however, despite a move to initiate an “Asian Pivot” under the Obama administration and talk of the “Indo-Pacific” under President Trump, some question US commitment to the region. How do you view the US presence and role within ASEAN? What should US companies and leaders know about ASEAN and how does their presence compare to other nations including Japan, Korea, Australia, and the EU?

The US remains an important partner and market for ASEAN and when looking at its involvement in the region, there are three strands we can talk about. The first is like an underlying current in the ocean, the second is the waves on top, and third like a bright object on the surface. If you look at the current, the destiny of the US remains very much an outward one. It is the country that created the modern world and global trading system you and I have grown up in. It was built to America’s advantage and I think this strong current of the US having shaped and benefitted from this world is ever-present despite current tensions. So we have not seen, whichever President, a lack of interest from US business, its military or security establishment. So whether you call it an Asian Pivot, Indo-Pacific region or before that the War on Terrorism, we believe this current can and should have reasons to continue.

At the same time, there are waves on the surface. These are more noticeable, as it is hard to see the underlying current unless you put your hand deep below. The waves do matter and I would say right now they are choppy and we are now going through a period where Americans are questioning globalization and retreating from multilateralism and international engagement. I was in Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests. At the time President Clinton had the political savvy to suggest we let these voices in to assuage concerns – even as he was the president who signed and implemented the NAFTA agreement. As a result, after a time, things calmed down and the situation became less tense for the moment.

Since then, however, the waves have gotten more turbulent, and it is important to recognize the tensions that brought Trump into office are not singular to him. Remember that Hillary Clinton responded to those choppy waves in her election bid. She supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement while Secretary of State, and yet as a candidate against Trump, she too expressed doubts about the TPP. So it is not just the Trump administration and we can see a wave of US constituencies questioning and expressing concerns.

The concern is rising to the point where now even the underlying current of outward movement that I mentioned is less visible. Companies are now being judged by how many jobs they are reshoring and their loyalty to America and American jobs. This is now seen as more important than an overall win-win growing the global economic pie paradigm, which has guided the thinking of policymakers and companies for decades.

And then there is the ball or float which can be seen in tweets and incendiary rhetoric. These attract a lot of attention and concern but they are not necessarily consistent. You mentioned the Indo-Pacific strategy and frankly, I haven’t really seen one. I have seen Indo-Pacific statements and senior US officials talking about issues, but I haven’t seen an overall strategy tying things together. I have to say I view this from an ASEAN perspective and generally, ASEAN is the final stop after a comprehensive strategy dealing with other parts of Asia is finalized.

There is also much less US involvement in multilateral institutions. This is important given the nature of the problems the world faces today. I also think the State Department itself has less access and the whole US establishment which has guided foreign policy and economic engagement, has been weakened.

At the same time other countries – and China in particular – have upped their game. They engage us, not only at the top level – but very thoroughly on an ongoing basis.  Ambassadors of these countries, whether you agree with them or not, are out all the time engaging people, and are much more present. The US is still here but less than in the past. Take something as simple as Ambassadors. How many ASEAN countries have sitting US Ambassadors? And if you talk with the ones that are here, how much access do they have into Washington and White House decision-making at a high level? Stove-piping is always a problem in big countries, but it is now becoming a more serious issue.

Since the early days of ASEAN, China has developed rapidly and has now become the world’s second-largest economy. It is also a major driver of economic growth and seeks greater regional and global influence through vehicles such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), at a time when the US is backing away from multilateral institutions and its traditional role as a global leader on a range of important issues. As tensions rise between China and the US, both in terms of trade as well as influence and security, how is the region affected, and what are the challenges ASEAN countries face in navigating this changing environment?

The pandemic makes a vast difference. We are trying to figure out in a post-pandemic world whether China or the US will recover faster and at the moment the answer seems to be China. It is still early, however, and of course, there is now an outbreak in Beijing so we will have to see. At the same time within China, there seems to be a growing understanding they need to remain engaged with the outside world. They also did not have this pre-pandemic spirit of isolationism and questioning of whether it is good for China to export and invest abroad. So unlike the US, they did not come into this with a globalization backlash, strengthened further by the pandemic.

Singapore recently entered into a “green lane” agreement with China for business travel and Singapore-based businesses of all nationalities can now travel to six cities and regions of China with minimal testing as a first step toward reopening our borders. This is not political but an effort to restore supply chain links and our ability to operate as a hub while maintaining decent safety levels. We are also trying to open Australia and New Zealand, and other countries in ASEAN, but those discussions are not yet concluded.

Also, if you look back to the global financial crisis of 2008, it is notable that Asia and China kept growing. While the US did not shrink, in relative terms its global market share declined. That caused an adjustment similar to when an elevator goes up and suddenly stops. I feel if the US does not respond correctly to the current situation, we may experience another of those adjustments; it doesn’t mean the US will fade and fall down the elevator shaft, but there will be another jerky moment and perceptions in this part of the world will shift further as they did after the onset of the global financial crisis.

That said, people in ASEAN want more US involvement and encourage US investment and more participation by US firms. We think of the market and technology as rational and neutral, but it is beginning to get colored. Meaning if people think the winner will be China there is a tendency to go more in that direction – even though we are still fighting to keep things as neutral, rational, and as inclusive as possible. You can see that in the struggle over the decision this week to award Singapore’s 5G network to Ericsson and Nokia, though it still maintained a smaller role for Huawei.

In the past, there was a belief in the west that China’s development would lead it toward a more democratic form of government and integration within the global trading system that arose following the Second World War. In recent years it has become apparent this is not the case and China is embarking on its own path. This has led to growing concerns about China’s aspirations and efforts to exert global leadership and establish standards in new technologies as seen its “Made in China 2025 initiative”, its policy toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, cybersecurity and privacy, social credit scoring and other policies, practices, and beliefs. Do you share these concerns? How does China’s model translate to ASEAN and do you see a new “Cold War” developing in which countries will be asked to choose sides?

I have studied, lived in, and like the US, but never assumed China would become more democratic. I believe the Party will have to evolve and change in response to China’s development but never assumed this would necessarily be in a democratic direction. When I look at the region beyond China, I would also say most in Asia are not a democracy in the US-style. Even look at Japan, which you Keith know well. It is not a one-party system like China but it is not a US-style democracy. Neither is Singapore. We will have an election here in less than two weeks, yet there is almost no doubt which party will win. So I am not sure you as an American would describe such systems as democracy.

So I do not look at China through an ideological lens of democracy and have always thought China would do what made sense for China. As neighbors, we do have to figure out whether what is good for China will be a threat to us, rather than win-win. This applies when we look at Chinese investment; we tend to look at it through pragmatic calculations. I do not begin with the assumption that it is an attempt to politically suborn every place where they invest. There are of course risks that remain but they can be managed. For example, with BRI we have talked to Myanmar and others about the risks of unproven projects that burden them with high debt. That is Singapore’s style. We initiate projects incrementally. We start with one terminal and gradually expand to five, or one chemical factory into a large complex as demand is proven. We have an idea of where we want to go – but build incrementally rather than start with grand projects.

That is why you now see a number of Singapore industrial parks in Vietnam. These parks are not just physical spaces. Some provide training, education, and skills development for local workers so they can better serve companies based there. This helps our neighbors while developing our role as a hub. Singapore companies are also involved in BRI. For example, Surbana Jurong provides consultancy services to some Chinese investors in ASEAN countries, as well as acting for the hosts on other occasions. The Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) is also pushing out into the region and beyond; recently opening a joint port in Greece with Cosco, a Chinese shipping line. So Singaporean efforts are to seek cooperation and commercial deals that look non-ideologically to support globalization and free trade around the world.

The bigger question is the “new Cold War” between the USA and China. We do feel it. We try to make rational decisions based on market principles but increasingly everything is reduced to whether “you are for or against China or the US.” For the AIIB, Singapore participated from the start because infrastructure is a big issue in the region. We are in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) too and the World Bank. We think there is no reason we can’t be in more than one, and I do not see why the US objected to the AIIB or what was the alternative they were offering. On the other hand, when American’s spoke about the Indo-Pacific we were happy to work with our ASEAN colleagues to develop an ASEAN understanding and response.

The view of the Indo-Pacific that ASEAN has developed is slightly different than the US, as our goal was to make it more inclusive and not just for democracies. But we do agree a larger framework for the region is necessary. For Singapore, as close friends with India, we have no problems working with them as well and continue to hope they will become more and more integrated with the region.

Even before the coronavirus and heightened US-China trade tensions, corporations were beginning to reevaluate global supply chains to lessen their reliance on Chinese production. Many view ASEAN as a natural beneficiary, offering cost and diversification benefits. As a result, we see many clients giving the region more consideration given its strategic location, strong infrastructure and its ability to bridge operations that had been based in China and still rely on inputs from there. How do you view ASEAN’s potential as the region rises in importance as a hub within the global supply chain? What are the prospects for developing and more developed countries in ASEAN– as well as integration between the two, for example, the relationship between Singapore and Batam/Bintan and the Riau Islands, where we have been active for many years, located in Indonesia only 12 miles away?

Our greatest fear is not a splintering of global supply chains but rather the idea of bringing everything back home in response to growing nationalism. Big countries sometimes think they can do that – whether it is the US, China, India, or even Indonesia. They believe they can produce everything for themselves and capture their own market. We used to see this in the “import substitution” and “beggar thy neighbor” days. That is something we need to work together to avoid. Post-pandemic there will be exceptions and a degree of self-supply is important, for example with masks and ventilators, to prevent a cut-off of supply. Similarly, markets such as Singapore which imports almost 100% of its food supply, need to rethink being completely reliant on offshore sourcing. But we need to make sure that tilt does not go too far.

But I would emphasize we are not going to exclude China either. The interesting question is whether we still believe in global supply chains. I think the answer is that we do, provided that security and other key concerns can still be addressed. If that is the case, countries that can provide that, who can reliably manage increasing supply chain complexity with good governance and rule of law, with an ability to deliver will be rewarded. ASEAN and Singapore are well-positioned in that regard.

The larger danger is that countries retreat back completely to a reliance on national production and protectionism. It is a lesser danger for supply chains to split into two, one being the US and the other a Chinese supply chain. Sometimes it is important for other countries to have guts and stand up against that and bullying from either side. This is especially important during the pandemic when some powerful countries were trying to grab masks and other medical supplies for themselves when these had been contracted to others. For Singapore, and for me as an attorney and international lawyer, I emphasize the importance of fulfilling contracts. This does not always work to our advantage in Singapore. Sometimes in the pandemic, neighbors cut off supply but we still try our best to observe our commitments. The rule of law is important. The bottom line is – trust is something you can’t ditch in a crisis.

You ask about Batam and Bintan as part of our strategy to expand across the region. These islands are part of Indonesia but stand just a small distance from Singapore. Back in the early 1990s, there was a lot of excitement in Singapore about their development as an early step in regionalization and cross border cooperation. They are still significant; proximity still matters, but not quite as much as before. Other opportunities arise, and regionalization has deepened. One newer aspect is whether that proximity is connected to another market.

For example, a major Singaporean company now has an industrial park operating in central Java that caters to Indonesia, rather than offshore markets like Batam and Bintan. Singapore also has more than seven industrial parks in Vietnam – and we do more there than in these Indonesian islands nearest us. Why? It is not because we do not like Batam and Bintan; they also have a role to play. But they do not enjoy any special preferences or contiguous market, have no natural workforce so workers there are imported from other parts of Indonesia. In the end, they remain useful, allow easy commuting, but do not provide a definitive advantage in an environment characterized by deeper and more complex regional integration.

ASEAN has been severely affected by the coronavirus – and by most measures handled the pandemic relatively well. Can you talk about how the virus has been handled in Singapore and other countries in ASEAN, the nature of regional cooperation, and how the pandemic is likely to affect economic and other aspects of integration moving forward? What lessons should the US take from the ASEAN experience dealing with the virus?

There are differences in how ASEAN countries have handled this and from what we can see, Vietnam has come out on top in terms of controlling the pandemic. In Singapore, the overall national numbers may look scary, but it is under control for most of the community though the problem is acute within the foreign work dormitories which account for the bulk of numbers.

Singapore has a strong health system and has ramped up testing and treatment facilities; our medical system has coped and there has been a very low mortality rate. Malaysia and Thailand are also doing relatively well. For Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar the numbers seem ok but it is really hard to know for sure, given low levels of testing. In Southeast Asia, I think the biggest worry is Indonesia where numbers are beginning to rise while the country faces strong economic pressure to reopen.

A key question is transparency. The more you test the more you find cases. So we look at testing rates as an indicator. In Singapore, we have good testing for a small population. As testing increased in dorms for migrant workers, this caused our numbers to really jump. It was just last week that Indonesia overtook us as having the most cases – and we have to ask why did it take that long? Basically, many countries are not testing enough. When they do test, it is for confirmed cases and not more generally – and the number of tests per million is very low. So from the reported numbers, the situation may look acceptable, but no one can be quite sure.

The current question is how to ease up the restrictions to restart the economy and allow travel across borders. There are worries about importing cases and all countries have at least temporarily closed off tourism, which are important parts of their economies. In the pipeline, I think green lanes for business are possible. But there will continue to be concerns about large numbers of tourists unless easy and reliable testing and (ideally) vaccines are ready. So we will have to figure out how to manage borders – allowing transport of workers as well as goods and services – to restart our economies and manage our integration and supply chains in an increasingly interdependent region.

One of the things we have learned is we have to be open to help from outside and cooperation is critical. In early February we first had a China-ASEAN meeting on how to deal with the virus and it was just China, but then we had an ASEAN Summit and this was notable in bringing in Japan and Korea – two countries that have the industry and technology needed to help. Now some of us are advocating Australia and New Zealand also need to be added as well. If we address the pandemic together – we have a much better chance of containing and dealing with it. Harmonizing our approaches to treatment and travel is important. Multilateral dialogue and cooperation are essential and world leaders should encourage talk rather than just closing borders.

India also represents a major economy that borders ASEAN and has traditionally had a major impact though often gets overlooked given the attention paid to China. What is your view on India as a regional and global player and how important is its economy to the development of ASEAN and how should companies be approaching this important market? Additionally, any thoughts on current tensions between India and China?

Last year before the pandemic we had the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) discussions which could potentially not only open up India but bring India more into the region as a major global manufacturer and supplier – much as China embarked on that path decades ago. RCEP’s importance rose after the US withdrew from TPP negotiations, and aimed to bring together all ASEAN members and our key trading partners — including India, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. But it seems the Indians didn’t like that vision or thought the costs of opening up their market were too high and walked away.

They thought they could scupper the whole initiative, but ASEAN has decided to go ahead without them. That was not our hope and it would have been much better to include them, but we were not going to let India veto RCEP, and it will now proceed, aiming to conclude by the end of 2020. I always tell my Indian friends we have to move – particularly now with the pandemic – and they would be advised to jump on board.

India has tremendous potential and their size and promise will always be there – but it is a bit like a giant universe operating by itself – cut off from the outside. That is sad as there are some really top-class Indian companies that can more than compete in the region. But India as a whole has not really been fully engaged. The politics are complicated – and while Singapore remains great friends of India – it remains to be seen if a path forward can be found. If Prime Minister Modi with all the support he enjoys is not willing to open up, how and when will it happen? Compound that with the pandemic and a lack of desire to integrate, and my fear is India will miss the boat.

For Indonesia, the largest country in ASEAN, it’s different. They know investors are questioning reliance on China because of costs and Sino-American conflict and are working to catch the attention to join global chains and attract more investment to create more and better paying industrial jobs. They are trying but it won’t be easy. China has retained many supply chains, and many that moved decided to go to Vietnam.  One Indonesian minister I know quite well is working hard to attract jobs and promote innovation and some companies are moving to base there. The minister told me his scorecard is based on an ability to attract foreign investors and industry. It will be difficult, but it is good they are trying. India, however, has mostly been sitting on the sidelines and it may only get harder over time.

Singapore is one of the world’s great success stories and has become a preferred destination to establish businesses and operate for companies in a wide range of sectors, including as a world financial center. For many years we operated our own company there as a base for activities in Myanmar, Indonesia and other ASEAN markets which lacked the same level of infrastructure, governance and services. Does the Singapore model hold, and what changes need to be made, as neighboring countries develop? Can you tell us about current Singapore initiatives, the upcoming election and the “bubbles” that are being created for business, travel and trade?

Singapore understands we serve as a hub for the region and if we cut ourselves off due to the pandemic and health reasons, we will find ourselves in a bubble that does not have enough air for all of us. You can live your life that way if you need to, but resources become scarce and it will not be much of a life. So we have to reopen, and all small economies face similar issues. New Zealand for example is further away but faces similar decisions.

That is why we talk about green lanes and bubbles. We need to start but in a controlled way with trusted partners. In the past, we were wide open. When you entered Changi Airport, even before you got to the doors, they opened wide. There was seldom a line and often no one even checked your luggage. Now, while I have not been there in five months, I imagine the scanners are working overtime. You need to show a health certificate and the process is much more cautious and guarded.

My analogy is that we have gone from an automatic door and seamless travel to a situation that requires a special pass and perhaps a key before you will be able to pass. Safety concerns are a priority. But for Singapore, the important thing is the doors need to remain open even if there are more checks and verifications to ensure adequate safety and easy passage. Singapore is committed to that. The government just formed a new public-private partnership called the “Emerging Stronger Task Force”. This will gather ideas on how to develop new processes and procedures to get better ideas on Singapore’s economic strengths, and how to move forward into the “new normal” in the wake of the pandemic.

It won’t be easy. But when I look back, there is reason to believe we can rise to the challenges. Singapore came out stronger from the Asian financial crisis and we are determined to do that again. That was true after the global financial crisis as well. If we get it right, Singapore can come out stronger this time as well. Of course, we could get it wrong and have made mistakes along the way;  two recoveries do not automatically translate into a third so we have to be careful not to have hubris and to work hard and innovate to succeed.

As you know we have been active and involved with Myanmar’s development for many decades, and one of the more interesting developments – at least in terms of Singapore – are long term plans to develop deep seaports in Kyauphyu, which would provide a land route into China. This initiative would allow shippers to bypass the Straits of Malacca and the Port of Singapore which has long dominated trade in the region. How do you view Myanmar’s prospects and the potential of these projects?

Do we see other ports in the region as a direct threat to Singapore? The answer is no. We think win-win. Our ports are busy and before the pandemic operated almost at full capacity. If Asia continues to grow, the volume of traffic will grow even more. The PSA has been expanding internationally to places in the region and beyond. Moreover, within Singapore land is very valuable and there is a plan to create a new mega port named Tuas in the north of the island. The current site of one port is very close to the city and is such valuable land that, rather than stacking containers, far more value can be realized if it is used for real estate and infrastructure development. So while we do want Singapore to continue as a major port, this means that we welcome and want to participate in growth across the region.

As for Myanmar more generally, we are very encouraged and remain positive. We would love to see them come up like Vietnam. As mentioned, there are several Singaporean industrial parks there and while there are none are as yet in Myanmar – we have very good relationships there and see lots of potential. Many people from Myanmar received their education and training in Singapore and many Myanmar companies rely on Singapore for banking, legal and financial services. So there are extensive people-people relationships and we want to help and be part of their development. Also, two of the most active banks in Myanmar, UOB and OCBC are from Singapore and as Myanmar opens up and liberalizes they are seeking to increase their presence.

Thank you Simon for your time and attention. Look forward to speaking again soon!

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Keith Rabin serves as President at KWR International, Inc., a global consulting firm specializing in international market entry; trade, business, investment and economic development; site location, as well as research and public relations/ public affairs services for a wide range of corporate and government clients.

korea

Global Trade Talk: Enhancing US-Korea Trade and Investment Cooperation in a Changing World Environment

Global Trade Talk is part of an ongoing series highlighting international business, trade, investment, and site location issues and opportunities. This article focuses on the conversation between Taehee Woo, Vice Chairman, Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) and Former Vice Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE), Republic of Korea and Keith Rabin, President, KWR International, Inc.

Hello Taehee, how are you? It has been a while since we last talked. Before we begin, can you tell our readers about your background and current activities?

For thirty years I served at Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in positions including Director-General of the Industrial Policy Division, Assistant Minister for Trade & Chief Negotiator for Free Trade Agreements (FTA), Deputy Minister for Trade, then finally Vice Minister. After leaving the government several years ago, I worked as a professor at Yonsei University before becoming Vice Chairman of KCCI in February 2020.

KCCI is the oldest and largest business organization in Korea. It is composed of 73 regional chambers of commerce and more than 100 major institutions and organizations. This includes approximately 180,000 member companies, ranging from big businesses to SMEs, manufacturing to services, and domestic as well as foreign-invested firms. KCCI is at the forefront of trade promotion by engaging in private-sector economic diplomacy with foreign governments and corporations. Every year we dispatch overseas business missions and organize business forums for visitors to Korea. Through these and other activities we work to expand trade and investment between Korea and other countries around the world.

The Republic of Korea (ROK)’s rise following the devastation of the Korean War was one of the 20th century’s greatest economic success stories. In little more than a generation, the nation advanced from being one of the poorest countries, to become an advanced modern economy enjoying one of the world’s strongest growth rates. Can you talk about the Korean economic miracle and what allowed this achievement?

The most important factor was the government’s choice of an open, export-led economy. Korea does not possess many natural resources and after the devastation of the Korean War, the government was the leading actor in initiating economic development. Major policies included the “5-year economic development plan” (60s~90s), the “Comprehensive National Physical Development Plan” (70s~90s), the “Saema’eul Movement (also known as the New Community Movement)” (70s) and “Heavy and Chemical Industrialization” (70s~80s). During this period, the government nurtured large exporters as part of its strategy. A trickle-down effect allowed economic growth to flow from large exporting companies to partner SMEs, then to ordinary Koreans. This allowed Korea to grow faster than other developing countries that had a similar start.

I also believe the pioneer spirit, vision and tenacity of early Korean entrepreneurs contributed significantly. There is an expression in Korea, “to serve the country through business”. This guided first-generation businessmen such as Lee Byung-chul (Samsung), Jung Joo-young (Hyundai), Koo In-Hwoi (LG), Choi Jong-gun (SK) in their efforts to bring prosperity to the Korean nation. These men led the “Miracle on the Han” which you reference, advocating “Have you tried it?” (Hyundai/pioneer spirit), “Change everything except your wife and children” (Samsung/innovative thinking) to drive growth forward. Through these efforts key industries including semiconductors, smartphones, automobiles, construction, shipbuilding and petrochemicals were born and enjoyed uninterrupted growth in overseas markets, giving rise and consolidating the position of a ‘Global Korea’.

The dedication and talent of the Korean people has also made an outstanding contribution. Our passion for education is one of the highest in the world. Korea ranks first among OECD countries, with 70% of the 25-34-year-old population holding a bachelor’s degree. The diligence and hard work of the Korean people is also important. Korea has the second-longest working hours among OECD members. During the high growth period centered on manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, the input of physical labor acted as one of the driving forces of economic growth.

Previously, the government used to decide which industries to nurture, then distributed resources and applied regulations accordingly. Now that we are past this rapid growth phase, such a strategy is no longer valid. Today, the trickledown effect of exports has declined significantly, and the manufacturing sector is experiencing a slowdown. For this reason, I believe the government’s role should be limited to two things: first, to help individuals spot business opportunities. Second, to ‘renew’ the legal and regulatory system so as to reorganize Korea’s industry around future-oriented service industries and convergence industries.

 By the 1990s, China and other lower-cost competitors had emerged, just as ROK living standards were rising. This eroded the nation’s ability to compete on cost as the primary driver. Nevertheless, the ROK has not only maintained its competitiveness but expanded it to where it is now considered one of the world’s most innovative economies. That is true not only in semiconductors, shipbuilding, and automobile production where the ROK has shown traditional strength, but also in R&D, patent activity, smartphones, and other branded products. Now we are even seeing cultural exports such as K-Pop and film, with the ROK production Parasite being the first foreign film to win Best Picture Academy Award. How did the ROK avoid the “middle-income trap” that has affected so many other countries? What steps were taken to allow this continuing transformation?

The first key to avoiding the middle-income trap is innovation and technology, mainly through the adoption and utilization of information and communications technology (ICT). Korea invested extensively in ICT in the late 1990s and early 2000s, building on our earlier success in electronics and semiconductors. This laid a foundation for Korea’s top tier ICT infrastructure, which now includes one of the highest internet penetration, speed, mobile network and cell phone distribution rates in the world. It provided the basis for businesses to build new industries including next-generation semiconductors, cellphones, displays, etc.) as well as advances in conventional manufacturing such as automobiles, shipbuilding, home electronics, and petrochemicals, etc.

Korea also took advantage of the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis to enhance our capacity and the nation’s economy. Problems such as industrial and financial restructuring and mass unemployment were turned into opportunities to strengthen the competitiveness of our businesses and to catch up to global standards. Not only did Korean businesses achieve technical innovation and accelerate their overseas expansion, but they completely overhauled their practices in accordance with global standards by expanding ethical, transparent management practices, strengthening fair trade and mutually beneficial cooperation.

There are two tasks ahead for the Korean economy to take the next quantum leap. The first is to give a big push to industries of the future by revamping obsolete laws and institutions that were created during Korea’s earlier era of rapid growth. Vested interests became increasingly protected while Korea’s industrial sector was taking root. This legislation now acts as a barrier to business, blocking new initiatives to the point that creating a start-up or venture business in itself is an accomplishment. It seems that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a social consensus has formed about the importance of the ‘untact economy’ – where face-to-face contact is not needed – and on the need to develop ‘ICT convergence technologies’, which will help serve as the basis for a transformation of our industrial structure.

The second is to build a high-level social safety net. Korea’s GDP per capita exceeds US$30,000. In contrast, social benefit spending as a percentage of GDP is around half (11.1% in 2018) the OECD average (20.1% in 2018). I believe that social benefits can only contribute to economic growth. If the government dedicates state finances to guarantee the basic livelihood and employment stability of the weakest social groups, there will be less resistance toward innovation and change. This change will in turn contribute to job creation and the transition towards future industries. It is imperative we adopt a holistic approach.

We began working together in the early 2000s when you served as Commercial Attaché in New York and our firm represented much Korean government and corporate clients in their efforts to expand trade, investment and targeted transactions including the development of Incheon Airport, New Songdo City and several Special Economic Zones, as well as US firms with an interest in Korea. At the time much of our Korean work focused on overcoming the “perception gap” between Korea’s achievements and a belief its strength was still largely based on OEM production and cheap, substitute products. This served to diminish the value of Korean brands in comparison with their competitors, constraining margins and pricing while introducing a “Korea discount”, which raised borrowing costs and the returns required by investors. Why was it important to raise perceptions of Korea from being a “developing” to an “advanced” nation? How did Korean companies elevate themselves to where firms such as Samsung, Hyundai, and others now possess some of the most competitive brands in the world?

In the early 2000s, Korea’s economic growth was largely based on manufacturing and export of low and medium-priced goods that were useful though without high value-added and we were highly dependent on OEM production for foreign markets – as domestic demand was weak. While Korea’s compounded annual growth rate exceeded 4% for 10 years starting from 2000, geopolitical instability due to North-South relations, the rigidity of the Korean labor market and a need to overcome the effects of the Asian or IMF financial crisis of the late 1990s threw a spanner in the works. This gave rise to the ‘Korea discount’ you mention, which undermined the brand value of Korea, Korean businesses abroad and our borrowing costs.

As a result, we faced a ‘nutcracker’ crisis, where our products were stuck between developed nations and developing countries, and exports of low and medium-priced goods no longer yielded the high growth they delivered in the past. In fact, Korean products were at a disadvantage, from both a price perspective compared to China and an efficiency perspective in comparison with Japan. In other words, Korean goods lagged behind Japanese products in terms of quality and technology and were less price-competitive than Chinese products. Korean brands were also not held in high regard overseas. At that time we would often see Korean products command higher prices as OEM products than under Korean brand names.

Upgrading the national brand was essential in breaking the perception that Korea specialized in low and medium-priced products. To achieve this goal we invested in R&D and technology development so that Korean companies were not undervalued in overseas markets. Building recognition, brand, and both national and corporate images were also of paramount importance, raising awareness and the credibility of Korean products in foreign markets. This had a significant economic impact by improving the competitiveness of our goods. As a result, Korean products now command a premium and according to Brand Finance’s 2019 Nation Brands report, Korea’s brand ranked 9th in the world, higher than that of Switzerland or Italy.

The strength of Korean companies is based on factors such as active R&D investment, technology development, globalization strategies, and human resources development. Korea ranks 5th in terms of global R&D investment volume (85.7 trillion KRW), and 1st in terms of R&D/GDP ratio (4.8%). Our businesses are strengthening Global Korea’s reputation by improving its fundamentals in accordance with global standards. For instance, Samsung’s foldable phone line-up, LG’s Signature TV, and many other Korean products are consolidating a dominant position in the premium market.

When Hyundai Motors first entered the American market in 1986 with its Pony Excel, people thought of it as a ‘cheap car maker’. Now, the company has raised its market share and profile significantly thanks to its continuing ‘quality management’ strategy. Currently, their premium Genesis, Kia, and Hyundai brands occupy the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd position in terms of quality, even before Porsche, according to J.D. Power. Furthermore, Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors now own production facilities across the world – with 80% of their total sales coming from international markets. Samsung Group is also actively pursuing global outsourcing of talented individuals to create a more diverse, competitive workforce in recognition of the owner’s awareness that “1% of the talent feeds ten thousand”.

With China and other less-developed countries on our tail, continuing regulatory reform based on public-private partnership is essential to staying competitive. It is important for the government and the business community to work together to reform legislation and institutions that were created in the past era of rapid growth, so that we can give future industries a strong push forward. With the new ‘untact’ economy propelled forward by COVID-19, businesses need to develop innovative Industry 4.0 technologies such as 5G, AI, Big Data, and the government should support these endeavors through regulatory reform.

By operating the Public-Private Joint Regulation Advancement Initiative (PPJRAI), directly housed under the Prime Minister’s Office, KCCI is not only striving to reform regulations but to support technology innovation of start-ups by cooperating with the government through a regulatory sandbox system. This grants waivers and exemptions from regulations that unreasonably hinder the market launch of innovative goods and services.

 The ROK was an early proponent of globalization and over time it became a leader in negotiating free trade agreements (FTA), which the nation now has in effect with almost every region including ASEAN, the EU, and Latin America as well as the US, China, India, Australia, and Turkey. How important are these agreements and why has the ROK succeeded where others have failed? What have been the challenges of opening up the ROK economy which has traditionally been viewed as a relatively closed market? Further, given the rise of populism and retreat from globalization seen in recent years, and reliance on trade wars and tariffs as a remedial solution, compounded by a growing belief the US needs to start bringing production back home – a trend which is now accentuated with the coronavirus – how do you view the current trade environment and what do you see moving forward?

 Free trade has made great contributions to economic growth and peacekeeping worldwide. Especially over the past 30 years, FTAs have significantly raised individual welfare and living standards. They have not been without side effects, such as the loss of jobs and inequality. Nonetheless, while these negative impacts need to be addressed, the benefits of free trade have been introduced and expanded thanks to the rapid adaptation capacity of the Korean people and businesses, as well as the bold initiatives taken by the government, including multiple, comprehensive FTAs and other mechanisms of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

The biggest obstacle to opening up Korea, which had been a relatively closed and self-reliant country, has been to convince stakeholders with conflicting interests, especially in the agricultural sector, which is deemed vulnerable to international competition. Still, differences were overcome thanks to a sustained dialogue and efforts to address their concerns and to persuade these entities with national interests in mind and various support systems.

Structural changes that served to slow, and in some cases seek to reverse, global integration were put into motion long before the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes increasing protectionist tendencies, hegemonic rivalry reflected in US-China trade tensions, the crisis of the WTO-led multilateral trade system, transformation of the industrial environment caused by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and digitalization of the world economy. Among these elements, the evolution of the global value chain and transition from trade in goods to trade in services are of primary importance.

COVID-19 will act as a trigger that accelerates such change and intact business and a stable global value chain will become increasingly valuable. Production reliance on specific countries such as China will diminish, which does not mean supply chain efficiency has become irrelevant. It is possible however to contemplate new supply chain options emerging, that take into account both efficiency and stability, based on country risk. Deglobalization will have the upper hand for a while, which will eventually lead to further digitalization of the global economy in an atmosphere of discord and uncertainty.

 The ROK has been credited as having had one of the more effective responses to dealing with the Covid-19 Coronavirus.  How is it affecting the ROK’s economy and the domestic and international activities of Korean firms? What is the current situation and what lessons can the US and other nations learn from the ROK’s experience?

The success factors that underly Korea’s COVID-19 response include government efforts, high civic awareness, and dedicated medical staff – who have all contributed to deliver positive results. I believe using the analysis from the MERS outbreak in 2015 to update our prevention system proved particularly useful. Every actor from the field to the control tower moved as one, sharing information in a speedy and transparent manner. This included collaborating among different departments, including the operation of screening centers. Korea’s outstanding health insurance system, which allows for minimal check-up and treatment costs, also played a critical role in containing the outbreak.

Korean test kits and our testing abilities made great contributions not only to the successful prevention of COVID-19 but also to the promotion of Korean medical technology. In April, the Korean healthcare industry exports increased 20% YoY, led by biopharmaceuticals, prevention goods, and test kits. The sales of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment increased by 640 mil. USD (23.4%) and 490 mil. USD (50.8%) respectively.

We also recently experimented with phone consultations and received very positive feedback, which convinced us to implement telemedicine in earnest. We started a little late in this area, but believe Korea will deliver outstanding products in this field based on our unique IT capabilities. K-Bio is also expected to be an important pillar of the Korean industry in the post-COVID era.

 China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy and its desire to exert more global leadership and power is having profound economic and security implications – not only within Asia but around the world. How do you view the rise of China – both from a geopolitical and policy perspective, as well as in terms of technology, trade, and investment? How is it affecting the activities and plans of the ROK government and other countries in the region? Similarly, how is it affecting Korean firms and their supply chains? What opportunities and concerns do you see developing as a result?

 It is true that as the factory of the world, China’s growth has contributed to global economic growth for the past ten years, based on a close-knit relationship with Asian nations. Increased exports to China was also crucial in Korea surmounting the 2008 economic crisis. As an important market and production plant, China will maintain its value in the eyes of Korean businesses and remain part of their business and supply chain base.

At the same time, the global supply chain of various countries took a considerable hit due to the recent surge of protectionism and there is a critical need to diversify to allow more options and less dependence on anyone center of production. As a result, changes in the global value chain and development of the digital economy will likely reduce dependence on China, leading to many new opportunities for additional supply and production destinations.

 While the ROK has been a strong ally of the US, with close economic ties since the end of the Korean War, President Trump’s efforts to “Make America Great Again” has caused many changes in US foreign policy and a shift in its focus from multilateral to bilateral dialogue. How have these developments impacted the ROK and how are they changing their relationship with the US? Similarly, how do you view the US administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy as well as its current policy toward North Korea?

Currently, Korea and the US are trying to find a new equilibrium in their relationship with each other. There is still progress to be made regarding the special measures agreement negotiations covering cost-sharing of the US military presence in Korea, but I am confident the two countries will eventually come to an agreement.

In any case, the Korea-US alliance was the foundation of peace and security on the Korean peninsula for more than 60 years, and my firm belief is it will continue to remain so in the future. On May 7th, Secretary of State Pompeo asserted “the US-Korea alliance was the linchpin of peace in the Indo-Pacific region and the world”. The day before our Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha also asserted the government’s intention to “continue collaborating closely with the US on various issues, including COVID-19, based on a strong Korea-US alliance”.

North Korea-US negotiations have been playing a leading role in improving inter-Korean relations, which is why we need to resume dialogue between North Korea and the US. Progress has been slow on the denuclearization front after the Hanoi summit ended without a deal. Nevertheless, the two leaders are still in communication, mainly by exchanging letters.

According to a statement by North Korean leader Kim Yo-jong on March 22, “President Trump sent a personal letter to lay out his plans for stimulating the North Korea-US relations”.

I also hope “COVID prevention cooperation” between the two Koreas among others will provide a new momentum for improving the relations between North Korea, South Korea, and the US. During his May 10th address on the 3rd anniversary of his inauguration, President Moon also mentioned his “[hope] that South and North Korea will move toward a single community of life and a peace community by cooperating on human security”.

 Korean firms – large and small – have been very effective in establishing operations around the world – in both emerging and frontier, as well as developed, economies. What can US companies learn from Korean firms in terms of competing internationally, in particular with developing countries, which despite their problems, will remain a primary source of global growth? Further, what are areas of potential cooperation between US and Korean firms? Should US companies view Korean companies as potential business partners or competitors? Additionally, what kinds of opportunities exist for US firms in Korea and what should they keep in mind as they evaluate and enter this market?

US firms should understand Korea’s success in emerging markets, was not just because their products were affordable, but also because they were customized and localized. You need to establish a presence and research the intricacies of these markets and not treat them as an afterthought. You also cannot talk about Korea’s success story without mentioning the construction boom in the Middle East. Korean businesses blew their clients away – not only with their competitive pricing but by significantly reducing the construction period. In other words, price-competitiveness and speed were the strength of Korean businesses.

Moving forward, I believe Korea and the US can collaborate on areas including building digital infrastructure around the world – with a particular emphasis on the developing economies that are likely to drive global growth moving forward. American platform businesses, Korean start-ups, and our capacity to work in these markets seem a winning combination. Not only to help these countries develop but to provide new high growth opportunities and increases in consumption that do not exist in our own more mature economies. The same could apply to infrastructure such as transportation and construction. This includes cooperation to expand business, trade, and investment into Central and South America, ASEAN countries, Africa, the Middle East, and other regions around the world.

 When I was last in Seoul, I was asked to speak on the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a concept that is rarely discussed or addressed in the US, but gets a lot of attention in the ROK. What are your thoughts on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how is the ROK and Korean firms preparing to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing business and economic environment?

Korea has achieved great success using a fast follower strategy for growth. Recently, however, the Korean economy has been showing less dynamism, as major industries have been declining while the transition to industries of the future has been slower than we would like.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a concept introduced by the World Economic Forum, which calls for a new stage of industrial development that combines the real with the technological world. This is leading to advances, breakthroughs, and convergence in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the internet of things, decentralized computing, 5G wireless technologies, 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles.

Some worry if we do not embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and China catches up to us, it will only take a split second for Korea to lose its competitiveness. Whether this is the case, Korea’s evolution into a manufacturing powerhouse and shift toward swift informatization and adoption of ICT has prepared us for dramatic change. Building on such experience, the shift toward Industry 4.0 can help introduce a new momentum for innovative growth, provided that Korea is well prepared and we move to address this challenge.

With this in mind, Korea is concentrating its efforts to build an innovative ecosystem and industrial base, so that our strength in manufacturing and advanced ICT can lead to a successful transition that will position us to become a key player in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Policies and institutions are currently being overhauled to utilize Big Data and foster AI, the core of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. An “AI national strategy” was announced on December 2019 to bridge the gap with leading countries in AI. In addition, the National Assembly passed “Three Data Bills” in January 2020. This will initiate the Big Data industry in earnest through the safeguard of de-identified personal information.

Great strides have also been made in terms of institutional reform. However Korean businesses need to cultivate their adaptive capabilities to allow maximum open innovation. This means moving away from closed down, internal R&D practices, and other practices of the past. While these helped us to develop in the past they now constrain us, and change is needed to allow ideas and technologies to move freely beyond company walls to foster innovation.

Thank you Taehee for your time and attention. I look forward to following up soon.

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Keith Rabin serves as President at KWR International, Inc., a global consulting firm specializing in international market entry; trade, business, investment and economic development; site location, as well as research and public relations/ public affairs services for a wide range of corporate and government clients.

global trade

Global Trade Talk: Reconfiguring US-China Supply Chains for a Post-Coronavirus World

Global Trade Talk is part of an ongoing series highlighting international business, trade, investment, and site location issues and opportunities. This article focuses on the conversation between Jack Perkowski, JFP Holdings Ltd., and Keith Rabin, KWR International, Inc.

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Hello Jack, how are you? It has been a long time since we last talked. Before we begin, can you tell us about your background and current activities?

After graduating from Harvard Business School, I went to work on Wall Street, joining Paine Webber, where I served for 20 years and ended up running the Investment Banking Department. I then decided to do something different for a second career and became interested in Asia. That led to a trip to Hong Kong in 1990 and my moving there in late 1991. I quickly decided within Asia, China was the key driver, and in 1992 made my first trip to the Mainland.

At that time, China’s auto market was small and fragmented. They were manufacturing about 500 thousand vehicles a year, but it was clear the country wanted to develop a large auto industry. However, foreign companies were slow to enter because volumes were too small, so to encourage investment, the government allowed foreigners to have majority ownership in automotive components companies. That is now allowed in most industries in China, but at the time, auto components were the only industry where this was permitted.

I decided to do a roll-up buying majority ownership in a dozen leading auto component companies; putting them under one umbrella; introducing new management and quality systems. To test whether this could work, I visited 100 factories in 40 cities, and concluded it was a viable strategy. I then went back to Wall Street and raised $150 million over the Christmas holidays in 1993 to fund the company. In February 1994, I founded ASIMCO Technologies, an automotive components company focused on China’s emerging auto market. A year later, we raised another $150 million. Over several years, we invested $300 million, which is a lot of money even today. In 1995, though, it was a very large sum.

ASIMCO evolved into a company with 12,000 employees, 17 factories and about a billion dollars in sales. In 2009, ASIMCO was sold to Bain Capital, and I started JFP Holdings, which helps foreign companies to determine whether there is a market in China for their product, service or technology. We also help Chinese companies to expand in overseas markets. We are very hands-on, undertaking research, and then helping our clients to effectively develop and implement their strategies and ongoing business operations.

Almost ten years ago we published an interview with you titled “Profiting from China’s Domestic Economy” concerning China’s rise over several decades to become the world’s second-largest economy. Can you talk about China’s emergence and the role it now plays in the world economy?

China’s growth has been very rapid and it became the world’s second-largest economy about the time we spoke in 2010. Its GDP was about $1.3 trillion in 2001 when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) – and over the past 20 years, it has grown by more than tenfold to about $14 trillion. In contrast, the US remains the world’s largest economy, at about $22 trillion.

Japan, which had been in second place, is now third, at about $5 trillion – so there is quite a drop from second to third place. Therefore, if you are a company looking for growth, China is very important. It is hard to see how in coming decades a company can maintain or build a global leadership position if it does not have a meaningful presence there. This is reflected in the Fortune 500 list, which now has as many Chinese firms included as from the US.

Per capita income in China has also risen to around $10 thousand a year. That, however, is a bit misleading, because it is an average. It includes an emerging middle and upper class of more than 500 million people, which is about 1.5 times the entire population of the US. These people largely live in major cities and are rapidly increasing their consumption. McKinsey, for example, estimated [1] last year that China delivered more than half of global growth in luxury spending between 2012 and 2018 and is expected to deliver 65% of additional spending into 2025.

This is important. US companies and policymakers need to think of China – not only in terms of manufacturing and sourcing – but also as an important driver of global growth. Therefore, while we need to address the dangers of being over-reliant on China in our supply chain, we also must remain aware of China’s growing global market share, so we can benefit and participate in a fair, constructive and competitive manner.

It is true that China’s economy is increasingly driven by consumer demand. It has also become an important source of R&D and innovation – trends that have risen dramatically since we last talked. Can you talk about this phenomenon, where China stands, and what it means to the US and companies and investors?

Unlike many who located factories in China as a way to reduce the costs of US production, I did not set up ASIMCO as an export company. Our emphasis was on becoming an important part of the local auto market. At the same time, we worked with foreign companies such as Bosch, Caterpillar, and others that sourced components in China, but viewed that as an extra revenue source and a way to ensure our factories could produce to international standards. Lowering labor costs was certainly a factor, but not the central element of our strategy, as I knew costs would rise as China developed. Toyota, for example, is a company that takes a similar view and doesn’t really embrace cost alone as a strategy. It has always wanted its suppliers to make components locally where possible so they can be close to where they are being used. That has been our approach as well.

Bottom line – to benefit from growth in China you need to be there. That is the only way to truly understand and participate. When we began, potential Chinese customers told us they would not take us seriously unless we had a factory there. That is important. The Chinese understand networks and supporting firms follow production. This leads to investment, infrastructure, and development of auxiliary industries and innovation within the supply chain. Academic institutions also respond and take steps to train engineers and others with the critical skills needed. This leads to advanced research and an ability to apply technologies and launch success stories. These make investors comfortable and provide additional benefits – which have value not only in China – but in other markets around the world.

With respect to innovation, few Americans realize how rapidly China is developing in areas including digital technologies, consumer payments, e-commerce, and services. In some areas, it is becoming more advanced than the US and we can learn from them. It is important to keep this in perspective and to balance the need to address trade issues and strengthen and safeguard our supply chain with the need to remain present and involved in this increasingly important market. This is the way we can sustain and advance growth and our global competitiveness.

At the same time, there is a legitimate concern in the US about Chinese technology. I spoke to a group of tech executives and investors in Jackson Hole last year. All they wanted to talk about was China’s development of 5G. While there are security implications if Chinese 5G equipment is installed in the US, you can’t blame China for taking steps to move up the value chain. The US also needs to upgrade our capacity and competitiveness – and our ability to develop the products, services, and supply chains that are needed moving forward.

China’s growth has heightened its political ambitions and in recent years we have seen growing tension in the South China Sea, the pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative, control over rare earth metals, rising tariffs and trade disputes, blockage of Huawei and a generally more competitive posture than in the past. This has strained bilateral relations with the US and led to anxiety in Asia and other countries. What does this portend for China and US-China relations moving forward? Considering these developments and backlash over China with coronavirus what changes are we likely to see from China in respect to its trade and bilateral relations with other nations and multilateral institutions?

China joined the WTO in 2001 and there has since been a sharp uptick in every economic measure. Its economy has grown about ten times and the country has clearly benefitted from globalization. Meanwhile, the US and the rest of the world looked the other way as many Chinese policies and business practices during this period have been in violation of international trade practices. We have been like two ships passing in the night. No one, regardless of who was in the White House, wanted to address contentious trade, IPR, technology transfer, and other key issues.

Every year there was a state dinner or two and leaders of each country would shake hands, but important issues were never discussed in a direct, constructive way. President Trump has done this for the first time and the dynamics have changed. Up until the coronavirus, however, most of the world considered the Trade War as “Trump’s Trade War,” but the virus has caused trillions of dollars of damages throughout the world, and now many more countries will be concerned about China’s behavior. This will place more pressure on both Chinese companies and the government – and the country will have to adjust. At the same time, China’s leadership is going back to its more authoritarian roots, and no one likes that —least of all the Chinese people.

While many of China’s relationships with other countries are likely to be more confrontational going forward, I remain optimistic. At the beginning of the year, a phase one US-China trade agreement was signed. When it came out, many said the US did not get what it needed, and others said it was like the “unequal” treaties China entered with western powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I knew it could not be both and read through it.

Everyone has focused on the provision that says China will buy significant merchandise from the United States over the next two years, but the agreement also deals with IPR, currency manipulation, and other key issues. Most importantly, it includes an arbitration mechanism that provides for quarterly meetings between the US Trade Representative and China’s Deputy Prime Minister where issues of non-compliance are discussed and resolved. To me, this seems like a better approach than trying to take Chinese companies to court.

The real question is will the phase one deal be implemented? In my view, the economic devastation that has resulted from the coronavirus ensures that it will. The US and the Trump Administration want the purchases to go through and China wants tariffs to be lifted. So both sides are under pressure to comply. In a curious way, while our countries are at odds at the governmental level – there are real incentives to work through these important issues – which many in China also would like to see resolved. As a result, I believe the virus will help to build consensus and facilitate the implementation of the January 15th agreement.

The COVID-19 coronavirus is having a dramatic effect on global health as well as the global economy and China. What is the current situation in China? How has the virus affected its economy, and can we trust the data that is emerging? What lessons can we draw from the Chinese experience and what changes might result in respect to US-China and global economic relations and trade moving forward?

I don’t know the exact number of cases and deaths in China, and you can certainly fault their transparency and failure to alert the rest of the world. But, once China recognized the seriousness of the virus, the government imposed draconian measures within its borders that could not be applied here. For example, in the US you cannot rope off and restrict millions of people or undertake the kind of contact tracing and restrictions seen in China.

In this way, China was able to arrest the spread of the virus but nonetheless took a big hit in the first quarter. The second quarter will also not be great. China is, however, implementing stimulus measures – not the roads, bridges, and the infrastructure spending we saw after the 2008 financial crisis – but measures to increase the development of 5G and other technologies that were outlined as key industries in the country’s “Made in China 2025” plan.

As a result, China is likely to have a strong second half. The IMF predicts 1.3% annual growth in 2020. This is certainly down from the double-digit growth enjoyed over recent decades, but it is still positive. The bottom line is, while China is still practicing social distancing, imposing precautions, and incurring hardships, the country is largely back to work. We know that because we deal with businesses and factories all over China, including Hubei province where the virus originated. From what we see, the factories are close to full production. China was the first to take the hit, and it is now the first to recover. Beginning in the third quarter, we think growth will pick up and China is likely to see a V-shaped recovery.

For decades the US embraced China’s rise, and production moved there so companies could reduce costs, raise profitability, and access a new, large emerging market. That began to change with growing concerns over jobs, income inequality, and supply chain security. This sentiment accelerated as President Trump began to impose tariffs and even more now with the coronavirus. The result is more serious talk about bringing jobs and production back to the US. Is this possible and what would it mean for US companies, policymakers, and our economy?

It is definitely possible. A lot of production in the US moved to China in recent decades and the pendulum went way too far in that direction. Many jobs were lost; there was social dislocation, and the security of supply chains for a number of key products has been endangered. At the same time, while the US still possesses research and development advantages, foreign-based supply chains, industrial infrastructure, technical expertise, and networks place us at a disadvantage when it comes to implementation and development.

Much of the offshoring was motivated by the search for lower labor costs – but I think tax and regulatory issues in the US also played a role. So, while we need to address environmental concerns and keep to high standards, we must make the country more attractive if we are to bring companies back. This is particularly true in industries where there needs to be a US presence. That is something that has become even more apparent as trade and political disputes further aggravate this imbalance, and now with the coronavirus, logistics and transportation disruptions have caused inventories to run low.

We are also seeing and helping clients and companies to shift production out of China to Southeast Asia and other emerging markets. This is being done to optimize and diversify supply chains, maintain cost competitiveness, minimize tariff exposure, and to allow access to these growing markets. This is true not only for the US but also for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European, and other firms. What considerations should companies consider as they reconfigure supply chains and their approach to international markets?

Every company needs to use this time to reexamine its supply chains to determine where they are vulnerable. If they don’t do that – they are simply not doing their job. Governments need to do that as well. If you don’t want the pharmaceutical and other critical industries and materials dependent on China or other nations, it is not enough to criticize foreign practices. You also have to provide real alternatives and incentives to bring production back here. This is true both from an inventory as well as an investor and national security standpoint.

Industries will not, however, come back to where they were in the 1970s and 1980s. The world has changed and we are now far more integrated than we were in the past, both in terms of supply and demand. While the need to address this issue has been clear for some time, US-China trade tensions and the coronavirus have accentuated the need to readjust. Until recently, companies were content to leave production in China as investments and this capacity was already in place – even though many factories were set up at an earlier time when labor costs in China were lower and conditions less developed.  Now, however, as it has become clear how dependent we are on foreign supply, there is more incentive to reevaluate. In many cases, customers, stakeholders, and investors will demand it.

Some of that production will come back to the US, but where cost remains a key determinant, much of it will go to other countries, such as those in Southeast Asia. A concern I have, however, is these countries are so much smaller than China there is a limit to how much production can be shifted there. There is also less opportunity to sell into the local market. Depending on the industry and location, infrastructure and services may also be lacking.

For example, in China, about 25 million vehicles are now manufactured annually, and there has been substantial investment into forging, casting, and other needed functions. These are expensive operations that are hard to replicate. At the same time, Southeast Asia is relatively close, and we are seeing interest from both foreign and Chinese companies to move at least part of their operations there. Because they offer an opportunity to diversify, countries like Vietnam are benefitting from the shift. Other Southeast Asian countries also provide benefits and need to be examined.

A major obstacle in moving jobs and production back to the US is the need to rebuild and upgrade infrastructure as well as our educational, immigration, and healthcare systems to provide the skills and environment needed to allow the transformation that must unfold. What steps need be taken by the US, state, and local governments if we are to rebuild our manufacturing capacity and to both repatriate production that moved offshore and new trade and investment back to the US?

We definitely have the ability to compete. We need to rebuild parts of our economy, but the cost and scope of a large national infrastructure program will be huge and complex, as is education, immigration, and healthcare reform. I believe, however, these goals will be achieved over time.

We also possess many advantages. For example, we are now an energy exporter and able to supply ourselves at low relative costs. Our universities and capital markets also provide strength.  The largest obstacle I see is the need to reduce regulation and institute favorable tax policies.  Addressing the devastating impact of the coronavirus on small businesses, which employ the vast majority of our population, is also now a major, if not our most important, priority. We need to get these people back to work ASAP.

Over the years, we have worked for many economic development agencies as well as private developers to facilitate their efforts to attract trade, investment, and business activity within a range of sectors. Drawing from your experience, what advice can you give to US companies and economic development agencies seeking to attract foreign trade and investment and business partners to enhance their businesses, local economies, and international competitiveness.

There are certain things economic development agencies can do tax-wise to provide incentives and create a welcoming business environment. At the same time, it is especially important to clearly and effectively position themselves to demonstrate competitive advantage and why their cities or states are attractive destinations, while also demonstrating their support for companies who relocate there.

When you travel around China, as we did when we arrived, local authorities roll out the red carpet. They make you feel wanted and have an interest in supporting your development. In contrast, I recently accompanied a Chinese manufacturer to a US Midwestern State as they contemplated setting up a facility there. One of their requests was to meet with local officials. The company we were working with was at first unsure who to meet with but eventually set up a meeting.

The officials were very nice, but it was clear this was unusual and they were not accustomed to meeting foreign companies. They were unsure of what they could contribute and did not seem to understand why they were there. In China, local governments are much more determined and willing to play an active role in wooing investment. In a sense, they try to be partners with businesses that base within their jurisdictions. That seems almost a foreign concept here.

As a result, US companies and economic development agencies should be more active and aggressive – to reduce barriers, provide incentives, and demonstrate an interest in attracting businesses that want to base in their city or state. They also need to demonstrate clear reasons as to the benefits of the location – so decisions are based more on value than on cost alone.

Thank you Jack for your time and attention. Look forward to following up soon.

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Keith Rabin serves as President at KWR International, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in international market entry, site location and trade, business, investment and economic development; as well as research and public relations/ public affairs services for a wide range of corporate and government clients.

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/China/How%20young%20Chinese%20consumers%20are%20reshaping%20global%20luxury/McKinsey-China-luxury-report-2019-How-young-Chinese-consumers-are-reshaping-global-luxury.ashx