Foreign direct investment into the Asean countries has risen strongly in the past few years and is now on a par with FDI into China. As Hak Bin Chua, Asean economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch writes in a report on Friday, this “is in sharp contrast to a decade ago, when there were widespread fears that Asean would be marginalised by China’s rise.”
The change is partly a result of political issues such as recent territorial tensions between Japan and China which are diverting some Japanese investment south. But is is also driven by social and economic factors such as demographics that will not change direction any time soon.
As has been well reported, rising wages in China have eroded the country’s competitive edge and caused many multinational companies to relocate manufacturing to Asean countries and even to developed Europe and the US. (This Standard Chartered Bank survey reported by beyondbrics on Thursday is just one example.)
Source: BofA Merrill Lynch
Chua says demographics explain the growing wage gap between China and the Asean countries and will continue to do so: “China’s working age population started shrinking last year (some three years ahead of schedule), while ASEAN’s working age population continues to expand at a healthy pace.”
China’s working age population shrank by 3.45m or 0.6 per cent year-on-year in 2012, he says, while those of the Asean-7 (the six in Chart 1 plus Mayanmar) will peak only in 2042.
“China’s higher wage increases, labor shortages and RMB appreciation have made ASEAN a more attractive FDI proposition. China’s manufacturing wages are now some 30% higher or more than Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.”
Geopolitical tensions, it is to be hoped, will turn out to be less structural in nature – though Chua expects them to last for years if not decades. He says they have already had a significant impact. As well as diverting Japanese investment from China to the Asean countries, they have also, Chua argues, resulted in a reduction of Chinese investment into the Philippines, which has a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, and Myanmar, which has become less dependent on China since its political liberalisation.
A third factor is a shift in US policy involving a “pivot” or rebalancing of its interests towards Asia, especially southeast Asia. US President Barack Obama has twice visited the Asean region in the past two years and in November a framework was agreed on greater economic engagement between the US and the Asean countries. Chua notes:
“US FDI into ASEAN has been increasing over the past year, despite uncertainties at home. US FDI to ASEAN-6 rose to $19.9bn in the first 9 months of 2012, up +126% from the same period a year ago. Stronger percentage increases in US FDI were seen in Singapore (+177%), Thailand (+126%) and Indonesia (+53%).”
Chua reckons all this will have a lasting impact. Here is his conclusion:
“Signs are that ASEAN FDI will remain robust. Forces driving FDI in ASEAN are not just functions of domestic factors, such as growing domestic markets and greater liberalization. ASEAN’s efforts to form a single market and production base by 2015 will bring lower trade and investment barriers, and economies of scale…”
“But FDI into ASEAN is also a function of divergent China-ASEAN demographics and Superpower (US, China, Japan) geopolitical relations. These factors will likely remain in the coming years, if not decades. Japan-China tensions and territorial disputes will not be easily resolved. America has made a strategic shift to engage Asia, particularly ASEAN, resulting in greater US interest and investment flows. For the US, engaging ASEAN will help manage and counter China’s rise and influence. ASEAN’s FDI prospects are looking bright.”