ASEAN’s 33rd Summit took place earlier this month in Singapore, which has held the group’s chairmanship for the past twelve months.

At the meeting, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that ASEAN’s overall prospects are “promising” and the 10-member grouping could collectively be the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030.

He did however highlight some challenges that ASEAN has to confront. These include the current threat to the open, rules-based multilateral order that has underpinned the grouping’s growth and stability. Mr Lee said “big power competition” is pulling member states in different directions.

There is no doubt that the political and military umbrella that the United States has held over the Asia-Pacific region since 1945 has allowed ASEAN, as well as other Asian nations, to prosper.

But as China grows more powerful, it is displacing decades-old American preeminence in parts of Asia. The outlines of the rivalry are defining the future of the continent.

From the perspective of the economy, ASEAN-China trade has grown strongly, increasing from $192 billion in 2008 to $515 billion by 2018. However, another metric of great power influence, arms sales, shows the United States’ enduring reach. The importance to America of military relationships in Asia was underscored in August this year, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to provide nearly US$300 million in new security funding for the region.

Despite the changing dynamic in the region, the outlook is still predominantly positive. In fact, as the world adjusts to a shifting geopolitical landscape, the greatest beneficiary is ASEAN. ASEAN is non-threatening to the major powers. The variable geometry of ASEAN enables it to adjust to regional stresses and strains by sometimes tilting in one direction, sometimes in the other. The current trade war has made ASEAN an attractive alternative or supplementary manufacturing base to China.

At the summit, Mr Lee highlighted opportunities for ASEAN to continue on its path of peaceful economic progress.  He outlined three broad goals for ASEAN 10 years from now: to accelerate current economic integration, enhance centrality and unity, and equip ASEAN’s people with the skills needed for new jobs in the digital economy.

The first objective calls for an increase in intra-ASEAN trade as well as a significant and comprehensive reduction in trade barriers. “Massive infrastructure investments” in connectivity and productive capacity are also needed urgently over the next 10 years in many ASEAN countries.

Mr Lee is keen for ASEAN to continue to engage in an “open and inclusive rules-based system” with all its major strategic and economic partners, and on the basis of win-win outcomes rather than zero-sum games and rival causes.

Thirdly, Mr Lee emphasised the need to take advantage of the digital revolution, so as to ensure the interoperability of digital systems such as e-cash or government systems within ASEAN.

As a much smaller player, ASEAN has up till now managed to chart a neutral path between the superpowers, benefitting from the proximity of China as both a market and a source of low-cost goods, while enjoying the security protection of a benevolent United States.

Even though this posture may prove more difficult to sustain as the winds of change blow across the region, ASEAN’s traditional pragmatic focus on economic development above all else will continue to offer huge opportunities for inbound marketers.

ASEAN’s growth has been powered by its people, with the establishment of a formidable labour force and the subsequent creation of a wealthier middle class driving domestic consumption.

It is well known that there are still considerable variations in the level of economic and social development among the ASEAN nations.  Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines jointly account for 60 percent of the regional GDP, while on a per capita basis, Singapore and Brunei are way out ahead of the regional average. On the other hand, while the Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar and Vietnam markets are among the least developed in the region, they are well poised for growth.

There are therefore significant growth opportunities for the private sector across a number of industries in ASEAN, including automotive, financial services, consumer goods, medical devices, fuel refining, telecommunications and transportation. As the needs of consumers in the region continue to evolve, marketers will need to adopt innovative strategies, and align with knowledgeable partners, to succeed.


Read the part 1 of this series here.


Banner photo courtesy of REUTERS/Edgar Su