Southeast Asia Looks Likely to See More U.S. Investment

American business enthusiasm in Southeast Asia is bent but far from broken even as the region grapples with a new trade framework and less U.S. government involvement, according to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

Eighty percent of executives see their firms’ level of trade and investment in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, rising over the next five years, with just 3 percent seeing it decreasing. Respondents were most upbeat about Indonesia (92 percent) and Vietnam (86 percent). They’re optimistic about sales, too, with 56 percent expecting higher profits this year compared with 2016.

Even though the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a regional agreement that would’ve given Asian nations from Japan to Malaysia preferential access to the U.S. — the American business lobby group is encouraging the 11 remaining members to push ahead with the accord.

“Asean is still a very important place to us, an opportunistic market to invest” and will rise, Steve Okun, chair of the AmCham TPP Task Force, said in a phone interview. “It’s very important that we have a regional framework that gets to these 21st century business issues. It doesn’t matter in terms of setting up the framework if the U.S. government is in or out.”

As TPP talks move forward without the U.S., Okun said trade agreements between a group of countries should be favored over the bilateral pacts that the Trump administration has promoted.

“You should have both bilaterals and multi-party, plurilateral agreement,” he said. The latter have greater impact than bilateral deals and “having this spaghetti ball of agreements that doesn’t come together,” he said.

While the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — a trade accord that includes Asean countries, China, India and others — would be a step forward for U.S. businesses, it pales in comparison to TPP as it doesn’t include standards for labor, environment, and competition with state-owned enterprises, Okun said.

“The best option is TPP, with or without the United States,” he said.

These are some of the highlights of AmCham’s annual survey:

-61 percent of respondents cited non-tariff barriers to trade as a priority for priority in Asean
-58 percent said Asean markets are more important for worldwide revenue over the next two years, down from 61 percent last year and 66 percent in 2015
-Three-quarters cited economic growth as the top reason the region’s markets will grow in significance, with the rise of the middle class ranking second
-While 84 percent of respondents said new U.S. trade and tax policies have had no discernible effect on their -Asean operations, about half of the respondents see their host Asean countries strengthening ties with China after the U.S. withdrawal from TPP
-Almost half of businesses said they are concerned about the negative effect from potential punitive U.S. trade actions against China
-While RCEP remains in negotiation, 48 percent of respondents were largely undecided about its effects on business
-Vietnam scored highest in the survey as an attractive bilateral free-trade agreement partner, at 56 percent, followed by Indonesia and Thailand
-The survey collected results from 317 AmCham members and executives across the 10 Asean countries, from May 15 to June 12. The group first conducted the annual poll in 2001
Source: Bloomberg

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