Hard landing or soft? For much of the world, Chinas economic prospects loom increasingly large over their own. Nowhere is that truer than in Southeast Asia.
China has been growing trade with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for several years, making the region highly dependent on the Middle Kingdom.
Among the Asean group Malaysia enjoys the largest trade ties with China, with two-way trade rising 5.3 percent, to $94.8 billion, in 2012, says consulting firm Dezan Shira & Associates, citing figures from the most recent China Statistical Yearbook. Malaysias exports to China, which include palm oil, electronics components and transportation equipment, fell 6.1 percent in 2012, to $58.3 billion, but imports from China jumped 30.8 percent, to $36.5 billion, narrowing the countrys trade surplus. In 2012, Thailand was No. 2 in exports to China, with $38.6 billion, followed by Indonesia ($32 billion), Singapore ($28.5 billion), the Philippines ($19.6 billion) and Vietnam ($16.2 billion). With the exception of Vietnam, which saw its China exports surge 45.9 percent in 2012, most Asean countries saw very sluggish growth.
A China slowdown could hit Indonesia hard because the country is a big supplier of commodity exports such as coal, palm oil and rubber, says Christopher Wood, chief equity strategist at brokerage CLSA in Hong Kong. China is Indonesias second-largest customer for coal after India; its imports of Indonesian coal grew by 12 percent in 2013.
Countries that supply more consumer goods may feel less pain because Chinas domestic consumption is expected to remain robust even if its industrial sector slows. Thailand is really not affected, and the Philippines is affected the least, Wood says.
For Thailand the biggest impact of a China slowdown might be on its vital tourist sector, says Sethaput Suthiwart-Narueput, who heads the Thailand Future Foundation in Bangkok. An estimated 3 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2013 thanks in part to the popularity of Lost in Thailand, a 2012 comedy that was filmed near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and became the first Chinese movie to gross more than 1 billion yuan ($162 million) at the domestic box office. Thailand has passed Hong Kong as Chinas favorite tourist destination. Tourism accounts for nearly one in five jobs in Thailand.
Chinas slowdown could actually be a boon for some Asean economies, contends Tim Condon, Singapore-based head of Asian financial markets research at Dutch bank ING. Im thinking well see a renaissance in Southeast Asian manufacturing as a consequence, Condon says, adding that he expects low-wage jobs to move from China to countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. In Vietnam the average monthly wage stands at $185, and in Cambodia its just $75, well below the average rate of $253 in Chinas special manufacturing zone of Shenzhen.Vietnam is well placed to benefit from the wage differential because factories in the countrys north can easily ship assembled electronics and others goods across the border into southern China.
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