May 15-21, 2017
By HAKY MOON in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly
With a growing economy, expanding manufacturing capabilities, more domestic consumption and an ever stronger tourism industry, Thailand is benefiting from the increasing business and investment opportunities linked to the China-led Belt and Road Initiative.
In tandem with Thailand’s own ongoing plan to invest $40 billion to upgrade railways, roads and ports, the “land of smiles” needs to boost the foreign direct investment it receives as it looks set to emerge as a key link in the Belt and Road.
The initiative aims to connect more than 60 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe through large-scale trade and infrastructure projects along the ancient Silk Road routes.
“Over the medium term (the Belt and Road) will be a wonderful driver of growth for the region, for Thailand and surrounding countries. The most exciting thing is that Thailand is at the heart of all of this,” said Joe Horn, CEO at Strategy613, an advisory firm based in Bangkok and Beijing.
“Over the years, China and Thailand infrastructure projects will be increasing. Building bridges and roads, it’s a massive project (and) Thailand can’t do it without the help of other people.”
Thailand’s plan reaches into the next half decade and will see the country’s infrastructure transformed.
Investment and commitments from China, catalyzed by the Belt and Road Initiative, are set to play a significant role. A key goal of the Belt and Road vision is to build better infrastructure within participating countries.
Thailand may be in a very strategic location to facilitate those efforts. Home to one of the world’s largest ethnic Chinese minorities, the kingdom is also situated at the heart of the Greater Mekong Subregion, which is made up of some 326 million people spread through China (specifically Yunnan province in the southwest and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the south), Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
More than that, Thailand is a gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with its 600 million consumers.
All of this investment and construction is playing a role in boosting growth in the country. The Asian Development Bank expects Thailand’s economy will grow 3.5 percent this year, due to improving exports and an increase in domestic spending. Next year, the economy could expand 3.6 percent.
Private investment should also grow between 3 and 4 percent this year, although admittedly from a low base.
Projects linked to the Belt and Road could not only contribute directly to this growth but also give Thailand a leg up in other areas.
“We believe that Thailand, along with neighboring Laos and Cambodia, is poised to become a Belt and Road focal point in Southeast Asia given its favorable location along both land and sea routes in the region, and could generate a significant volume of project opportunities for both domestic and Chinese companies,” said Christian Zhang, an infrastructure analyst at BMI Research.
For this to happen, however, the Thai government will need the type of capital that increased foreign direct investment can generate.
“We believe that the Thai government will continue to face fundamental challenges in project funding and land acquisition, preventing it from fully realizing the plan on schedule,” said Zhang.
An increasingly visible and affluent China has been playing an ever greater role in funding infrastructure in the country and closing some of the funding gaps in the government’s plans.
This plays out in practical ways, with firms finding opportunities in Thailand to reach out to the country’s almost 70 million people, and to the rest of Southeast Asia via Thailand.
Xu Genlou is a case in point. He arrived in Thailand in 2000 as an executive with electrical equipment firm Holley Worldwide Holdings with great hopes but few solid prospects.
Holley now operates along with 85 other Chinese companies out of an industrial zone in the Gulf of Thailand city of Rayong, where total investment has topped $2.5 billion.
“To us, the Belt and Road Initiative has provided a boost when we needed it most,” Xu said.
Since 2013, China has emerged as Thailand’s largest trading partner. That was the same year President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road Initiative.
In 2016, total trade volume increased 2.5 percent to $65.8 billion, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
According to Holley, as many as 90 percent of Chinese businesses investing in Thailand have set up shop in the industrial zone in Rayong, which opened in 2006, and the number of companies has expanded significantly since 2012.
Among them are solar panel maker Trina Solar and optical cable manufacturer Futong Group, which had very little presence in ASEAN before establishing Thai operations. By 2020, the completed 12-square-kilometer zone should have enough space for 300 companies.
All of this business activity has had a clear and visible impact on the volume of Chinese investment heading into Thailand. China is the third largest investor in the country after Singapore and Japan, according to the Board of Investment of Thailand.
Currently, China is pursuing the construction of high-speed railways from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, all the way down to Malaysia and Singapore. With routes that run through Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar — and through Thailand in each case — these joint projects are central to China’s broader infrastructure objectives under the Belt and Road Initiative.
“These projects will help close Thailand’s infrastructure deficit and improve internal connectivity. Urban transit projects in Bangkok, in particular, will help reduce traffic and boost residential and commercial construction in the city,” said BMI’s Zhang.
Work is already under way on the first phase of the China-Thailand Railway, which will eventually connect Bangkok and Thailand’s main port of Laem Chabang to the Laos border.
These projects should also enhance trade and connectivity between countries and spur additional investment into Thailand.
“China is playing an increasingly important role in Thailand’s infrastructure sector, with Chinese engineering and construction companies picking up contracts within the transport segment,” said Zhang.
Since 2011, two major ongoing projects have involved Chinese companies as partners.
One is the Bangkok mass rapid transit (MRT) green line. The joint-venture project is between China’s Sinohydro, China Harbour Engineering Co and Thailand’s Unique Engineering and Construction.
A second project is the Rayong-Bangkok-Nong Khai railway, also known as the China-Thailand Railway, which China Railway Construction Corporation is building.
There are challenges. Both projects have been affected by delays, often bureaucratic. The China-Thailand Railway, for example, was held back by prolonged processes over land acquisition and construction permits.
Although the decision to begin construction before finishing land procurement showed that the Thai government is keen to move forward, this also raised the risk of the project stalling.
“We believe that transport projects in Thailand remain susceptible to construction delays owing to bureaucratic and land acquisition issues. The first phase of the China-Thailand Railway, which is now at least a year behind schedule, is often cited as an example of the delay risks in Thailand,” said Zhang.
There is precedent for this type of delay. Some projects, such as a proposed Thai Canal that would facilitate shipping, have been held back by fears that the cost and environmental damage would outweigh economic benefits.
The project involves building a canal between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea to slash shipping times and bypass pirate hotbeds in the Strait of Malacca. If constructed, the canal would shorten the route for oil shipments and reduce voyages from Europe to China by 1,200 km. Under the existing proposals put forward in 2015, the canal would be 102 km long, 400 meters wide and 25 meters deep.
Although the idea for a Thai Canal has surfaced from time to time since the 17th century, it is not expected to materialize soon.
Meanwhile, lingering challenges to overall funding levels, and the slow land acquisition process, may cause delays in other projects but are unlikely to actually stop them.
“When it comes to the private sector, there are a number of projects coming back,” said Horn from Strategy613.
“There have been difficulties having these projects approved. In the last few months there has been restriction on outbound investment from China. That’s why it has been difficult to get private investors in place.”
The outlook, however, remains positive.
“There is a lot of hope (for) the China-Thailand Railway project, although things have been slow,” said Horn.
Xu Wei and Cang Wei contributed to this story.
Long road ahead for digital drive Skills shortage in IT sector is holding up Thailand’s plan to transform from cash-based to high-tech economy
May 15-21, 2017
By HAKY MOON in Hong Kong
A state-of-the-art IT infrastructure is not very useful if no one knows how it works.
Although Thailand has a high level of mobile phone and Internet penetration, it does not have enough people with the skills to enable the kingdom’s transformation into a digital economy.
“The main challenge in becoming a full digital economy is the requirement of human capital,” said Luxmon Attapich, senior country economist for Thailand at the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
“To sustain a digital economy, IT skills are needed. This is something Thailand will have to invest in. The silver lining here is, the hardware is there and it’s improving.”
According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit published in February, Thailand ranks eighth out of 11 countries in its Asian Digital Transformation Index.
The index assessed the overall environment for digital transformation in organizations across three pillars: An enabling structure for information communication technology (ICT), a pool of relevant talent and the willingness to partner with others.
Digital transformation in Thailand cannot succeed if the country faces a shortage of skilled workers, especially in banking and logistics, said Jarit Sidhu, research manager of the International Data Corporation, a market intelligence firm.
Data specialists are not the only ones emphasizing the problems that result from the shortage of digital workers.
Prinn Panitchpakdi, Thailand country head at investment firm CLSA, noted that education is a big issue in the kingdom.
“The country needs to train people to prepare them for higher end industries,” he said. “ICT is creating more jobs and e-commerce is helping the government in these areas.”
Prinn added that other growth areas that will require a higher level of technological skills include financial technology (fintech) and electronic registrations of national identity cards.
E-payments, for instance, a subcategory of fintech, are growing as a result of government initiatives. Since October, Thailand has been deploying the first phase of its national e-payment system with the goal of transforming the country into a cashless society.
The first phase involved launching an electronic money transfer service, called PromptPay, at all major Thai banks for peer-to-peer transfers. The second phase allows electronic payments for goods and services, personal income tax returns, and subsidiaries and welfare services.
E-payments are poised to see rapid growth this year as the government has pledged to boost the service nationwide.
As of December 2016, Thailand had 475,000 electronic data capture, or EDC, devices, and the government aims to almost double that number this year to 800,000. EDC terminals are used to gather information from electronic payments, but they can be expensive for vendors, which has slowed the adoption rate.
“The collaborations between private and public sectors are helping to digitalize Thailand to benefit people and the nation as a whole. People are also receptive of this change,” said Sowakhon Udomvisesying, a communications and event manager at Digital Ventures, a fintech startup in Thailand.
The Thai mobile payment market is expected to record a compound annual growth rate of 37 percent from 2017 to 2021. Last year, the market registered a growth rate of 62.3 percent over 2015, reaching $4.29 billion.
In terms of value, by 2021, Thailand is expected to reach $23.4 billion in transactions, increasing from $6.65 billion in 2017.
However, shortcomings often associated with developing markets could hold the industry back.
“Thailand is an emerging market in the area of fintech and the demand for tech talent seems to be one of the key challenges for the growth of fintech in the near future,” said Udomvisesying.
The ADB’s Attapich agreed, pointing out that the country’s economy has long been based on cash, with the switch to digital still at a nascent stage.
“Thailand is still very much a cash economy,” he said. “Digital forms of payment are still not widely used.”
More technical experts are needed to enable the switch to a more high-tech economy, Attapich added.
Having said that, the government is putting more effort into increasing digital literacy, starting with its own officials. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has put forward a Thailand 4.0 model, which aims to develop a value-based economy.
The policy not only aims to change the Thai economy but also to boost IT skills among government officials and to ensure access across different digital platforms by helping state agencies provide more effective, user-friendly services.
A lack of understanding among citizens on what digital transformation means is one thing. A lack of skills among government officials to help the public is another.
According to a survey conducted by Thailand’s Electronic Government Agency from October 2015 to April 2016, 86 percent of officials in most state agencies still lack digital literacy skills while public services remain non-user-friendly.
In April, the government kick-started its digital skills training by partnering with two local institutes. It will run assessments for 15,000 government authorities and public officials to determine their skills level this year.
The goal of Thailand 4.0 is to change the country’s traditional farming businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to “smart” enterprises, and help traditional services evolve into high-value services.
SMEs play a significant role in the Thai economy, with 2.7 million SMEs and startups providing more than 10 million jobs nationwide. In total, these businesses are estimated to account for nearly 40 percent of GDP.
However, only 500,000 to 600,000 of these businesses are registered with the Ministry of Commerce.
In addition to going cashless, the Thailand 4.0 policy aims to integrate digital services in all sectors including agriculture, tourism, education, the medical profession, investment, disaster prevention and public administration.
The prime minister hopes to complete Thailand’s digital transformation by 2021.
“Besides the public sectors, the government also aims to drive the country to be ready for a digital transformation by rolling out the Thailand 4.0 policy,” said Udomvisesying at Digital Ventures.
“This kind of activity helps facilitate innovation to take place in Thailand easily and effectively while still ensuring consumer protection stability. Take PromptPay — this newly launched service helps ensure the security of mobile and Internet financial transactions for customers.”
Implementing the policy with coherence and raising awareness is key to successfully transforming the Thai economy.
About half of respondents to a February survey of 13,505 people did not know anything about the Thailand 4.0 concept, and only 27.7 percent of participants fully understood what it meant. The survey was carried out by Bansomdej Poll.
With a low ranking in global competitiveness, it will be a long journey for Thailand to become fully digitalized. It is now more important than ever to transfer knowledge across the country and prevent a digital divide.
Dhiraphol Suwanprateep, a Bangkok-based partner at law firm Baker & McKenzie, acknowledged the challenges that the kingdom faces.
“In the short term, the biggest hurdles in the way of Thailand’s transformation to a digital economy largely depend on how Thai citizens, business sectors and government officials adapt to new technology and the digital ecosystem,” he said, “as well as their willingness to embrace new laws which may affect their daily lives and business operations.”
Thailand works to regain momentum Country pursues increased intra-regional trade but is yet to see real benefits flowing from the ASEAN Economic Community
May 15-21, 2017
By HAKY MOON in Hong Kong
After two decades of tremendous growth, Thailand has been struggling to get its momentum back.
The death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October after seven decades on the throne, and a series of bombings in August that hit the country’s key tourism industry, cast shadows last year over the country’s economic outlook.
Through 2016, exports tanked and foreign direct investment plunged 91 percent in the first half of the year. At the same time, household debt hit record highs and purchasing power dropped due to a more expensive currency.
But in a bid to revive a gloomy economy, the new government is pressing for well-rounded reform by revamping hard and soft infrastructure.
The country also aims to hike up slowing exports through intra-regional trading agreements such as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and by forging new trading ties in South Asia.
More than a year and a quarter since its launch on Dec 31, 2015, the AEC has had virtually no impact on Thailand, a key member of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“Thailand has been aggressive in pursuing the AEC reforms, more so than many other countries within ASEAN, but even so, the effects will take time to be apparent on the ground,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist for trade and regional cooperation with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
“It is still too early to expect any significant tangible effects flowing directly from the AEC. This is because it is being slowly implemented over the period of the new blueprint, until 2025.”
The AEC has integration goals similar to those of the European Union, but ASEAN countries vary significantly in culture, language and pace of development.
On paper, the AEC promises a single market with a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion and intra-regional trade of $1 trillion. Experts have long been wary that it could take many years for the community to reach its full potential.
Thailand has seemingly gained little from regional economic integration so far, with border trade expected to see only a slight increase of 2 percent last year.
Based on a Ministry of Commerce report, Thai exports to ASEAN shrank 1.8 percent in the first 11 months of 2016 to $49.8 billion. For the whole year, border trade value is estimated at 1.47 trillion baht ($42 billion) in 2016, up 2.8 percent from a year earlier.
The Department of Foreign Trade forecast Thailand’s border trade will continue growing by at least 3 percent in 2017, driven by the expanding economies of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Thailand’s economy grew 2.9 percent in 2015 and 3.2 percent the following year. And the country’s GDP could expand 3 percent this year, according to the National Economic and Social Development Board.
But any lackluster performance cannot be blamed entirely on an ineffective AEC. The entire region has been affected by the global downturn.
“Thailand’s exports in the last few years haven’t been great. This has more to do with lack of structural reforms rather than the AEC,” said Joe Horn, founder and CEO of Strategy613, an advisory firm that helps international companies expand in Thailand and China.
“At the very least, Thailand is achieving low tariffs for more products, and that itself is increasing the amount of economic integration, although it’s still not the same level as the EU,” Horn said.
But bringing down tariff levels is not something new, hence the skepticism on the AEC’s effectiveness in recent years.
Luxmon Attapich, the ADB’s senior country economist for Thailand, noted that it will take time to reap the rewards of the AEC, as it only started at the end of 2015.
“On the free flow of goods, we’ve done this long before the AEC, it goes back to 1982. In that sense, we couldn’t really see the impact, because gradually all the duties were reduced since then.
“It comes as no surprise that people say there are no significant impacts — that is yet to be seen,” she said.
“Things are conceptualized, negotiation is happening and it’s not there yet. Because of the way ASEAN functions, in order to have some progress, everyone has to agree to move … and it can take time,” Attapich said of the integration process.
The AEC Blueprint 2025, the successor to the original blueprint, places greater emphasis on achieving harmonization and regulatory convergence. And measures under AEC 2025 to support entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises should enhance Thailand’s participation in global value chains.
Meanwhile, boosting cross-border transactions is also on Thailand’s agenda. A seminar on March 9 heard that Malaysia and Thailand are determined to see bilateral trade achieve a targeted $30 billion by next year.
Nazirah Hussain, Malaysia’s ambassador to Thailand, said trade with Thailand, the country’s fourth-largest trading partner, amounted to $20.83 billion last year.
“Both sides acknowledge that the target can be achieved by encouraging greater cross-border trade and investments,” she said at the seminar entitled Global and Emerging Markets Macro Outlook, Outlook for Malaysia and Thailand.
Intra-regional trade is not the only route the Thai government is looking into.
On Feb 18, it was announced that Thailand and Sri Lanka — which is not a member of ASEAN — aim to sign a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in August. The pact seeks to triple bilateral trade to $1.5 billion over the next five years.
In addition, Thailand has been urging India to fast track its decision on an FTA proposal which would eliminate all duties on up to 90 percent of the products traded between the two countries.
India is Thailand’s 15th largest trading partner and also Thailand’s top trading partner in South Asia. Two-way trade between the countries has averaged $8.46 billion annually in the past five years.
However, India is approaching this agreement with caution, because reduced tariffs that took effect in 2004 on 82 items created some initial friction.
With an increase in infrastructure projects, which means more foreign investment trickling down to different sectors, as well as a strong recovery in exports following a pickup in the global economy, and higher farm income, Thailand’s outlook for the medium term is looking brighter compared to the past few years.
In fact, Thai exports by the end of last year had shown 1.4 percent year-on-year growth, the highest for the past two years.
The export outlook is especially promising for products whose prices are trending higher along with oil prices, and due in large part to the Belt and Road Initiative. The China-led plan is set to improve connectivity along the historical Silk Road trading routes.
CLSA expects Thai exports to grow at 4-5 percent this year, and according to Prinn Panitchpakdi, the investment bank’s Thailand country head, Thai businesses are looking for Belt and Road opportunities.
CLSA has forecast close to 4 percent economic growth for Thailand this year and 5.2 percent in 2018.
“The Bank of Thailand kept its benchmark policy rate near a record low and the baht has risen more than 2 percent against the US dollar this year, among Asia’s best performing currencies,” Prinn said.
Investors venture back Thailand FDI plunged in the first half of last year, but inflows have picked up and China is becoming a key player
May 15-21, 2017
By HAKY MOON in Hong Kong
After a difficult year, things are looking up for Thailand. With an economy that is stabilizing and expected to grow by as much as 3.5 percent this year, the country has also regained some of its appeal for foreign investors.
Japan, Singapore, the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and the Netherlands were among the biggest contributors of new capital last year. And gaining ground most rapidly among them was the Chinese mainland. Now the second-largest foreign investor in Thailand, it could soon surpass Japan as the country’s most important investment partner.
“It’s hard to pin down the number, but I won’t be surprised if FDI (foreign direct investment) from China to Thailand doubles or even triples in the next one or two years,” said Prinn Panitchpakdi, country head for Thailand at brokerage and investment firm CLSA.
For Thailand, 2016 was marked most deeply by the death of long-serving monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct 13 at the age of 88 after 70 years on the throne.
FDI into the country was hit over the last couple of years by a combination of political turmoil and natural disasters such as flooding.
In 2015, Thailand attracted $10.8 billion in FDI, three times as much as in 2014, when total FDI crashed to just $2.7 billion.
However, the flow of investment fell again in the first half of 2016 before gaining traction in the second half. All told, Thailand attracted $8.6 billion in FDI in 2016, according to the Thai Board of Investment (BOI).
The Thai government, alerted by the drop, rolled out plans to attract back foreign investment. By most accounts, the positive results were rapid.
“FDI flows from China to Thailand are very strong. A lot of Chinese companies are willing to expand and invest in Thailand,” said Panitchpakdi.
Thailand moved to woo foreign companies through a large-scale economic zone developed with $42.8 billion in public and private infrastructure funds.
The government is also moving forward with legislation to let foreigners own land in this zone and receive other benefits, with the measures to take effect by the second quarter of this year.
Investment sentiment toward Thailand improved significantly through the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017.
In April, Thailand was listed in 19th place in consultancy AT Kearney’s FDI Confidence Index for 2017, up two places.
Much of the credit goes to the country’s 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan, which “aims to strengthen the economy and enhance the country’s competitiveness”, according to Chua Soon Ghee, head of Southeast Asia at AT Kearney.
For its part, China has been showing greater interest in Thailand’s attempt to increase its value chain. Last year, China contributed 54 billion baht ($1.55 billion) to 106 projects.
Beijing has been pushing to expand overseas investment and bilateral trade, and the Thai government’s introduction of incentives for Chinese investors has made the kingdom more attractive than other Southeast Asian nations.
Chinese investors have remained active in deploying capital offshore into global real estate assets.
According to CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm, Chinese investors dominated Asian outbound real estate investment last year at 47 percent, or $28.2 billion.
Alongside Japan, China is one of the countries that has remained upbeat despite Thailand’s turmoil. Chinese State-owned enterprises and private businesses have largely viewed the downturn as an opportunity.
Also, Chinese holidaymakers are pivotal to Thailand’s tourism sector. Despite political instability and an August 2015 bombing in Bangkok that killed 20 people, Chinese tourists last year accounted for a large proportion of the 30 million foreign visitors to the country.
According to the Department of Tourism, the number of Chinese tourists, mostly from the mainland, has increased steadily in recent years and hit a record 8.75 million in 2016, up 10.34 percent from the previous year.
“Depending on conditions at home in both countries, as well as in Thailand of course, it is conceivable that China will surpass Japan one day as the biggest investor,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist in the economic research and regional cooperation department at the Asian Development Bank.
“China has recently switched from an importer of capital to a net exporter, and it is likely that its investments in Thailand will only grow over time,” he said.
It will take a while for China’s FDI in Thailand to surpass Japan’s, he said, adding that in Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland’s role has been increasing.
“Hong Kong has been increasing its investments in the services sector, mainly in banking and finance and related areas,” Menon said.
Japan has been a long-standing investor in Thailand, mainly in the automotive parts and electronics sectors. Large corporates like Toyota, Isuzu, Nissan and Honda all have considerable manufacturing and assembly operations in Thailand.
In 2016, Japan was the leading country of origin for FDI into Thailand, with 284 projects that contributed 80 billion baht.
“Japanese investment has accounted for around 30 to 40 percent of the FDI,” said Chokedee Kaewsang, deputy secretary general at Thailand’s BOI.
“China is catching up, but I cannot see it overtaking Japan even in the next three to four years. The gap between China and Japan may be narrower, but I still believe Japanese investment will be No 1 for the next five years.”
Although some have moved to other countries where production is cheaper, major Japanese companies have built up large bases of operations in Thailand.
Meanwhile, FDI from other countries in 2016 included the Netherlands’ 29 billion baht, the United States with 25 billion baht and Australia investing 20 billion baht.
With Thailand’s targeted $40 billion in infrastructure investment by 2022, industries such as logistics, warehousing and e-commerce are expected to see phenomenal growth as major projects come to fruition.
Key focus areas for investment in 2017 under the country’s Thailand 4.0 strategy are broad, covering the digital economy, infrastructure, agricultural reform and local economic development.
But while FDI is returning, challenges remain.
“Production cost is going up, labor cost is going up. It’s not possible for companies to produce everything in Thailand, so we need to diversify the investment projects and complement the ASEAN region in the process,” said Kaewsang, reffering to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.