I wrote in these pages last October that this has all the makings of being the Asian century: a century when Asia stands ready to cement its position as a cultural, political, and economic powerhouse.
This was evident most recently on my visit to Thailand and Vietnam, where I continued to promote the UK as a champion of free trade, and a world leader in sectors such as fintech, education and medical research, as well as the world’s biggest destination for foreign direct investment.
It’s clear that the region has many exciting opportunities to offer UK businesses.
Thailand is a fascinating, dynamic nation, and the second largest economy in ASEAN. It is a developed country, but faces many immediate challenges (common throughout Asia’s rapidly growing economies) which it will need to overcome to avoid the middle-income trap.
I reassured Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha of the UK’s commitment to supporting Thailand’s aspirations in becoming a high-income economy and a hub at the heart of ASEAN.
The centrepiece of my visit was the third UK-Thailand Strategic Dialogue, which I co-chaired. We agreed to focus efforts on three key industrial sectors: aerospace; fintech; and science, technology and innovation.
This fits neatly within Thailand’s plan for achieving its development goals – its “Thailand 4.0” initiative is centred around a $47bn investment in the Eastern Economic Corridor. British companies are uniquely placed to offer expertise, particularly on projects such as the regeneration of U Tapao airport, and the development of high-speed rail links.
Thailand already offers investors generous tax and regulatory breaks to incentivise investment, and the government is keen for UK business to be involved in the next of its development.
Over the next year, I hope to work with UK companies to make the most of these opportunities.
As for Vietnam, the country has seen eyewatering levels of economic growth over the past 30 years, second only to China. This is set to continue, thanks in part to recent improvements in the overall business environment.
There is still room for progress, but the UK stands ready to provide expert advice to assist Vietnam to reach its full potential.
Bilateral trade and investment is growing smartly – indeed, it has more than doubled since we signed our strategic partnership in 2010 – but there is much more potential to be exploited.
Our relationship with Vietnam is broader and deeper than many would expect. During my visit, I saw the work we are doing to support economic development through promoting renewable energy, green finance, and developing smart cities.
I visited the Hanoi Stock Exchange to promote collaboration with London’s financial services, and donned a white coat at the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases to learn how research, innovation and education collaboration is leading to ground breaking progress in antimicrobial resistance.
All of this, and more, will come together in 2018, as we celebrate 45 years of diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, this year will enable us to display in Vietnam the best of what the UK has to offer in education, creativity, and innovation.
My trip underlined how diverse and varied the ASEAN region is, but at the same time the shared values which connect us: a strong focus on innovation and development,
people-to-people links, and the commitment to fostering potential.
Both Thailand and Vietnam have emergent middle classes and avid social media usership. Both countries are rapidly climbing the World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings (Thailand by 20 places to 26th, Vietnam by 14 to 68th).
British companies should feel confident in continuing to invest in building ever more creative and collaborative partnerships with this dynamic part of the world.