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Business trends

Asia's digital economy: Shifting alliances in a sea of change

2018 sees heavy hitters bring on the heat while some just get burned

Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are expected to be the biggest contributors to the growth of digital consumer spending in Southeast Asia over the next five years.

SINGAPORE -- Asian companies increased their global clout this year, especially in the technology arena, triggering mergers and acquisitions while attracting investors from around the world. But some faced major headwinds, thwarted by sparring countries, plunging currencies and -- in one notable case -- a jailed executive. Following are the Nikkei Asian Review's picks for the top business stories in 2018, along with what we see in store for the region in 2019.

A visitor from China holds a sign in support of Huawei and its detained Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou outside a courtroom in Vancouver, Canada on Dec.10.   © Reuters

China's two major telecommunications equipment makers, ZTE and Huawei Technologies, are likely glad 2018 is over. Both battled intense pressure from the U.S. over security concerns stemming from their suspected close ties with the Chinese government and People's Liberation Army.

In April, the U.S. slapped a ban on ZTE over alleged violation of sanctions against Iran. The ban was eventually lifted, but then America shifted its focus to Huawei, excluding the company from government procurement. This led to similar exclusions in other countries, and locked the company out of lucrative fifth-generation, or 5G, network projects around the world.

To add to Huawei's woes, Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on suspicion of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Tensions between the world's two biggest economies will likely crowd headlines in the coming year.

After the acquisition of Uber's regional business, Grab embarked on a plan to equip its app with even more services.    © Reuters

The booming digital economy triggered some notable business deals. At the top was Southeast Asia's largest ride-hailing operator Grab and its acquisition of Uber Technologies' regional business. The deal gave Uber a 27.5% stake in Grab, which became the hands-down dominant player in the region. Grab and Uber had been locking horns for about five years in a war to attract passengers and drivers.

After the merger, Grab embarked on what it calls its "everyday superapp" strategy -- a plan to equip its app with other services. As one of the region's most attractive digital services company, Grab raised about $3 billion this year from Toyota Motor, Hyundai Motor, Microsoft and other global giants.

But all was not smooth sailing. Grab's meteoric expansion attracted the attention of regulators, with two countries fining the Singapore-based company for violating competition laws. Now, with Grab's nearest rival Go-Jek having started to cast hungry eyes over the region in 2018, competition in the ride-hailing market is expected to be fierce.

After acquiring Flipkart, Walmart is better armed to do battle with Amazon in the Indian market.   © Reuters

India saw its biggest acquisition in corporate history when U.S. retailer Walmart acquired Indian e-commerce company Flipkart for $16 billion in August. The move better positions Walmart in its battle with Amazon, which already has a strong presence in the Indian market.

As Amazon continued its Asian expansion, China's Alibaba Group Holding made an additional $2 billion investment in its Southeast Asian unit Lazada, strengthening the unit's app technologies and logistics facilities. The region will likely see continued consolidation in the e-commerce sector in the new year.

SoftBank Corp.'s IPO was Japan's largest ever at $23 billion, but also a huge flop for investors. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

Equity markets witnessed the colossal flop of the much anticipated listing of SoftBank Group's mobile telecom unit, in what was Japan's largest initial public offering at $23 billion. Shares in SoftBank Corp. ended 15% down from their offer price on the first trading day. Investors apparently shunned the stock after the mobile unit suffered a massive service outage less than two weeks before the IPO.

As the global smartphone market continued to slump, the group invested overseas in promising startups, including U.S. office shared workspace operator WeWork. But SoftBank Vision Fund -- the group's investment subsidiary -- is heavily invested by the Saudi Arabian government, which drew international outrage over its suspected hand in the murder of a prominent journalist.

Samsung's foldable smartphones debuted in November and are expected to go on sale in 2019. (Photo by Hiromi Sato)

Lackluster demand for Apple's iPhone and other high-end smartphones weighed on suppliers and assemblers in Asia, including Taiwan's Foxconn, which trades as Hon Hai Precision Industry, and Japan Display. The iPhone XR was a particular disappointment, with sales of the of the mass-market model lukewarm at best.

Meanwhile, Samsung Electronics and other Asian makers showed off foldable smartphones that are expected to hit shelves in 2019. The foldable models promise consumers novel ways of using their phones and will be supported with a new generation of apps. Whether this latest innovation can revive the stagnant smartphone market will be a closely watched topic in 2019.

The U.S. and China continue to battle over trade while regional players suffer collateral damage.   © Reuters

Businesses in the region were besieged by troubling government policies, not the least of which was the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. As President Donald Trump played his protectionist card, Asian manufacturers that are closely integrated with Chinese supply chains took a great deal of flak.

Some countries, however, could eventually profit from the bickering. Vietnam, for example, may see more companies relocating to its shores from China. With no end in sight to the trade tiff, Asian companies will be gingerly navigating the shifting political sands over the coming year.

Central banks in many emerging markets had to prop up their plunging currencies.   © Reuters

Emerging markets in Asia were in turmoil much of the year. As the U.S. Federal Reserve hiked rates and contagion spread from hard-hit countries like Turkey and Argentina, many regional currencies weakened, punishing businesses and worrying investors. Central banks repeatedly tightened monetary policy to support local currencies and stem capital outflow.

Profit at Singapore Telecommunications, which has stakes in telecoms in India, Indonesia and other markets, fell steeply in the July-September quarter. Malaysia's IHH Healthcare, which has a key subsidiary in Turkey, logged a net loss during the same period due to damage from the subsidiary's foreign currency-denominated debt.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad scrutinized costly infrastructure projects commissioned by his predecessor. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)r.

Local and overseas businesses in Malaysia felt the long arm of government as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reviewed projects that were approved during the administration of former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Included in the review was the East Coast Rail Link, a 688 km railway connecting the west coast to the northern Thai border. Construction was already underway, led by China Communications Construction, when the government suspended further work. Mahathir, who was sworn into office after the historic general elections in May, also deferred the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed railway, which had attracted interest from companies in China, South Korea, Japan and Europe.

In other news, retailers and makers of consumer products breathed a collective sigh of relief after the new government scrapped the 6% goods and services tax. But the move shook investors, who fretted over the country's financial reforms.

Alibaba founder and Chairman Jack Ma Yun, left, passes the baton to Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang in 2019.   © Reuters

Two longtime titans of the Asian business world announced their retirements during the year. Alibaba founder Jack Ma Yun will step down as chairman of the e-commerce conglomerate in September 2019 during Alibaba's 20th anniversary. Ma will be replaced by current CEO Daniel Zhang Yong. The market is closely watching how Alibaba's new management will fare amid changing technology and global trends.

Hong Kong's real estate tycoon Li Ka-shing also announced his retirement as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings and CK Asset Holdings.

The two bowing out may signal a change in how Asian conglomerates -- typically having been led by strong figures for decades -- will be managed in the future.

Ghosn helped revive Nissan's fortunes but the company will be moving on without him in 2019. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara) 

When the clock strikes midnight in Tokyo on Dec. 31, the man once heralded as the savior of Nissan Motor will likely be sitting in jail. Nissan's former Chairman Carlos Ghosn has been languishing in detention since November after his arrest by Tokyo prosecutors for allegedly underreporting his compensation. He was rearrested in December for alleged breach of trust.

Ghosn entered the then-struggling Japanese automaker 19 years ago and brought new life to the company, using his strong leadership to push through a series of cost-cutting measures that pulled Nissan back from the brink of bankruptcy. But his brash, hands-on management style resulted in a lack of corporate governance, the automaker claimed.

Looking ahead, Nissan will be tested as to how well it can function without its charismatic leader, while Ghosn fights charges in court. Whether Ghosn can clear his name will be closely watched.

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