SINGAPORE -- Asia's largest economies including China, Japan and India are among the least active enforcers against bribery in international business, a study by Transparency International has determined -- a warning flag for countries that play key roles in global trade.
In a report titled "Exporting Corruption 2020," released on Tuesday, the Germany-based nongovernmental organization rated 47 economies that account for 83% of the world's exports, based on anti-corruption metrics such as the number of investigations commenced and the number of cases concluded with sanctions.
All six Asian economies surveyed -- China, Japan, India, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore -- were classified in the bottom of four categories, with "little or no" enforcement against bribery of foreign public officials. The 19 total countries and territories in this group account for 36.5% of global exports, according to the report.
Australia was in the second-best category, with "moderate" enforcement, while New Zealand was in the third group, classified as "limited." Only four countries worldwide made it into the top category of "active enforcement": the U.S., U.K., Switzerland and Israel.
This does not automatically mean that Asian countries are more corrupt than others, but it does mean there is less deterrence against corruption involving companies doing business abroad, according to Gillian Dell, head of Transparency International's conventions unit.
"If companies don't have to be concerned about their own country bringing cases against them, they may feel freer in their activity," she told Nikkei Asia.
While the report does not specifically examine why Asian countries are less active in enforcement, these problems ultimately come down to "a question of political will," Dell said. "It seems there is a lack of commitment."
The organization's survey was unable to find a single Chinese investigation into foreign bribery from 2016 to 2019, even though Chinese companies were caught up in multiple scandals and investigations by other countries.
Transparency International cited several cases that were widely reported in the news, including a U.S. probe of Chinese telecommunications equipment maker ZTE for suspected bribes paid to foreign officials.
Hong Kong and India, likewise, did not open any such investigations over the four years, while Singapore launched only one and concluded one case with sanctions.
"Major exporters such as China, Hong Kong, India and Singapore have an important role to play in tackling the supply side of corruption in international trade and helping to prevent a race to the bottom," the report stressed.
Japan and South Korea are not doing much more. In the same 2016 to 2019 period, Japan opened one investigation, commenced one case and concluded one case with sanctions. South Korea opened at least one investigation, commenced two cases and concluded five cases with sanctions, according to the report.
For comparison, the U.S. opened at least 72 investigations, commenced 24 cases and concluded 130 cases with sanctions.
Bribery in international business can undermine the economic development of the destination country by distorting good governance and fair competition. In addition, Transparency International pointed out that it could hamper governments' efforts to undo the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.
"Money lost to foreign bribery wastes millions of dollars that could otherwise go to lifesaving services like health care," Delia Ferreira Rubio, chair of Transparency International, said in a news release.
"Too many governments choose to turn a blind eye when their companies use bribery to win business in foreign markets."
The organization called on countries to do more to clamp down on bribery. Recommendations include making case outcomes public to show how international corruption is being handled, as well as strengthening laws and enforcement systems to handle complex cases.