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Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak speaks at the Nikkei Asia300 Global Business Forum in Bangkok on July 14. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)
Economy

'Upside down' world spells opportunity for Asia: Thai deputy PM

But countries and companies that 'remain asleep' will be left behind

BANGKOK -- U.S. President Donald Trump's policies are turning geopolitics "upside down," but Asian businesses are well-positioned to take advantage of the shifting world order, according to Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak.

Asia is becoming a "center of the world economy," he told an audience of Thai and Japanese corporate executives at the Nikkei Asia300 Global Business Forum, held in Bangkok on Friday. Amid a host of disruptions, from Trump's "America first" stance to emerging technologies, Somkid said "opportunities are shifting from the West to the East."

He touched on how countries in the region have "become strong again," 20 years after currencies crashed in the Asian financial crisis, starting with the Thai baht. Higher foreign exchange reserves and "impressive economic growth" have made these countries "an enticing spot for attracting foreign investment."

To capitalize, though, countries and companies will have to sharpen their competitiveness. "Countries that remain asleep, stuck in the past and filled with a private sector that is timid, outdated and dare not change" will be left behind, said Somkid, who heads the Thai junta's economic team.

Stressing that a strong private sector is critical for "high economic success," the deputy prime minister singled out China as an "interesting example that should be studied closely and followed." Although its economy had long been dominated by state-owned enterprises, China is now showing it can foster new ventures based on technology and innovation, he said.

Thailand wants to move in a similar direction. The military government has been encouraging companies to hone their research and development capabilities. "Thailand must adjust its manufacturing structure from relying on cost for competition to relying on innovation and creativity," Somkid said.

One government priority is the Eastern Economic Corridor, a special economic zone in Thailand's industrial area along the eastern seaboard, which offers incentives targeting R&D investment in high-tech industries.

So far, Europe's Airbus has signed a memorandum of understanding to consider developing an aircraft maintenance and refurbishment hub in the area. Hinting that further investment is in the pipeline, Somkid said a business delegation from Japan -- the largest investor in Thailand -- will be coming to meet with public- and private-sector players in September, with an eye to collaboration in the special zone. 

Thailand has been under military control since May 2014, when a coup capped months of political instability. Somkid, who joined the government in 2015, said public unity is the most important factor in boosting a nation's competitiveness, pointing to the rapid economic growth of postwar Japan and again to the example of China.

"Strategically, led by the public sector ... under a continued environment of solidarity and unity, China was able to miraculously grow by leaps and bounds," he said, "even though the country is under a political regime that the West might not agree with." 

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