The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN is a political and economic organization of ten Southeast Asian countries. Formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, membership has since expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Covering more than 4.5 million square kilometres and comprising a population of more than 600 million people, ASEAN is about the size of the European Union. But these are probably the only similarities the two economic unions share.
While the EU currently has more economic power, is further developed and is a politically more integrated trade zone, when it comes to GDP growth, ASEAN, is by far the more dynamic.
For the last five years, its annual GDP growth averaged around 6%. In 2015, the organization’s combined nominal GDP had grown to more than USD 2.6 trillion.
If ASEAN were a single entity, it would rank as the seventh largest economy in the world behind the USA, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
With such economic growth levels expected to continue, ASEAN is fast becoming a major economic force in Asia and a driver of global growth.
Energy-related challenges driving renewable energy growth
Installing sufficient additional power generation capacity is one of the most pressing issues for ASEAN countries to solve. Despite the rapid economic development, many parts of ASEAN remain under-electrified – 160 million of its people still do not have access to electricity today.
For those that do, prices of grid electricity are high at 0.18 USD/kWh or more in some markets.
The insufficient power generation structures currently in ASEAN are characterised by their strong reliance on fossil sources, such as natural gas, coal and oil, and the absence of nuclear power.
ASEAN, one of the regions with the strongest growth in CO2 emissions in the last decade is also the region expected to experience some of the most harmful effects of climate change – more intensive storms, variable precipitation, a rise in sea levels, as well as more severe droughts and floods.
Like many emerging economies with sizeable populations, ASEAN must solve numerous economic and energy-related challenges such as providing sufficient energy services, improving industrial productivity and reducing poverty, and on top of that, adapting to global warming.
As a result, ASEAN is increasingly turning to renewable energy.
Assessing the economic impacts of COVID-19 on ASEAN countries
All ASEAN countries are dependent on tourism flows but Thailand is probably the most dependent.
Author: Jayant Menon, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy. Measures introduced to deal with the pandemic could save lives but are having wide-ranging economic effects and inducing economic contagion.
There are already studies estimating the economic impact of the virus. But greater focus is needed on the transmission mechanisms of the economic contagion and in critiquing how assessments of the economic impacts are made, concentrating on the ASEAN region.
The effects of COVID-19 are hitting ASEAN economies at a time when other risk factors, such as a global growth slowdown, were already rising.
COVID-19 is disrupting tourism and travel, supply chains and labour supply
Uncertainty is driving negative sentiment. This all affects trade, investment and output, which in turn affects growth. Tourism and business travel, as well as related industries, especially airlines and hotels, were the first to be affected. And the conditions are worsening as more countries go into shutdown.
The supply disruptions emanating mostly from China will reverberate throughout the value chain and disrupt production. Since China is the regional hub and accounts for 12 per cent of global trade in parts and components, the cost of the disruption in the short run will be high.
The negative effects of quarantine arrangements on labour supply could also be high depending on duration and sector. Manufacturing has been hit harder than service industries, where telecommuting and other technological aids limit the fall in productivity.
All these disruptions will lead to sharp declines in domestic demand. And their impact on economic growth will further propagate these disruptions. This compounding effect can magnify and extend short-run effects into the long run.
The highest economic cost could come from the intangibles
The effects of negative sentiment about growth and general uncertainty — which is already affecting financial markets — will feed into reduced investment, consumption and growth in the long run.
Rolling recessions around the world now appear inevitable, despite the stimulus measures being contemplated. If so, there will be sharp increases in unemployment and poverty. Some degree of decoupling from China, or de-globalisation in general, may also be a permanent reminder of this pandemic.
Among ASEAN countries, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are heavily integrated in regional supply chains and will be the most affected by a reduction in demand for the goods produced within them. Indonesia and the Philippines have been increasing supply chain engagement and will also not be immune.
Vietnam is the only new ASEAN member integrated into supply chains with China and is already suffering severe supply disruptions.
Given time, supply-side adjustments will alter trade and investment patterns. The main adjustment will involve relocating certain activities along the supply chain from China to ASEAN countries. Although the pandemic will disrupt the relocation phase, ASEAN countries can benefit from the new investments, mitigating overall negative impacts.
Thailand is probably the most tourism dependent Asean country
All ASEAN countries are dependent on tourism flows but Thailand is probably the most dependent. Cambodia and Laos receive most of their investment and aid from China, and a marked growth slowdown in China will affect them the most.
The Philippines and Mekong countries have large overseas foreign worker populations and restrictions on their movement or employment prospects as COVID-19 spreads will affect sending and receiving countries. Brunei and Malaysia are net oil exporters and the price war indirectly induced by the pandemic will hit them hard. Others will benefit from lower oil prices, as will the struggling transport sector.
In measuring the impacts of COVID-19, it is important to separate its marginal impact from observed outcomes. This is important because the remedy may vary depending on the cause of the disruption. This requires an analytical framework that can measure deviations from a baseline scenario that incorporates pre-existing trends. A model-based analysis, rather than casual empiricism, is required to reduce the problem.
Even before the outbreak, risks of a global growth slowdown were rising
The restructuring of regional supply chains had started, driven initially by rising wages in China and accelerated by the US–China trade war. While COVID-19 may further hasten the pace and extent of the restructuring, it is only partly responsible for what may happen. It would be misleading to attribute all of the current disruption to COVID-19. Had the trade war not preceded it, COVID-19 may have resulted in greater disruption to supply chains.
Any assessment of impacts must recognise that the spread of COVID-19 is unpredictable, and so too the response by governments. It is difficult to estimate the impacts of a shock that is uncertain in itself. This reiterates the need for rigorous modelling and scenario analyses. The current trend points to risks rising, often accelerating, as with previous epidemics. This uncertainty underscores the need for caution in assessing, and regular recalibration in producing assessments.
Jayant Menon is a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Regional Economic Studies Programme at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
A version of this article first appeared in ISEAS Commentary.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.
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