The COVID-19 pandemic caused global investment activities to fall – due to economic uncertainties, lockdowns, supply chain disruptions and postponement of investment by multinational enterprises.

ASEAN also recorded a decline in foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2020 to $137 billion, down from its highest-ever inflow of $182 billion in 2019 when it was the largest recipient of FDI in the developing world.

  • ASEAN is on-track to become the fourth-largest economy in the world.
  • Coordinated pandemic response efforts, along with implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and digital transformation, will drive inclusive growth and development in the region.
  • Public-private cooperation is key to ASEAN’s sustainable, resilient and green future.
  • ASEAN is poised for post-pandemic inclusive growth and prosperity 

Despite the decline, ASEAN remained an attractive investment destination. The region’s share of global FDI rose from 11.9% in 2019 to 13.7% in 2020, while the intra-ASEAN share of FDI in the region increased from 12% to 17%. Additionally, the longer-term trend shows that the value of international project finance in ASEAN has doubled from an annual average of $37 billion in 2015–2017 to an annual average of $74 billion in 2018–2020.

And the future looks bright

According to the first-of-its-kind ASEAN Development Outlook (ADO) report, the total combined GDP of 10 ASEAN countries in 2019 was valued at $3.2 trillion – making ASEAN the fifth-largest economy in the world, well on track to become the fourth largest by 2030. With a total population of about 700 million people, 61% are under the age of 35 – and the majority of young people are embracing digital technologies in their daily activities.

The outlook remains promising, with coordinated pandemic response efforts and several key developments underway in the region.

Coordinated pandemic responses

ASEAN members took coordinated actions to respond to pandemic challenges, such as the Hanoi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Members collaborated on the flow of essential goods and enhanced the resilience of its supply chains and sourcing in the region. This joint response was critical given how the concentration of FDI in ASEAN is connected to global value chain activities or regional production networks that involve intra- and inter-firm linkages.

To support recovery and resilience building, ASEAN launched the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund and cooperated with external partners on the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED) to enhance regional health security and to sustain ASEAN preparedness and resilience in the face of public health emergencies.

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement came into force on 1 January 2022 for Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Japan, Lao PDR, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. With it, ASEAN resolves to keep markets open while strengthening regional economic integration towards post-pandemic inclusive recovery.

RCEP is the biggest regional free trade agreement in existence and will cover 30% of global GDP and 30% of the world population in addition to accounting for over one-quarter of global trade in goods and services. Key provisions addresses liberalizing and promoting intra-RCEP trade, investment and services as well as developing e-commerce, which is highly relevant for regional value chains and market- and efficiency-seeking investment. Furthermore, non-RCEP companies can also take advantage of RCEP benefits by locating and operating in the region.

Considering that 40% of investment in ASEAN comes from RCEP members – of which 24% comes from non-ASEAN RCEP member countries – opportunities exist to boost more sustainable FDI in the region, particularly value chain-linked FDI taking into account the benefits of RCEP and the recently concluded ASEAN Investment Facilitation Framework (AIFF).

RCEP members share of FDI in ASEAN
40% of investment in ASEAN comes from RCEP membersImage: ASEAN Secretariat/UN Conference on Trade & Development

Fourth Industrial Revolution and digital transformation

The recent adoption of the Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) for ASEAN during the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and the ASEAN Agreement on Electronic Commerce will advance the region’s push for digital transformation and private investment in digital infrastructure development (5G networks and data centres), cloud computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and smart manufacturing.

The ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) identified digital connectivity as a priority to facilitate regional connectivity and economic recovery. This correlated to the findings of a survey of 86,000 people from six ASEAN countries conducted by the World Economic Forum and Sea, which found respondents (including business owners) who were “more digitalized” tended to be more economically resilient during the pandemic.

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