When it comes to developing Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Thailand was something of a late starter.

Since approving its first five pilot locations in 2014, Thailand has made considerable efforts to catch up with its ASEAN neighbours.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said that the SEZ programme was now an integral part of Thailand 4.0. The countrywide initiative is aimed at manoeuvering the economy out of the “middle-income trap,” a situation in which the local labour force is too well-paid to compete with unskilled workers elsewhere, but lacking the skills and technical resources to contribute higher up the value chain.

The Thailand 4.0 initiative is seen as a forerunner of the wider economic and social reform programme set to be adopted this month as part of the country’s 20-year National Strategy (2017-2036).

In line with this, Thailand 4.0 is designed to transform an economy reliant on heavy industry and export market production into one more focused on smart electronics, biofuels and biochemicals, robotics, aviation and logistics, as well as advanced medical products and services.

Already this year, the transformation strategy has led to the ratification of two bills intended to boost investment in the country’s SEZs.

Investment Incentives

The enactment of the revised Investment Promotion Act in January will see R&D, advanced technology and innovation businesses enjoying 13-year tax incentives as well as tax deductions of up to 300 per cent on R&D-related expenses. Certain businesses may also be entitled to a substantial investment tax allowance.

This was followed in February by the Competitiveness Enhancement Act, which granted eligible businesses an exemption from corporate income tax for up to 15 years. More importantly, it established a US$300 million fund designed to match private-sector investments in R&D, technology and innovation, and human-resource development across 10 targeted industries. It also outlined the availability of specific investments in the biotech, nanotech, advanced materials and digitalbusiness sectors.

As an integral part of its expansive economic master plan, Thailand has identified 10 locations for new SEZs. Significantly, all of these proposed SEZs are to be developed close to the borders of neighbouring ASEAN countries – Chiang Rai, Nong Khai, Nakhom and Mukdahan (in the north and northeast, bordering Laos); Sa Keow and Trat (in the east, bordering Cambodia); Song Khla and Narathiat (in the south, bordering Malaysia); and Kanchanburi and Tak (in the west, bordering Myanmar).

The new SEZs have also been strategically situated to take advantage of Thailand’s geographical location at the heart of Southeast Asia. By using its existing supply chain expertise and developing new transport and communications infrastructure, the country expects these SEZs to boost cross-border trade and employment, while directly connecting Thai-based businesses with ASEAN’s emerging markets along convenient air, land and sea routes.

The SEZ programme also advocates the establishment of a number of super clusters, sites that offer a premium package of incentives to investors in a particular sector, with food and beverages, digital, medical, eco-friendly chemicals and petrochemicals, automotive and electronics, appliances and the telecommunications equipment sectors among those prioritised. A secondary tier of clusters has also been proposed, with a subsequently lower level of incentives. At present, this proposal will apply to the agro-processing, textiles and garment sectors.

Eastern Economic Corridor

The centrepiece of Thailand’s current development programme, however, remains the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC). Last month, the Thai cabinet approved draft legislation paving the way for the EEC, a vast SEZ spanning the three eastern provinces of Chachoeongsao, Chonburi and Rayong.

With this one-time industrial heartland designated as the country’s new engine of growth, 10 industries have been earmarked for a premium package of incentives. These will include exemption from corporate income tax for up to 15 years and grants from the Thailand Competitiveness Fund, which will match any private-sector investment in these nominated sectors.

A budget of US$43 billion has been allocated to support the expansion of the EEC over the next five years. This will include funding for several benchmark projects, including the development of the U-Tapao International Airport, an upgrade of the Chuk Samet Deep Sea Port and a high-speed rail link between Bangkok and Rayong. The proposed motorway network connecting Bangkok, Chonburi, Pattaya, Laem Cha Bang and Laem Cha Bang-Nakorn Ratchasima will also receive funding as part of the EEC initiative.

Another project considered crucial to the success of the EEC – the development of the proposed third phase of the Laem Cha Bang Port – is also in line for substantial investment. Ultimately, this will see the port established as a regional maritime transportation hub, servicing connections to Myanmar’s Dawei Deep-water Port, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Port and Vietnam’s Vung Tau Port.

There are also plans to establish an “innovation city” within the EEC, complete with a number of integrated R&D facilities, including fabrication laboratories, test-bed sandboxes and certification centres. This follows the establishment of food, technical and science innovation centres in the central Thai province of Pathum Thani.

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