China’s ASEAN economic zones in the shadow of the US-China trade war

Tempo de leitura: 2 minutos

Since China’s “Go-global Initiative” called upon Chinese enterprises in 2002, these enterprises have been ever-more active in expanding their businesses overseas, in which establishing overseas economic zones has been one of the most noticeable phenomena among all types of economic cooperation. This trend was bolstered by the Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013, as overseas economic zones are perceived as a good platform to deliver tangible benefits to countries within the Silk Road Economic Belt and along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and to realise the ultimate goal, a community of shared future for mankind. 

China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) revealed that by September 2018, Chinese enterprises have set up over 110 overseas economic zones with an accumulated investment of USD 36.63 billion. The zones, mostly dedicated to manufacturing, energy and agriculture industries, have accommodated around 4,500 business entities with economic output exceeding USD 111.71 billion and tax revenue of USD 3.08 billion to host countries. 

The ASEAN region, an important nexus of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, remains a priority for the economic zone cooperation. Among the twenty successful overseas zones rated highly by China’s MOFCOM, seven are in Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia, accounting for one-third of the total number. In particular, the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, under the cooperation of Cambodia and China’s Jiangsu province, is recognised as a model project for all zones across the world.

However, apart from the model projects, the increasing overseas expansion leaves most overseas economic zones finding themselves struggling to integrate into local economies and making profits to self-sustain, long before the ongoing US-China trade war. With disruptions brought about by current US-China trade disputes, the overseas economic zone cooperation faces volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and risks are also worryingly amplified.

Prompted by the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese enterprises, both state-owned and private, accelerated their pre-existing overseas expansion plans, leaving a series of problems to be addressed. 

On the macro level, the geographical distribution of the zones is uneven, with inconsistent standards of development. Among all 47 Asian countries excluding China, 19 are currently hosting almost half of the total number of China’s overseas economic zones, – for example, Indonesia alone has as many as six. By contrast, only 5 out of 53 European countries accommodate Chinese zones, with 3 located in West Europe and 7 in East Europe. 

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