Asia is home to over 4.5 billion people, making it the most populous continent on Earth with approximately 2/3 of the world’s population living there. The vast populations in Asia deliver a huge consumer market to companies.
While figures from 2020, show that Asia too was affected, the decline in GDP has been significantly less than in Europe and regional growth is expected to rebound to over 6% in 2021, as the pandemic subsides, global import demand recovers and capital flows to the region normalise again. GDP growth in most of the region’s economies far outstrips the OECD, and recent forecasts predict Asian economies will be larger than the rest of the world combined by the end of 2020. This will effectively make the global economy dependent on Asian markets, and it is therefore vital that there are significantly closer working links and connections between Europe and Asia for environmental, economic, and social reasons.
Japan is an extremely important economic player in the region, with a wealthy population of 127 million and a mature and developed market. The EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement entered into force on 1st February 2019, removing tariffs and other trade barriers, and creating a platform to cooperate in order to prevent obstacles to trade. The FTA is expected to increase EU-Japan trade by around €36 billion, according to figures from the European Commission. The agreement is particularly important for European food industries, protecting over 200 European Geographical Indicators, opening up the Japanese markets for meat products and removing protectionist tariffs on.
South Korea has transitioned to a developed economy and is today among the world’s top 15 economies measured in terms of overall GDP, with a per capita GDP comparable to many EU member states. Domestic agriculture is severely constrained by lack of available land, and a large, aging population and the country is heavily dependent on imports of food products. At present, Europe has a total export of food products to South Korea of around €3 billion in 2019, mostly for meat, alcohols and increasingly for processed foods, but still has a relatively small market share, though it has risen since the EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement removed more tariffs on agri-food products in 2016.
While Singapore itself has a small domestic agriculture sector, it has a strong food retail and wholesale network and is seen as one of the main entry points to the ASEAN market, covering ten countries in Southeast Asia. The country has consistently been recognised among the world’s best places to do business and remains among the top choices for foreign business investors. The COVID-19 pandemic has however drawn Singapore’s attention to reliability of food supplies and there are currently major initiatives in place to develop new agricultural technologies within urban farming – where European SMEs can play an important role. Singapore has a Free Trade Agreement with the EU which came into force on 1st November 2019.
Thailand has one of the largest agricultural sectors in Asia and is a regional powerhouse for food production. The Thai government has recognised the importance of the sector to the economy and has a range of special economic policies and zones, supported by the Board of Investment, including long-term tax reductions and tax exemptions, with the aim of developing technologies to improve effectiveness, storage, logistics and environmental issues. Most of these are based around the Eastern Economic Corridor, east of Bangkok, which is also home to some of the largest food clusters outside Europe. Thailand also has a very well-developed food retail and wholesale sector, which ranges from up-market stores such as Villa Market and Rimping, large superstores such as Tesco Lotus and BigC, and around 13.000 convenience stores including 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson 108. Thailand is also in the early stages of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the EU.
Both Singapore, and Thailand are often used as entry points to the rest of ASEAN. This opens all the fast-growing markets with 7-8% growth rates such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Lao PDR etc. All of the four target countries are also signatories to the November 2020 Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes all 10 ASEAN countries, as well as China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. While the RCEP is very new, it covers effectively 30% of the world’s economic output and may provide an opportunity for closer cooperation for many European SMEs.