July 9, 2011

Southeast Asia: Crouching Tiger or Hidden Dragon?

[International Economic Bulletin]

Mention Asia and many people immediately think of China and India—giants that are powering the world economy. But Southeast Asia, a sub-region of ten countries that lives in the shadow of its two large neighbors, is also a thriving trade and economic hub.

At first glance, the countries of Southeast Asia—bound by many regional trade and political agreements—seem to make no sense together. After all, the region includes a small, rich, oil kingdom (Brunei); a post-conflict society (Cambodia); and a wealthy entrepôt economy (Singapore). In addition, there is an autarkic country that has been under military rule since 1962 (Myanmar); a poor, landlocked economy blessed with hydropower and minerals (Laos); and a populous nation whose growth rates rival China’s (Vietnam), not to mention four diverse middle-income economies that aspire to join the ranks of advanced countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand).

Nevertheless, the countries share a strategic location and access to plentiful natural resources. Furthermore, their diversity and increasing integration lie at the heart of the region’s rapid and resilient economic growth. Politically, the region provides stability in a part of the world that is rapidly reshaping the global balance of power. As a result, its continued development—which depends on investments in infrastructure and education, as well as improvements in business climate—is important for the rest of the world.

Economic Promise

Southeast Asia’s ten countries have a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion (bigger than India); a population of almost 600 million people (nearly twice that of the United States); and an average per-capita income near that of China. Over the last decade, the countries have averaged a growth rate of more than 5 percent per year. If Southeast Asia were one country, it would be the world’s ninth largest economy. It would also be the most trade-dependent, with a trade-to-GDP ratio in excess of 150 percent, and one of the world’s consistently good performers.



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