News analysis

Tapping into China's growth: Private-sector efforts can help draw investments to Asean

People have asked me about China's growth prospects.

Granted, China's growth has slowed as its economy undergoes dramatic transformation and there are economic structural issues that need to be fundamentally addressed. Yet, I believe there will be neither a hard landing for its economy, nor a soft landing, though there will be a long landing. This is perhaps the best scenario for China, allowing it to preserve its moderate growth and maintain stability, though this also means that structural issues, such as excess production capacities in various sectors, will take a longer time to resolve. In the meantime, China's position as a global economic power will not only be preserved but will become increasingly eminent and undisputed.

Its 13th five-year plan is its latest blueprint for continued social and economic restructuring. While the initiatives are not new in intent, they clearly articulate China's determination to reform and the direction it is taking to secure its next phase of growth. China's push for urbanisation, development of the services sector and its promotion of creativity and entrepreneurship will create new domestic demand that will drive future economic growth. Its two most influential strategic initiatives that are cross-border and multilateral - One Belt One Road and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank - will further reinforce its regional and global influence. It behoves any nation or region that is charting its growth path to keep pace with China.

For Asean, the positive news is that the region is in a pretty good position. It has worked at nurturing increasingly close bilateral economic relations with China over the past two decades or more. Trade and cross-border investments are on the rise. Asean, with our rich resources and a rapidly growing middle class, is attractive to Chinese companies flush with capital and faced with excess capacity looking to broaden their markets. Without doubt, policymakers at the regional and national levels are working overtime to position Asean and its member countries to capitalise on the new realities. But beyond the realm of policy, what is the role that the private sector can play?

I would argue that government undertakings can be substantially complemented by private-sector efforts. The two working in tandem will be the best way to unlock the huge potential arising from the deepened interconnectivity between the region and China in the years to come.

The days when the best-laid plans mapped out at the start of endeavours can be executed in their original form to completion are a thing of the past... It is not uncommon for businesses to be weighed down by excessive deliberation, leading to inaction. This is a form of action which is undesirable.

Firstly, private sector-led multilateral platforms can be set up in Asean to help attract investments coming out of China. There is certainly room for us in Singapore, for example, to come up with such coordinated platforms to facilitate Singapore and Chinese market participants to engage with one another in an efficient and meaningful way across a range of areas. These platforms can be made up of private and institutional investors, commercial banks, policy and supranational banks, export credit agencies, and insurance or reinsurance agencies.

The availability of such platforms can facilitate private-sector initiatives that dovetail with government policy initiatives. This does not replace direct discussions at the government-to-government level, but can make the private sector more attuned to government policies. Conversely, they can be a good source of market input to policymakers that can better reflect realities on the ground. To lend further credence, it would be good to have public-sector participation in these multilateral platforms.

Private-sector-led platforms can also help foster connectivity with Chinese companies, thereby helping our businesses understand their priorities better. At the same time, these platforms will allow our regional businesses to get in touch with like-minded Chinese companies and showcase the investment opportunities that Asean offers. Because regional businesses know best what it is like to do businesses in their countries, they will be able to share valuable knowledge and expertise with Chinese companies through mutual exchanges.

Secondly, financial institutions can also play a crucial role in attracting Chinese investments and creating the conditions that are conducive for Chinese investments in Asean. In particular, there is huge potential in infrastructure funding in areas such as transport, utilities and ports. The infrastructural gap is a large one that cannot be plugged solely by government-led financing or intergovernmental initiatives. Private-sector financing will lend critical support.

In addition to the ability to facilitate funding through multiple sources and channels, banks possess intimate knowledge of local market players, business practices and partnership backgrounds that allow them to act as effective intermediaries. Banks also have access to a broad client base that can be leveraged to mobilise non-traditional forms of financing to help companies expand across borders. For example, bond markets in Asean can be a good source of capital for Chinese companies. Another financing solution that can be explored is the securitisation of assets or loans for these Chinese corporates. This way, capital can be recycled to help in their operations back home.

Financial institutions can help Chinese companies better manage risks when they venture abroad. With the largest foreign exchange market in Asia, banks are well-placed to provide hedging solutions for these companies. Singapore also possesses deep expertise in structured credit and risk insurance that can help in long-term capex (capital expenditure) and infrastructure projects, and has speciality insurers who can provide cover for Chinese companies from natural catastrophes.

Lastly, private-sector businesses, in particular, large enterprises, need to embrace a wholesale mindset shift towards one that is more tolerant of the uncertain. This will allow them to be more nimble and react accordingly when goalposts shift. The days when the best-laid plans mapped out at the start of endeavours can be executed in their original form to completion are a thing of the past.

I am by no means suggesting that we cast aside the intense thought process needed to chart strategic direction, but rather, that we need to be willing to question our original assumptions and, if need be, make adjustments mid-course. In this dynamic business environment, having to contend with numerous unknowns is the norm and pre-formulated plans cannot address all eventualities. Pilots can be a good way to validate our understanding of the environment while pursuing new opportunities.

It would benefit our regional expansion greatly if we are able to apply this nimble mindset to any potential ventures, whether this be exploring collaboration with new Chinese partners in their domestic markets or entering new markets alongside Chinese sponsors.

It is not uncommon for businesses to be weighed down by excessive deliberation, leading to inaction. This is a form of action a which is undesirable. It would be better for businesses to take action, in the form of a pilot for instance, and learn from the process. There is always the possibility of failure but leaders have to have the confidence to manage unanticipated risks as they arise.

As China's economy transitions to one that is more reliant on the service sector and its influence beyond its shores grows, new opportunities will arise. Asean's private-sector businesses can and should do their part in positioning themselves for this new reality.

Forging strong collaborative and friendship ties with Chinese companies will go a long way - and ultimately give local and regional businesses the much-needed edge to capture opportunities, drawing investments to this part of the world.

It is this warm and close bonding, transcending time and distance, that will translate into valuable partnerships and relationships in the years to come.

•This article was first published on the Singapore Summit website as part of a collection of opinion pieces contributed by global corporate, finance and thought leaders attending the 2016 Singapore Summit. More details on the Singapore Summit can be found on www.singaporesummit.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Tapping into China's growth: Private-sector efforts can help draw investments to Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe