US must embrace 'business pivot' towards ASEAN

US must embrace 'business pivot' towards ASEAN
New buildings being constructed in Phnom Penh in August 2014.

The road to regional integration remains a bumpy one for the 10 member states of ASEAN.

Yet, despite territorial disputes, growing sectarianism and concerns about the return of terrorism to the region, the economic opportunities in the region loom large.

Certainly, China has noticed. From Mandalay to Manila, Chinese businessmen are ever- present, and Chinese state-owned enterprises continue their pursuit of natural resources. Since 2009, China has been ASEAN's largest trading partner.

In turn, ASEAN has been China's third-largest trading partner since 2010.

It is time for the United States to up its game if American businessmen are to continue to succeed against growing competition in an ever more integrated South-east Asia.

As the countdown continues towards the ASEAN Economic Community on Dec 31, 2015, many American businesses are already contributing and benefiting.

ASEAN is the US' third-largest Asian trading partner after China and Japan.

ASEAN is the largest destination for US investment in Asia, according to Mr Alex Feldman, the president and chief executive of the US-ASEAN Business Council, which is the primary advocacy organisation for US corporations operating within ASEAN.

"ASEAN now represents more than 620 million people and a combined gross domestic product of US$2.2 trillion (S$2.8 trillion)," said Mr Feldman.

"Clearly, ASEAN matters to the United States more than ever, just as the United States most clearly matters to ASEAN."

Taking further advantage of that opportunity will, however, require US policy changes and renewed efforts by US businesses, large and small.

While much has been made of the Obama administration's self-described policy "pivot" eastward - though rebalance is now the preferred word - the US must ratchet up its efforts for a more robust pivot towards Asia, commercially, educationally and culturally.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Monday, said "South-east Asia and its markets are critical to America's prosperity".

Now, the US must move beyond defence and diplomacy to fully embrace a "business pivot".

What could such a business pivot to South-east Asia look like?

First, US businesses - particularly small and medium-sized enterprises - would benefit from the removal or at least revision of US rules and regulations that make it increasingly difficult to grow and to succeed.

A case in point is the so-called Fatca, or Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a US federal law aimed at clamping down on tax evasion by Americans using overseas accounts.

The law requires financial institutions around the world to regularly submit financial information about their US clients to the US taxman.

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