Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Thai investors look to hitch on to Vietnam's 'rising star'


There has never been a shortage of Thai businessmen descending on Vietnam to look for investment and trade potential. In fact, hordes of them have been arriving in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - the communist country's two major growth centres - over the past few years, lured by Vietnam's 8-per cent recorded economic growth and its status as a "rising star" of Asia.

However, being there is one thing, but actually putting money into investment projects or capitalising on trading opportunities is another. While Thai businessmen successfully rode the early waves of foreign investment pouring into Vietnam, it looks like they are now taking a more cautious attitude toward the increasingly competitive investment environment there.

Since Vietnam opened its doors to foreign investment following the adoption of economic reforms known as doi moi in 1988, Thai entrepreneurs were among the foreign investors who rushed in to capitalise on the market of 85 million people. Thais have been particularly successful in consumer goods and agriculture-related products. Several imported items from Thailand have become household names in Vietnam.

The US's normalisation of trade with Vietnam and the country's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) suddenly put it on the map for international investors. And of all its centres, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, stands out as the most tantalising as far as economic expansion and modernisation are concerned. It's the city where most of the Thai businesses are located.

A recent seminar on investment opportunities in Vietnam, held in what was the capital of former South Vietnam, drew dozens of Thai businessmen and corporate representatives - some looking to expand their existing businesses there.

The Vietnamese government, buoyed by the country's WTO entry earlier this year, used the seminar, which was organised jointly by the Asia News Network and the Vietnam News Agency, to drive home its ambitious plan to turn Vietnam into an industrialised nation by the year 2020 through a combination of economic reforms and foreign-investment-driven growth. For the Thais in attendance, the seminar turned out to be more or less a matter of window-shopping. Most of the investment projects highlighted at the seminar - some of which are still on the drawing board - are designed to improve the country's poor basic infrastructure, and are obviously aimed at multinational corporations with huge financial resources and technical know-how.

Taiwan, China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore are among the top Asian investors in Vietnam while Thailand doesn't even make it into the top 10. Thai participants at the seminar admitted that as the investment environment gets more competitive in Vietnam, big-league multinational corporations are sure to have all the advantages.

It certainly helps that these corporations are able to form good connections with high-level Vietnamese officials with the assistance of their governments. More often than not diplomacy and government-funded aid projects do provide a key to successful private business ventures.

One of the most frequently asked questions these days, as far as Vietnam's economic rise is concerned, is whether this once war-torn country will ever overtake Thailand economically. And, as expected, the question popped up again during the economic forum, which was also attended by a number of senior government officials intent on impressing their foreign guests.

While Vietnamese government leaders and bureaucrats are obviously buoyed by their country's new economic status, they are humble enough not to paint Vietnam as Thailand's competitor despite the fact that their breakneck economic growth is now a cause of alarm for many Thais. In public, the Vietnamese would rather talk about cooperation than competition.

Many veteran Thai entrepreneurs in Vietnam, meanwhile, believe that the country could offer opportunities, as well as result in competition for Thailand, depending on how it responds to the fast-rising Vietnamese economy. Speaking from experience, the more optimistic entrepreneurs see Vietnam as an "extended market" for Thailand. The fact that the Vietnamese market has been flooded with Thai consumer products lends weight to the argument that Vietnam should not be treated as an "overseas market".

While they believe that major Thai corporations can do more to capitalise on the Vietnamese market, they want to see the Thai government play a more active role in helping with Thai investments overseas, especially in countries like Vietnam, which is clearly breathing down Thailand's neck economically.

But more importantly, Thailand needs to urgently get its own house in order politically. One reason why many investors are diverting their investments to Vietnam is because of the continuing political uncertainty in Thailand and its lack of long-term policies. So, the question is not whether Vietnam will overtake Thailand - the real question is whether Thailand will allow itself to be overtaken.

Thepchai Yong