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"Southeast Asia’s Growing US Market" by Malcolm Cook

2019/73, 4 September 2019

The reality of Southeast Asia’s trade relations with the US is much better than the dour conventional wisdom and Trump-inspired headlines portray.

The prevailing conventional wisdom, often presented as truth, is that the US, the world’s largest market, is a declining trade partner for most Southeast Asian states and that this trend will accelerate. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega-regional trade deal and affinity for tariffs have made this claim more persuasive.

The statistics provided by Southeast Asian states to the International Monetary Fund and collated by the CEIC database show that Southeast Asian exports to the US are doing comparatively well and contributing positively to Southeast Asian growth and economic integration. As shown in the table below, from 2013 to 2018, the share of exports to the US increased for each of the ten Southeast Asian economies, with the growth particularly impressive for the poorer mainland Southeast Asian economies and Brunei Darussalam.

Southeast Asian Exports to the US

  2013 exports
($ million)
share (%) 2018 exports
($ million)
share (%) 2013-2018 growth (%)
Brunei 9 0 58 1 532
Cambodia 2,079 22.1 2,822 23.1 36
Indonesia 15,741 8.6 18,472 10.2 17
Laos 29 1 134 2.3 365
Malaysia 18,474 8.1 22,530 9.1 22
Myanmar 11 0 490 2.9 4300
Philippines 7,832 14.5 10,567 15.7 35
Singapore 24,063 5.8 31,890 7.7 33
Thailand 22,587 10.1 27,809 11.1 23
Vietnam 23,869 18.5 47,529 19.9 99
Source: CEIC Database (export figures rounded off to closest $million)

US & China Compared

In 2013, the US was the top export market for Cambodia and Vietnam. In 2018, it was the top export market for Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines (surpassing Japan in 2018). China is a larger export market than the US for the other seven Southeast Asian economies, and the top export market for Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

From 2013 to 2018, the US extended its market share lead over China for exports from the Philippines, while reducing China’s market share lead for exports from Brunei Darussalam, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. China reduced the US market share lead for exports from Cambodia and Vietnam and increased its market share lead for exports from Indonesia.

The data on Southeast Asian exports to the US shows that prevailing conventional wisdoms are often wrong. The figures also remind us that firms through commercial decisions, not governments through preferential trade agreements, drive economic integration.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.