COVID-19 has led to economic uncertainty in markets worldwide. However, some industries and regions have seen significant growth and opportunity, not only in spite of the global pandemic, but because of it. When it comes to increasing trade and economic opportunities for Canada, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) cannot be overlooked. Exploratory talks for a Canada-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement were concluded over one year ago in September 2019. ASEAN, which includes the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, and Myanmar, is a quickly growing economic region with immense potential. Together, as ASEAN, they represent the fifth largest economy in the world, and are expected to be the fourth largest by 2030. Some industries in particular, like technology and healthcare, are currently on the uptick.
One trend undoubtedly emerging in Southeast Asia is the region’s ability to leap ahead in the digital healthcare industry. Healthcare demand in Southeast Asia has increased, of course, due to COVID-19, but also due to growing populations. According to the ASEAN Post, the populations of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia are expected to increase 40% by the year 2050. A shortage of doctors and the current need to take the burden off of healthcare workers during COVID-19, has led to an increased use for artificial intelligence, software and data usage, and robotics in hospitals. For example, the Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand has begun using IBM software and AI to run data analytics in order to better understand patient needs. Since there is a lack of medical infrastructure in the region and an increasing need to reach rural communities, apps and e-health services have become more and more necessary and can be implemented extremely easily. For example, BookDoc is a popular app in Malaysia that connects people in the most rural areas to doctors and healthcare professionals via an online platform. This is a strong example of how technology in the healthcare industry is advancing and progressing more quickly now due to the need for social distancing. Another reason that e-health services are more easily implemented in Southeast Asia is due to the high penetration rate (the number of active mobile phone users within a specific population) of cell phones and internet in the region. Prescriptions can be administered and medical advice provided, all without ever having to meet in person.
These advancements in digital healthcare offer a great opportunity for investments, research and development, and partnerships between Canadian and ASEAN businesses, which would be more easily facilitated under a free trade agreement. In spite of COVID-19, investors have still seen the opportunity in this region, as investments in tech and e-services startups in Southeast Asia have actually doubled since the start of the pandemic. This example of the technology industry is only one among many in the ASEAN region. The Canadian government has conducted a feasibility study on a Canada-ASEAN FTA, which proves benefits for both parties. $2543.50M USD is the anticipated benefit to Canada’s GDP in terms of goods, services, and investment alone. Additionally, the CABC (Canada-ASEAN Business Council based in Singapore) found in 2018 that 63% of Canadians support a Canada-ASEAN FTA. Another study conducted by the organization found that an FTA would create $11 billion in two-way trade.
Southeast Asia represents a quickly growing economic region, with some industries becoming more attractive for investments and partnerships during COVID-19. With other trade agreements being more readily on the table like CPTPP or CETA (which is provisionally in effect but not ratified), the Canada-ASEAN FTA has been overlooked. The countries that make up the ASEAN region have strong infrastructure, increasing political stability, and an increasingly educated workforce. The benefits to individual businesses, workers, and overall economies are irrefutable. During the uncertainty of the global pandemic, now is the time to solidify these kinds of agreements and partnerships.
Avery Koop is an alumna of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University who graduated in August 2019. Most recently she has worked as an analyst helping to produce economic country reports on Malaysia and Japan for the South China Morning Post. Avery can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Banner image of The Secretariat of ASEAN by Gunawan Kartapranata, courtesy of Wikipedia.