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Asia’s Powerhouses: Product Placement

Apr 1, 2005
2005 / April 2005

Look around your home or office and you might just be overwhelmed by the number and range of products produced in Asia. The fact is, Asia’s powerhouses represent a significant segment of U.S. trade and private investment. That’s particularly true in the areas of manufacturing and consumer goods, from toys to computer products. These U.S. trading partners, with skilled and industrious labor forces and ambitious plans, represent growth markets. It should come as no surprise then that the interests of the United States in this region are tied to maintaining both economic and political stability as these countries represent opportunity for U.S. business interests.

Hong Kong comprises Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories and numerous small islands. Totaling less than 425 square miles with a population of 6.81 million, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. Cantonese and English are the official languages.

Politically, Hong Kong operates today as a special administrative region of China, with its own constitution and a high degree of autonomy. The island nation was part of the British Empire for about 150 years, from the end of the First Opium War (1842) until 1997. In the 19th and 20th centuries Hong Kong developed as a trade center. Following World War II and the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, hundreds of thousands of people sought freedom in Hong Kong. With its burgeoning population, the area also developed as a manufacturing, commercial and financial center. Tourism followed, and today some of the world’s finest hotels are located in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong economy has been described as “open and dynamic.” Among its natural resources it counts an excellent deep-water harbor. Exports include clothing, electronics, textiles, plastic toys, watches, clocks and office machinery. Major imports are consumer goods, raw materials and semi-manufactures, capital goods, food and fuel. Eleven hundred U.S. firms operate in Hong Kong and some 55,000 expats live here.

The culture in Taiwan is a blend of Chinese heritage and Western influences. The largely mountainous country has a population of 22.7 million (2.6 million in the main city of Taipei). While the official language is Mandarin Chinese, it is not difficult to find people who speak English.

After World War II, Taiwan’s economy evolved from an agricultural base to include commercial and industrial interests. Today, Taiwan is a major international trade powerhouse, the world’s largest supplier of computer monitors and a leading manufacturer of personal computers.

The literacy rate in Taiwan is an impressive 99.5 percent. Politically, Taiwan functions as a democracy with four major parties, though the concepts of free speech and political dissent remain relatively new. While China is a trading partner, talk of either reunification or independence is a volatile subject. As of 1979, the United States recognized Taiwan as part of China, but does maintain unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan’s natural resources include small deposits of coal, natural gas, limestone, marble and asbestos. Trade exports include electronics, information and communications technology, textiles, base metals, plastic and rubber products. Imports include electronics, information and communications products, machinery and electrical products, chemicals, base metals, transport equipment and crude oil. The electronics sector is the most important export and the largest in terms of U.S. investment.

Boasting the oldest continuous major world civilization, China is a huge country (about 3.7 million square miles) with a huge population (more than 1.3 billion). The capital is Beijing. The topography is a little bit of everything. The official language is Mandarin, although there are seven main dialects.

The Chinese government is communist-led state whose main political sector, 66.35 million strong, is the Chinese Communist party. There a re also eight minor parties. The sixth largest economy in the world, China boasts natural resources including coal, iron ore, crude oil, mercury and uranium. China is also believed to have the world’s largest potential for hydropower and is among the biggest producers of rice. China is the second largest consumer of primary energy, after the United States, and is the third largest energy producer. China is also the number-one consumer of coal in the world, a fact that has caused pollution there to become a serious problem.

China’s main exports are electrical machinery and equipment, power generation equipment and consumer products including apparel, toys and footwear. The United States is one of China’s primary suppliers of power generation equipment, aircraft and parts, computers and industrial machinery, raw materials and chemical and agricultural products. Direct U.S. investment in China includes manufacturing, large hotel projects, restaurant chains and petrochemicals. There are some 20,000 joint equity ventures with U.S. firms operating in China, and more than 100 U.S.-based multinational corporations have business projects in China.

Slightly larger in size than the state of New Mexico, Malaysia has a population of 25.5 million. The capital is Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s terrain is a mix of coastal plains and an interior of jungle-covered mountains on the Malay Peninsula. The country is divided into East and West Malaysia, East on the peninsula and West more than 400 miles away across the South China Sea on the northern portion of the island of Borneo. Commonly spoken languages include Malay and Cantonese, as well as English. By constitutional definition, all Malays are Muslim. About a quarter of the population is Chinese, who have traditionally played an important role in trade and business. Manufacturing and services including tourism represent the majority of jobs. Malaysia became independent in 1957, and the government today is a federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. Executive power is vested in the cabinet, led by the prime minister.

The country’s natural resources include petroleum, liquefied natural gas, tin and minerals. The economy moved from one focused on commodities to one focused on manufacturing. Efforts are now under way to move toward a knowledge-based economy, as Malaysia envisions itself becoming the Silicon Valley of Asia. The country is one of the world’s largest exporters of semiconductor devices, electrical goods and appliances. Other exports include palm oil, petroleum, liquefied natural gas, apparel, timber and logs, plywood and veneer, and natural rubber. Imports include machinery, chemicals, manufactured goods, fuels and lubricants. The United States is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and largest foreign investor, with most new investment in the electronics and electrical sectors.

Approximately the size of France, Thailand boasts a population of 64 million. The capital is Bangkok, with other major cities being Nakhon Ratchasima and Chiang Mai. The population is mostly rural and concentrated in rice-growing areas, but the urban population (now 31.6 percent of the country’s total) is growing. Most of the population is Buddhist. The official language is Thai, with multiple dialects. English is a second language among the country’s educated citizens. The government is a constitutional monarchy. King Bhumibol, in power since 1946, is chief of state and a symbol of national identity and unity for the Thai people, while the prime minister is the head of the government.

Thailand’s natural resources include tin, rubber and natural gas. Thailand is a major exporter of rice, and about 60 percent of the country’s labor force is in agriculture. Major exports include footwear, fishery products, computers and parts, rubber and cars. Major imports include machinery and parts, petroleum, iron and steel, chemicals, vehicles and parts, jewelry, electrical appliances, fertilizers and pesticides. The United States is Thailand’s largest trading partner when it comes to exports, and the second largest (after Japan) in imports. The United States is also among Thailand’s largest foreign investors, especially in the areas of petroleum and chemicals, finance, consumer products and automobile production. With an economy that is export-dependent — exports account for 60 percent of the gross domestic product — the Thai government is focusing on domestic stimulus as well as foreign trade and investment. It is considering privatizing services including power generation and transportation.

With a population of close to 50 million, South Korea is about the size of the state of Indiana, making it one of the world’s highest population in terms of density. South Korea’s population is one of the most homogenous: except for a small Chinese community (about 20,000), most Koreans share a common cultural and linguistic heritage. The language spoken is Korean, which is very similar to Japanese. Only half the population actively practices religion; among this group, 49 percent are Christian and 47 percent are Buddhist.

The capital of South Korea is Seoul. Its terrain is partially forested mountain ranges separated by deep, narrow valleys, as well as plains on the coasts. South Korea’s natural resources include coal, tungsten, iron ore and limestone, as well as agricultural products including rice, vegetables and fruit. Exports are mostly electronic products (semiconductors, cellular phones, computers), automobiles, machinery and equipment, steel, ships and textiles. Imports include crude oil, food, machinery and transportation equipment, chemicals and chemical products, base metals and metal articles.

The Republic of Korea (powers are shared between the president and legislature) is the United States’ seventh largest trading partner and is the 12th largest economy in the world. South Korea is separate from North Korea. A peace treaty between the two has never been signed, but they remain trading partners. Both joined the United Nations in 1991. Relations have become tense since 2002, when North Korea admitted the existence of its highly enriched uranium program. Talks regarding the elimination of the program are ongoing.

Only 264 square miles, with a population of 4.19 million including permanent residents and foreign workers, Singapore is a densely populated city-state. About 77 percent of the population is Chinese. English is widely spoken.

Politically, Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a president (chief of state) and a prime minister (head of government). The country has virtually no natural resources. Manufacturing and services are the two powerhouses of the economy, with electronics leading Singapore’s manufacturing sector. Exports also include petroleum products, food/beverages, chemicals, textile/garments and transport equipment. Singapore imports aircraft, crude oil and petroleum products, electronic components, radio and television receivers/parts, cars, chemicals, food/beverages, iron, steel and textile yarns and fabrics.

The country gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. Since then its economic importance in Southeast Asia has grown disproportionate to its small size. Investments come from more than 7,000 multinational corporations, with foreign firms in almost all sectors of the economy. A free-trade agreement exists with the United States (the bulk of U.S. investment is in electronics manufacturing, oil refining and storage and the chemical industry). More than 1,300 U.S. firms operate in Singapore.

The country’s airport is a regional hub, served by 68 international airlines, and is currently being expanded with construction of a third terminal as well as a dedicated terminal for budget airlines (both expected to be completed in 2006). The Port of Singapore is the world’s busiest in terms of shipping tonnage and second only to Hong Kong as a center for container traffic.

Slightly smaller than the state of California, Japan is located on four main islands and 3,000 smaller islands. Its landscape is a mostly rugged, mountainous terrain (the most famous mountain is Mt. Fuji). Tokyo is the capital. The population is about 128 million, with most living in cities; more than 14 million live in Tokyo alone. Japan’s main religions are Shinto and Buddhist. Many citizens adhere to both faiths.

The country’s literacy rate is an impressive 99 percent. The government is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy government, with the head of government the prime minister, responsible to the Diet (legislature). The emperor is a symbol of the state.

Japan’s 2003 gross domestic product was $ 4.2 trillion. Its industrialized, free-market economy is the second largest in the world. The country is especially competitive when it comes to foreign trade. Japan has few natural resources, and trade helps it earn foreign exchange needed to purchase raw materials. Japan is the United States’ third largest trading partner overall and its largest for aircraft, software and agricultural products. Japan is, in turn, a major buyer of U.S.-manufactured goods including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, photo supplies, commercial aircrafts, non-ferrous metals, plastics and medical and scientific supplies. Japan is also the largest foreign market for U.S. agricultural products. Newer U.S. investment includes the areas of financial services, Internet services and software.

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