A Change of Guard

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Friday, 31 August 2012

US firms suggest ASEAN improve financial services

Friday, 31 August 2012 
May Kunmakara and Gregory Pellechi 
Phnom Penh Post
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk (left) stands next to Cambodia’s Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidth yesterday in Siem Reap. Photograph: Heng Chivoan /Phnom Penh Post
Although US businesses across ASEAN have expressed a positive investment outlook towards Cambodia and the other members of the regional group, they are unsure of how to take advantage of the free-trade agreement with China, insiders said at the first-ever ASEAN-US Business Summit, which kicked off yesterday in Cambodia.

While praising the Kingdom and ASEAN in general, the US delegation said that their businesses in the region seem unable to take advantage of all the assets that ASEAN has to offer.

US Chamber of Commerce Senior Director of Southeast Asia John Goyer told the Post that much of what was discussed yesterday at a seminar called “Digital Economy and Innovation” concerned the use of e-commerce, digital transactions and credit cards, aspects of the economy that ASEAN’s less-developed countries, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos,  do no rate particularly strong. He added that, for all the positive aspects of ASEAN, US businesses were not able to fully utilise everything it had to offer like the free trade agreement (FTA) with China.

As to why that is the case he said: “The short answer is, we don’t know. But we do know fewer than half [of American companies in ASEAN] are taking advantage of these agreements.”

Goyer’s focus on the financial and digital services as the key “ingredients in the economic development recipe” of ASEAN that would aid both local entrepreneurs and foreign businesspeople had its roots in a recent business trip.

In May, Goyer visited Myanmar and said he was unable to use anything beyond cash.

“We had to take sufficient cash. Not just any cash but clean, crisp bills. We couldn’t use credit cards. In Myanmar, US citizens cannot use credit cards due to US sanctions, which is a deterrent. You could have more tourists, businesspeople going into such a place if they could use other methods to pay.”

The summit was seen as chance to pave the way for interaction between the private sector, ASEAN member countries and the US in order to improve business relations, through discussions on such matters.

“The greater access to [financial services like credit cards, bank interchanges, and electronic payment gateways like PayPal] the greater the flexibility for an economy,” Goyer continued, highlighting the ways in which e-commerce and digital business aid not just a country but its people.

The lack of Cambodian infrastructure, including the aforementioned financial services, was one of the main concerns of respondents to a business satisfaction survey, with 44 per cent saying they were dissatisfied.

As a counterpoint to that, Cambodia had the best outlook for investment opportunities out of the 10 ASEAN members – 81 per cent of respondents view the Kingdom as a place to invest, which is higher than any other member of ASEAN and the region as a whole. Only 55 per cent of those surveyed, for example, rated ASEAN as a “very positive” place to invest.

Cambodia’s ASEAN Economic Minister and Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh said, the summit was a showcase for the private sectors in ASEAN and the US to pin-point problems businesses faced that economic ministers can address.

“This is the first ASEAN-US business summit that we arranged, even though we have  had a relationship of many years. This is the first time that the ASEAN Economic Ministers have consulted the US-private sector,” he said.

“This is a kind of dialogue that we try to entertain among the ASEAN economic ministers and the ministers around the region. We need the private sector to come and speak with one language so that we can address the issues in one way – it means we solve one; we solve for all,” Cham continued.

“I want to underscore the importance of this relationship for the United States. Our desire to have a comprehensive relationship with all of the members of ASEAN, that we have a good beginning discussion today [is vital],” said Ron Kirk United States trade representative on the sideline of the ASEAN Economic Minister-USTR consultation yesterday.

“From the dialogue, we will hear that, frankly, there is a lot of room to grow. So we think our desire to expand our economy by creating jobs, exporting will match with ASEAN’s desire for more economic integration and harmonisation among [its] members,” he added.

Secretary General of ASEAN Surin Pitsuwan stressed the fact that trade and investment between ASEAN and the US was flourishing. He pointed to the summit as another bridge to greater engagement in participating in the economic growth within and across the ASEAN countries.

“There is room to grow more and the potential and opportunities are tremendous,” he said. “All of the ASEAN countries are aware that if we are not careful, that if we do not innovative ... we are at risk.”

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