This is a special year for our region. This month, Southeast Asian capitals play host to three major summits. Cambodia hosted the Asean Summit from Nov 10-13 and the G20 Summit has just been held in Bali, Indonesia. This weekend, Thailand hosts the annual leaders' summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec).
Without any doubt, the key objective of Apec is for leaders to promote economic growth and investment among Pacific Rim countries. But the reality is that the core objectives will be overshadowed by the continuing US-China rivalry in which Asean member states will be pressured to take sides.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and its subsequent, adverse global economic ramifications will also remain top of the mind during Apec. The conflict has created more global uncertainties, affecting energy prices, international trade, global supply chain investment and maritime trade routes in the South China Sea and the Pacific. And let's not forget the continuing of post-Covid recovery efforts.
That said, it would be a missed opportunity if visiting leaders and their business delegations fail to explore investment opportunities in this region, particularly, Thailand's 4.0 economic strategy -- the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).
The EEC is a major infrastructure project that helped Thailand's economic development 30 years ago. The initiative includes the clusters of roads, dual-track and high-speed rail and air and sea projects connecting Bangkok to the three eastern provinces of Chachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong.
But the EEC is about more than enhancing transport connectivity. The key economic initiative, which aims to take the country up the economic development ladder, promotes investments in decarbonisation, health and well-being, logistics, education and human resource development and digitisation in 12 targeted industries, including agriculture and defence.
Overall, the progress of the EEC Phase 1 has exceeded its target. From 2018 to this year, projects worth 1.8 trillion baht have been approved, higher than the 1.7-trillion-baht target set five years ago. Investment certificates worth over 1 trillion baht have been approved for the 12 targeted industries.
But like other countries across the globe, Thailand's economy nose-dived during the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected 4.6 million Thais, including the about 32,000 who died from the disease.
In 2020, Thailand lost at least 2.2 trillion baht in national revenues. Most of those affected were low-income employees, labourers, people in the service sectors and the middle class. The economic loss at the EEC was about 170 billion baht.
Last year, Thailand's economy and EEC had not yet fully recovered. The economy only grew at 2%, unable to reach its 5% potential. This was because the service sector was hit hard for a long period due to the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants.
Fortunately, recovery is on the way. The Thai economy is expected to continue to expand this year and next year, driven by domestic demands and tourism. If all goes as planned, the country's GDP growth is expected to reach pre-Covid levels by mid-next year.
The tourism industry, which recorded over 10 million visitors this year, is forecast to welcome 20 million next year and 30 million in 2024. Before the pandemic hit, in 2019, 40 million tourists visited Thailand.
As the host of Apec, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is expected to raise issues related to the revitalisation of the economies of the Asia-Pacific region post-pandemic. He is expected to ask Apec delegates to support, where and when they can, various EEC projects and initiatives.
Even prior to the start of Apec, a top-level Thai team was to escort representatives of the German Asia-Pacific Business Association to the EEC for briefings on various investment opportunities.
Gen Prayut is also expected to urge delegates to support Thailand's Bio Circular Green (BCG) model, which aims to push for sustainable growth by encouraging manufacturers to adopt techniques that can add value to their products with little to no impact on the environment.
At the recently held Cop27, United Nations members agreed to put the Paris Agreement to work with the global community to fight climate change. In Cop26, Gen Prayut committed Thailand to have carbon neutrality by 2050 and net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) by 2065. He also pledged to reduce GHG emissions by 30–40% by 2030 from the previous target of 20–25%.
The EEC's second cluster of industries, namely decarbonisation, is a key vehicle for the country towards achieving its climate objectives. The EEC's decarbonisation sector focuses on sustainable mobility and green and circular businesses.
The EEC is Thailand's primary magnet to attract investments in electric vehicles and the EV supply chain. It will also push for government policies, benefits, and other measures to support the local EV industry.
The target is to have 30% of all new cars produced in 2030 be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). In terms of the nuts and bolts, this means 725,000 pick-up trucks and passenger cars, 675,000 motorcycles and 34,000 buses and trucks.
Producing ZEVs also means related accessories are required and the EEC is targeting to have 12,000 fast-charging DC stations and 1,450 battery swap stations by 2030. This ambitious decarbonisation drive, which involves batteries, charging stations, related parts and testing centres can attract prominent brands from Japan, Europe and China. The objective is to make Thailand the centre of EV production in Asean.
Apart from zero emission vehicles, the EEC's goal is to become an industrial investment zone for the green and circular economy. The target is a 10% reduction in EEC greenhouse emissions compared to last year's levels.
Next, 40% of new investments in EEC must apply the principles of green and circular economy in their operations. EEC support for the global trend of green investment will further attract hi-technology industries to invest in EEC.
The EEC strengthens Thailand's competitiveness in the global arena, increase opportunities for new investments, create jobs and distribute economic prosperity to other parts of the country. The EEC is a significant economic make-over for the country. The EEC is the answer for Thailand's future.
Pichai Chuensuksawadi is a former editor of the 'Bangkok Post'. He is now a committee member of the Foundation of Public Policy and Good Governance.