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Six steps to further developing the UK-ASEAN opportunity

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As one of the fastest-growing regions in the world, Southeast Asia is on course to be the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030¹. Trade flows between the UK and ASEAN have been increasing but there is room for further growth. This means there are excellent opportunities for UK businesses to leverage their skills and experience in this region.

In March, the UK-ASEAN Business Forum, the UKABC’s flagship event of the year, brought together key decision-makers from the UK and ASEAN’s public and private sectors to discuss the growing UK-ASEAN trading relationship.

Here are six key takeaways from the event.

1. The need for upskilling via digital learning

Digital is always a key tool when it comes to boosting economic growth.

In the next couple of years, ASEAN is going to need 20 million additional people with digital skills – spread evenly across the region – and the UK can play a key role in supporting this.

Not only does the UK have the strength of its universities, but it also supports everyone from around the age of 14 in gaining digital skills.

That said, a large number of those needing to acquire additional skills in ASEAN will be adults. Upskilling and reskilling these people so they can take on jobs in the next stage of their careers presents a challenge. Enabling people to learn digitally, however, will help them move forward.

2. How to bridge existing divides

The digital divide is a real issue in ASEAN, leaving countries at different stages of development. There is an opportunity to facilitate the closing of that divide, and to make sure it doesn’t re-emerge through skills and capacity, and that the regulations and standards put in place are accessible to all populations.

AI could also play a role in bridging the digital divide, but in order to do so it’s vital that it is viewed not as a threat but as an opportunity to drive greater productivity and automation, allowing new jobs to be created and equipping people for that.

Recently, ASEAN digital ministers came together in Singapore and agreed to a set of shared standards on AI – so understanding these, as well as the current rules and governance, is crucial.

Ultimately, conversations need to continue so that AI becomes an accessible tool for all of the ASEAN countries.

3. Physical connectivity needs to be bolstered

Physical connectivity relates to transportation corridors – the role of road, rail, air, and shipping. And these corridors are going to have increased strategic importance as ASEAN continues to grow economically.

But looking across ASEAN, much of this infrastructure is either nearing, is at or is already exceeding capacity. The region currently hosts some of the busiest shipping and aviation routes in the world – with congestion in some of the more economically active areas well documented.

This is going to impact opportunity and productivity, so it needs to be addressed immediately. That will take a huge engineering endeavour – including world-class skills – to deliver the infrastructure that's needed to facilitate trade.

The UK has been delivering forward-thinking infrastructures for hundreds of years and has a fantastic, globally recognised suite of engineering codes and standards – with world-renowned engineering institutions now upholding these.

4. The importance of building dynamic infrastructures

To help ASEAN reach its full potential, building a robust dynamic infrastructure between member countries is of paramount importance.

An example of progress that has already been made in this space is the new bullet train that travels from Jakarta to Bandung in 30 minutes, compared to the several hours it used to take. The result of this is the connection of large metropolitan areas.

5. The role of energy connectivity across the region

It’s impossible to consider physical connectivity in terms of transportation corridors without considering the energy connectivity across the region. Once again, the UK has a good track record here.

Speakers at the event discussed how the UK is transitioning its economy away from fossil fuels towards more renewable generation. This is underpinned by a strengthening of the transmission and distribution system in the UK, as well as increased connectivity. These learnings can be leveraged to help ASEAN speed up the scale of its infrastructure delivery.

6. How to aid ASEAN's Net Zero journey

Like regions all around the world, Net Zero is a priority for ASEAN, and support is needed to create change in a sustainable way and to enable a more rapid transformation.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to achieving Net Zero is around unlocking funding and turning the billions that already exist in terms of financing into trillions. This is something that the UK financial sector can very much support with.

This is particularly important for ASEAN’s sustainable future because for the region to achieve its climate change goals – for it to be low carbon and climate resilient and be able to sustain climate issues – it requires $200 billion of green investment every year until 2030².

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