Published: 19:45, July 25, 2023 | Updated: 10:26, July 26, 2023
John Lee's ASEAN trip is expected to strengthen HK's role
By Johnny Hon

The current week-long visit by the high-level delegation led by Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu to Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia — key countries in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — is a further sign that, with COVID-19 finally behind us, and with a progressive and dynamic administration again at the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, to which social order and stability has returned, the city is once again fulfilling its role as an outward-looking global city and gateway to the Chinese mainland.

Leading a team of five top city officials and 30 industry leaders, including representatives from industry and commerce, financial services, transportation, logistics and e-commerce, as well as the innovation and technology sectors, the chief executive and his team are well placed to showcase Hong Kong’s unique advantages, including the city’s positioning as a regional and international hub for eight sectors under China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), namely international finance, innovation and technology, cultural exchange, trade, shipping, aviation, legal and dispute resolution services, and intellectual property. 

Moreover, by creatively integrating these sectors, Hong Kong can also play a leading role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, for example, in developing Web3, blockchain technologies, and digital economy.

The chief executive’s current tour got off to a flying start in Singapore. Western media outlets, like Bloomberg — especially recently — are fond of pitting Hong Kong and Singapore against each other, suggesting that one can only prosper and advance at the expense of, and to the detriment of, the other. 

As an outward-looking, business-oriented economy, joining RCEP is undoubtedly a logical and indeed essential move for Hong Kong

Of course, competition is an intrinsic and healthy component of any market economy. But to frame things in simply adversarial terms is to miss the bigger picture entirely. That bigger picture portrays an essential complementarity, where Singapore is the key financial heart of ASEAN and Hong Kong remains the best gateway to the Chinese mainland and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area in particular.

READ MORE: CE leads delegation in Jakarta on second leg of ASEAN tour

This perspective was well captured by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Speaking after his meeting with the chief executive, in words that the Western media would be well advised to note, Singapore’s leader said: “We have a very good relationship with Hong Kong. We kept that up even in COVID and now COVID is past … I think we should step up our relations again.”

As if to underline the point, the chief executive’s next engagement, together with Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore Heng Swee Keat, was themed, “Singapore-Hong Kong: Partnering for Success”. A truly apposite and appropriate theme.

Although the chief executive only assumed office in July 2022, this is already his second visit to ASEAN countries, having attended the ASEAN Economic Leaders meeting in the Thai capital Bangkok last November. It also follows his hugely successful visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in February. 

Within just a few months of that visit, Hong Kong companies have concluded massive deals with their Saudi, Emirati and other Middle Eastern counterparts. For their part, Arab investors, whether sovereign wealth funds or those from the private sector, increasingly see the Greater Bay Area as a great investment opportunity, and Hong Kong as their indispensable partner in unlocking this market.

Reflecting on his Middle East visit, the chief executive put it well, writing: “My takeaway message was clear and compelling. Hong Kong is their one-stop Belt and Road center for capital formation and for all the professional services they need to plan, build and manage their Belt and Road future.”

At a time when some countries are seeking to put pressure or even impose sanctions on Hong Kong, it is the Middle East and Southeast Asia that are emerging as vital and promising economic partners which will establish mutually beneficial economic ties with Hong Kong.

ASEAN countries are literally on our doorstep. They have been our neighbors and partners since ancient times and will remain so. Last year, ASEAN’s economy grew by 5.5 percent and its average growth over the past decade was 4 percent. With a population of 660 million, the regional grouping is already Hong Kong’s second largest trading partner, accounting for 13.7 percent of our trade in goods last year. The fact that ASEAN combines high-, middle- and low-income countries only serves to diversify the range of opportunities on offer.

The chief executive predicted that ASEAN and the wider region will become the biggest global economic engine in years to come.

Speaking of the wider region inevitably leads on to a key reason for the chief executive’s current visit, namely garnering support for Hong Kong’s bid to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was formally lodged in March last year. The fact that ASEAN and Hong Kong already concluded their own free trade agreement in 2017 will undoubtedly be conducive to this process.

READ MORE: CE to lead delegation to visit Singapore, Indonesia & Malaysia

As an outward-looking, business-oriented economy, joining RCEP is undoubtedly a logical and indeed essential move for Hong Kong. With 15 members in the Asia Pacific region, including all 10 ASEAN members, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand, RCEP is the world’s largest free-trade area, accounting for some 30 percent of the global population (or 2.2 billion people) and 30 percent of global GDP (or $29.7 trillion).

Being the region’s key international financial center, Hong Kong rightly has a place in RCEP. As the chief executive put it, “Hong Kong’s accession will add significant value to RCEP. And RCEP, in turn, will boost Hong Kong’s economy, and the business and investment opportunities of the economies and companies that work with Hong Kong … and that can only herald better times ahead for us all.”

Let’s all get behind the chief executive and work hard for those better times.

The author is the president of the Association for the Promotion of Hong Kong Heilongjiang Economy, and founder of the Global Group of Companies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.