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Trade war bolsters Chinese interest in manufacturing in Thailand

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More Chinese manufacturers are looking to Thailand as a production base to avoid US tariffs, based on trends in demand for the South-east Asian nation's industrial estates.

[BANGKOK] More Chinese manufacturers are looking to Thailand as a production base to avoid US tariffs, based on trends in demand for the South-east Asian nation's industrial estates.

WHA, the top Thai provider of such estates, said it expects Chinese companies to account for as much as half of its land sale contracts both this year and next, up from about 12 per cent in 2018. The firm also develops industrial parks in Vietnam.

"People are moving some production," David Nardone, the group executive for the firm's industrial-development unit, said in an interview. "It will be a significant impact for Thailand and Vietnam. A drop of water for China can be a flood for us, because of the different size of the economies."

Thailand has rolled out incentives including tax breaks to woo manufacturers seeking to skirt the tariffs the US and China have imposed on each other. Recent evidence suggests rival Vietnam has pulled ahead in the race to lure producers.

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For instance, more than three times as many companies are planning to relocate or divert production from China to Vietnam than to Thailand, according to research by Nomura Holdings.

At the same time, the value of net foreign-direct investment applications to Thailand from Chinese firms is surging. It rose five-fold in the first half of 2019 compared with a year earlier, Board of Investment data shows.

Chinese and Hong Kong applications combined were worth about US$1 billion, second in value only to Japan, whose firms have long manufactured in Thailand.

WHA expects to add six industrial parks to its current roster of 10 in Thailand and has begun selling space in its estate in Vietnam.

Mr Nardone doesn't see Thailand and Vietnam as competitors, saying each has strengths and weaknesses. It takes a long time to set up plants in Vietnam, while Thailand has a labour shortage, he said.

Manufacturers appear to be moving only a slice of production out of China given the size of its market, he added in the Sept 19 interview in Bangkok.

WHA's shares have climbed about 8 per cent this year, exceeding the 4.6 per cent rise in Thailand's benchmark SET index of equities.

Thai officials have said companies including Sony, Sharp, and Harley-Davidson are moving some manufacturing to the country.

They are hopeful foreign-direct investment will help revive the export-led economy, whose growth has slowed due to currency strength, the impact of the trade war and domestic political flux.

BLOOMBERG