Asia Inc. – Integration and Differentiation

BY SAPAN GUPTA

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A panel of diverse and distinguished speakers presented their views on the future of Asia from February 10-12, 2006 at the Asia Business Conference entitled “Asia Inc.: Economic, Social and Political, Integration and Differentiation.” The event was organized by the Asia Business Club, HBS; Harvard Asia Law Society, HLS; and China Caucus, KSG. The conference had 2 executive roundtables and 16 panels covering a wide range of subjects on the business environment in Asia and industries like venture capital, new media industry, healthcare, telecommunication and banking.

Mr. Ko-Yung Tung, Former Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank presented the reception keynote at the Fogg Art Museum. From the Fogg Art Museum, the conference moved to the HBS campus. Mr. Haruhiko Kuroda, President of the Asian Development Bank, delivered the opening keynote and set the tone of the conference by saying, “Asia must build strong regional economy, well integrated within itself and with the world including the United States.” He further commented that China should increase consumption and liberalize foreign exchange regime. He emphasized that Asia needs more regional institutions. This need was later substantiated in the conference by Eiji Hirano, Assistant Governor of Bank of Japan.

The irresistible forces of globalization are reshaping the Asian business models. Free trade agreements play a pioneering role in regional integration. However, trade cooperation has not contributed as much as expected to the welfare and development of Asia. Issues like the Asian version of NAFTA, implications of Asian Free Trade Area, and the feasibility of the Asian common market were discussed. One of the panels addressed the legal aspect of doing business in Asia and the panelists brainstormed on corporate governance and the process of due diligence in China. Jeremy Goodwin, who specializes in due diligence in China, said that “China is not a rule of law market and the enterprises must take due diligence seriously before venturing in China.”

The Mergers and Acquisitions panel moderated by HLS Professor Guhan Subramanian attracted the largest number of conference participants. HALS coordinated this panel, and the discussion involved current trends and developments in cross-border mergers, acquisitions and buy-outs. Chris Mayer, Partner, Davis, Polk, and Wardell, said that “the issues of corporate governance and the requirement of approval of government before the merger are the major impediments in the development of mergers and acquisitions in China.” Mr. Pramod Rao, General Counsel of ICICI Bank, India’s second largest Bank commented that “mergers and acquisitions are not growing in India due to the absence of competition laws and the strong presence of family owned businesses.”

The panelists seemed fascinated by private equity opportunities in the region and emphasized that China is a hot destination for foreign investment. Public and private partnership (PPP) is a new policy area in Asia. It is believed that this is a positive example of interaction and interdependence between government and business. PPP is applied in infrastructure construction, public health, education, scientific and technological innovation, etc. The panel on Banking and Credit in Asia examined the experiences of countries at different stages of development and elucidated the macro-economic trends.

The implications of Asian business culture for the future of business in Asia are critical, and the Asian markets demands high degree of customization. Mr. Cyril Shroff, Managing Partner of Amarchand Mangaldas, India’s largest law firm speaking at the executive roundtable said that the “business models used in other Asian markets may not necessarily work in India as India has unique requirements.” This is probably true for other Asian nations, too.

The panels addressed a wide array of areas. However, some of the current important issues which greatly affect the business propositions in Asia were missing. Such issues include the impact of the political situations in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq on international economic relations/trade; the future of outsourcing business; and the efficacy of micro-finance, bottom of the pyramids measures to alleviate poverty and unemployment in the Asian region. The list of speakers was impressive, but it had a relatively small representation of China’s domestic corporations, industry leaders and regulators.

Overall, the conference attracted a large number of participants on the second day, but turnout was low on the third day due to bad weather. It led to a shortage of organizers, lack of coordination with the speakers and poorly scheduled events. In a way, students of arguably world’s best management school could not respond to the challenges of weather and faltered for most part of the third day in managing their own conference.

However, credit cannot be taken away from the respective student organizations of HBS, HLS and KSG for having 80 distinguished speakers and coordinating the mammoth conference. At the end of the day, organizers, participants and speakers were left with a positive frame of mind about future developments in Asia, particularly in China and India.

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