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Getting started: Which country is the best gateway to the Asian market?

From business services to e-commerce, Asia presents a lucrative opportunity for Australian small to medium enterprises (SMEs) seeking global expansion. But where should you start?

With Asia’s economic outlook expected to remain strong – accounting for almost two-thirds of total global growth – there’s little wonder why Australian SMEs are eager to expand into Asian markets.


However, knowing where to start is another question altogether. Small organisations often struggle to negotiate the complex regulations and legislative obstacles inherent in the Asian market – and each country presents a different set of challenges.


The good news is that many nations in the region are now making it easier for Australian businesses to expand. Here are our top five gateway destinations for expanding into Asia.


1. Singapore


The World Bank ranks Singapore as the leading destination for doing business in Asia. According to government statistics, more than half of the 37,400 international companies with headquarters in Singapore use the city as the regional base for their Asia-Pacific operations.

English is the accepted language for most business communications, and a range of pro-business government policies and incentives are aimed at encouraging foreign business to use Singapore as a regional gateway to Asia. It is home to a particularly strong banking and finance sector, and is a major trade, logistics and manufacturing hub.


2. Hong Kong


According to Austrade, Hong Kong is one of Asia’s most receptive markets for foreign companies – driven largely by the work of government agency Invest Hong Kong, which helps overseas businesses set up shop in the economic zone.

The Hong Kong Government actively encourages the growth of technology companies in the city, with various funding programs available under the Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF). This has resulted in the accumulated investment of HK$10.8 billion across 5000 research and development initiatives. It’s also a popular regional hub formedia, design and other creative industries.


3. South Korea


According to Austrade, the Republic of Korea is both Australia’s third largest export market and the fourth largest economy in Asia. Reportedly, it also boasts one of the highest growth rates of all advanced global economies.

Austrade says that the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) improves market access for Australian companies, "creating new service opportunities, enhancing protection for investors in Korea and safeguarding competitiveness in this large market.” It is home to a particularly strong biotechnology industry, offers Australian firms opportunities in the aged care sector and has a voracious appetite for imported Australian wine.


4. Taiwan


The prevalence of familiar American-style business makes Taiwan a particularly attractive gateway destination for Australian businesses looking to expand their operations into China.

Clean energy supply is in hot demand in Taiwan as the government races to achieve its 15 per cent renewable energy target by 2025. This represents several opportunities for Australian wind and solar developers, as well as marine engineering companies involved in the construction and maintenance of on- and off-shore solar and wind farms. With an advanced internet network, Taiwan is also an Asian hotspot for international e-commerce businesses and IT companies.


5. Malaysia


Approximately 300 Australian companies have a physical presence in Malaysia, and a rapidly expanding middle class – more than 60 per cent of the population will fall into the middle or upper-middle income class by 2020. This offers lucrative opportunities for a range of Australian service- and product-based businesses.

Encouraging business services is seen as key to the Malaysian Government’s plan to transition the country into a knowledge-based economy by 2020. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry actively assists foreign companies to set up services across a range of sectors, including telecommunications, private schools and universities, and legal, architectural and engineering services.

The Asian market offers a wealth of opportunity to Australian SMEs, with several destinations actively encouraging and supporting foreign companies wanting to set up operations in the region.

Financial services companies would do well to look to Singapore as a regional gateway. Hong Kong is particularly friendly for creative industries; South Korea is home to a thriving biotechnology sector; Taiwan is a rich territory for Australian clean energy companies and e-commerce businesses; and Malaysia is welcoming of Australian legal, architectural and engineering companies.