Thursday, January 18, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, January 18, 2001

Economic forum addresses a changing Asia

By Glenn Scott
Advertiser Staff Writer

In Japan, the old outnumber the young. There are more people older than 65 than younger than 15.

With life expectancies the longest in the world and a birth rate declining to less than 1.4 per woman, Japan faces huge challenges in the next 50 years sustaining pension systems and running an economy with a shrinking workforce, economist Andrew Mason said yesterday.

And Japan isn’t the only aging society in East Asia, either. It simply leads a trend occurring also in South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere as the changing face of the region is taking on a few more wrinkles.

As one of several speakers yesterday at an East-West Center forum titled "Doing Business in a Changing Asia: A Strategic Vision," Mason, a University of Hawai’i professor, said the aging of East Asia carries implications for Hawai’i.

An obvious issue is tourism. For many in the United States, retirement is the time to travel. But among the Japanese, he noted, the younger generations tend to travel, while older folks stay home.

That suggests problems for the Islands in the short term. But Mason, who says demographers often must study issues 50 years in advance, sees other trends at work as well.

Because each successive generation in Japan seems to be more travel-conscious, he said, the tourist patterns may change.

"There is probably reason to believe that the elderly in Japan will travel more and will be healthier," he said following his afternoon talk to business and academic leaders. "We should be able to attract more over time."

Mason thinks businesses here also can watch for involvement in the financial services sector, as the Japanese seek more professional help managing their straining savings and pension systems.

Another area gaining attention in the Islands is the possibility of providing health-care services to Asia’s aging residents seeking more help than their cost-conscious programs at home offer.

"There is potentially quite a large market there," Mason said. "My question is, can Hawai’i tap into that?"

His notion is to create local partnerships here with brand-name health-care providers, such as the Mayo Clinic, that would help to draw clients.

The benefits and strategies of foreign involvement in East Asian economies was a chief topic yesterday, the first of two days of lectures by about two dozen speakers, many from Asia and the Mainland. Some of the lectures were aimed at tweaking U.S. policy, such as keynote speaker Tom Plate’s suggestions to President-elect Bush to devote more attention to Asia than the Clinton administration did.

Plate, a Los Angeles-based newspaper columnist specializing on Asia, advised Bush to heed the determined diplomatic successes of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung for efforts to improve relations with North Korea through humanitarian initiatives rather than through greater shows of force.

"I would listen much more closely to rational visionaries like the Nobel Prize-winning South Korean president than irrational Star Wars visionaries who really must be smoking something," he said.

Vinod Aggarwal, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is a trade strategist, told listeners that companies doing business in Asia need to be prepared for what he called "non-market strategies" to complement traditional market initiatives.

He noted, for instance, that once Volkswagen officials gained a foothold manufacturing cars in China, they began lobbying the Chinese government to keep out other foreign manufacturers.

"It’s not always a matter of pushing for open markets," he said.

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