Thailand-based OEMs are set to benefit from the expansion of an existing auto tariff-free zone to ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in 2018.

These countries then would join the trading zone’s member countries Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to forge an ASEAN-wide automotive market bloc.

Sometimes labeled the Detroit of Southeast Asia, Thailand is a regional production and export hub for the world’s top automakers, including Japan’s Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Isuzu and Nissan, as well as U.S.-based General Motors, primarily Chevrolet, and Ford.

The Thai auto OEM sector almost certainly will overwhelm its Vietnamese counterpart once tariffs are scrapped. Thai manufacturers enjoy a high degree of local content, unlike Vietnam’s OEMs, which are limited to imported-parts-dominated complete-knocked-down assembly.

According to global market-research firm IHS, Thai OEMs can source more than 85% of parts and materials domestically, compared with Indonesian OEMs’ 75% and Vietnamese OEMs’ 10%.

“It is, of course, more expensive to assemble a CKD in Vietnam than import a (completely built-up) from Thailand, meaning Vietnam’s OEM sector will be dead in 2018,” predicts Uli Kaiser, president of the Thai European Business Assn. and publisher of the Thailand AutoBook, which provides information on the country’s auto-industry developments.

He tells WardsAuto this could hit Toyota especially hard, as its CKD plant in Hanoi could become obsolete.

Indeed, Thailand AutoBook data leaves little doubt this will be a David-versus-Goliath struggle, but one where Goliath wins. In 2015, Thai production reached 1.9 million units (passenger and commercial vehicles), compared with only 42,000 in Vietnam. On the other hand, citing significant potential for increased sales, the gap is far smaller in terms of market size, with 800,000 light vehicles sold in Thailand in 2015, compared with 200,000 in Vietnam.

Further Gains Via U.S.-Led Partnership

The combined markets in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are far smaller, at below 60,000 units per year in 2015, but Kaiser expects Myanmar to do some catching up, given the country’s relatively large population of more than 53 million and anticipated inflows of foreign direct investment as the country formerly known as Burma liberalizes.

Apparently the only remaining unknown in the equation is how the Vietnamese government will react. Whereas the government for decades has been unsuccessful in developing a sustainable auto-manufacturing sector, it remains under pressure by domestic assemblers and manufacturers to protect and nurture local production.

“Initiatives to support and promote the local sector have not worked so far. But to mitigate the impact of reduced tax revenue, the calculation of a special consumption tax has been reworked and this will make the import of (higher-powered) cars more expensive,” observes Dushyant Yashvikram Sinha, director-Asia-Pacific automotive and transportation at U.S.-based market research company Frost & Sullivan.

Michael J. Dunne, strategy and investment adviser and president of Hong Kong-based Dunne Automotive, notes ASEAN countries tendto use local excise taxes and non-tariff barriers to slow the momentum of imports.

“It’s still very much ‘Sell them where you build them,’ he says. “Vietnam’s opening in 2018 will be mostly show, less substance.”

TEBA’s Kaiser counters he has “talked to Vietnamese auto experts recently and they see no chance” of the sector withstanding Thai competition. The analyst argues a heavy-handed last-minute maneuver by the Vietnam government is unlikely, as it would contradict Vietnam’s overall economic strategy of encouraging free trade.

He believes Vietnam will have been chastened by the experience of Indonesia and Malaysia, which have tried and failed to create strong national-champion auto sectors, singling out Malaysia’s “disastrous” Proton brand.

“If a country wants economic growth, it is not a good idea to make such an important tool for national development so artificially expensive with a mix of tariffs and non-tariff barriers expensive,” Kaiser says. “Malaysia’s roads are full with incredibly old and expensive cars, and it’s the consumers and the overall economy suffering from this.”

Kaiser says the fact Thailand is not part of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement will not save TPP member Vietnam because Thailand will become a member within a few years.

“Thailand will almost certainly also join the TPP because otherwise, it would become uncompetitive within ASEAN,” Kaiser explains. “And the U.S. (the biggest TPP market) wants Thailand in for geo-strategic reasons, while Japan (the second-biggest TPP market) wants it in anyway because most of the Thai manufacturing sector is owned by the Japanese.”

Jessada Thongpak, senior analyst-ASEAN light-vehicle production forecasts at IHS Automotive, adds “Japan is not going to build more cars in Vietnam because of TPP, given that the total supply chain is in Thailand, not in Vietnam.”