Since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, closer regional economic integration and cooperation have been widely used for economic survival in the region. In the case of East Asia, ASEAN and China have strategic roles in preserving growth momentum in the region. Since 2002, ASEAN and China have signed a series of free trade agreements, including the agreement on trade in goods and services, investments, dispute settlement mechanism, and ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) formally set up in 2010 (Yang and Martinez-Zarzoso, 2014). It is argue that both China and ASEAN would get benefit from the formation of ACFTA. It can help member countries of ASEAN to access the wealthy Chinese market, fostering their economic growth. At the same time China could get benefit from it because ASEAN member countries are commonly resource rich countries that can provide and support China’s production and help it to expand its market to all countries in the Southeast Asia, strengthening economic cooperation and trade activities among ACFTA member countries.

However, the continuous impact of the 2008 global financial crisis has forced governments of ASEAN countries to introduce nontariff barriers (e.g. green barriers and technical barriers) in order to protect domestic industries. Such barriers significantly influenced China’s export to ASEAN countries. Under such a circumstance, in October 2013 the Chinese government proposed the updated version of ACFTA with the aim to strengthen trade cooperation among them (Zhang and Wang, 2015). In order to know whether this is an effective way for China to promote its export and whether there exists room for further improvement, a good understanding of China’s trade potential to ASEAN countries is necessary. This is the main objective of this research essay.

The rest of this essay is organized as follows. Following the literature review, the methodology and measurement of China’s export potential are explained. The empirical results of the analysis including the export performance is presented in the next section before the concluding comments.

Literature review

The stochastic frontier gravity model was employed to analyse the Chinese trade flows to the ASEAN countries. This model is used by many scholars and researchers as benchmark to estimate the trade flows between countries. It is used extensively in explaining the consequences of diverse policy and other trade flow determinants with two key variables (the size of the economy and distance) always included (Armstrong et al. 2008).

As pointed out by Kalirajan and Singh (2008), trade flows can be constrained by three factors: (i) natural constraints like population, income, geographical distance and transport costs; (ii) ‘behind the border’ constraints, including institutional and infrastructural rigidities in the exporting country; and (iii) ‘beyond the border’ constraints, which consist of explicit constraints such as import tariffs, and implicit ones, such as institutional and infrastructural rigidities in the importing country, which are often hard to measure. The non-negative error term in the stochastic frontier gravity model represents the ‘behind the border’ inefficiencies in the exporting country that prevents it from reaching its trade frontier, and the random term captures all other disturbances including ‘implicit beyond the border’ (Armstrong et al. 2008). Knowing the factors hindering trade and undertaking reforms or measures to addressing them could potentially lead to trading at the frontier.

An exporting country reaching its trade frontier indicates that this country has achieved its trade potential, hence, trading in the most efficient manner. In other words, it has achieved both technical and allocative efficiency (Kalirajan and Shand 1999), leading to higher trade flows. As a result, economic growth could be enhanced, leading to the improvement of people’s welfare.

Methodology and measurement

Trade potential is the trade achieved at a frontier that estimates a level of trade that might potentially be achieved through open trade and frictionless trade possible given current trade, transport and institutional technologies or practices (Armstrong et al. 2008, p.3). In order to see China’s export potential to 10 ASEAN countries (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam), this research paper constructs the export trade equation on the basis of the stochastic frontier gravity model using a panel data across a 4-year time span (2012-2015). This model is considered useful to answer the research question more effectively and accurately since its aim is to capture trade resistances not only the explicit resistances but also beyond the explicit ones, though the implicit resistances are sometimes difficult to measure (Armstrong et al. 2008; Kalirajan and Singh, 2008). This will further explain the reasons of why production is not at the technological frontier (Margono et al. 2011, p.664).

The data on GDP, population, exchange rate, exports and tariffs are sourced from the World Bank World Development Indicators data, World Bank Integration Trade Solution (WITS), and from the International Trade Centre (ITC). The data on the distance between China and the ASEAN countries is gathered from the GeoDist (CEPII database). Table 3 in the appendix shows this data. In this study, the stochastic frontier (Frontier 4.1) production function is used to do the regression with the basic gravity model converted to log form.

The gravity equation for exports (Kalirajan 1999) can be estimated as

lnXij = ln f(Zi; β) exp(vi-ui)

where the term Xij represents the actual exports from country i to country j. The term f(Zi; β) is a function of the determinants of potential bilateral trade (Zi) and β is a vector of unknown parameters. The ui and vi represents the single sided error term and the double-sided error term, respectively. ui which is assume to follow normal distribution, N(μ, σ²u) is the combined effect of the economic distance referred by Anderson and Roemer, which emanates due to different socio-political-institutional factors across countries. Whereas vi is usually assumed to be N(0, σ²v) , it captures the effect on trade flows of other left out variables, including errors in measurements that are randomly distributed across observations in the sample. Maximum likelihood methods can be applied on both cross section and panel data to estimate the gravity model discussed above and to verify the importance of the socio-political-institutional factors in constraining trade from reaching their potential levels between countries.

To analyse the determinants of trade between China and the ASEAN countries, the stochastic frontier approach of the gravity model employed in this research is as follows:

ln Xijt = α0 + α1lnGDPit + α2lnGDPjt + α3lnPopjt + α4lnDistijt + α5lnERjt + α6lnTarjt + α7lnDijt                           

where the variables are defined as follows: Xijt – is the total value of exports from country i (in this case China) to country j (ASEAN countries) in year t; GDPit– Gross Domestic Product of country i at year t; GDPjt– Gross Domestic Product of country j at year t; Popjt – population of importing country j; Distijt – is the geographical distance between the capital cities of country i and country j; ERjt – is the exchange rate of country j in U.S. dollars; Tarjt is the tariff applied by country j; and Dij – as dummy variable for importing country and this could be any trade agreement between country i and country j.

In the model given above, period t = 2012 to 2015 and all data are in yearly aggregates except the relative distance between countries. Country i refers to the exporting country, in this case its China and country j is the 10 ASEAN countries as mentioned earlier. This model assumes that there are no significant constraint for exports of these countries. The results of this model are presented in Tables 1 and 2 in the appendix. In Table 1, the coefficient estimates for all the variables are at the 5 per cent level. In this estimation, the eta coefficient is restricted to zero where impact of country specific effects are considered to be constant over time (Kalirajan 2007).

Empirical results of the analysis

The estimation results of the model are shown in Table 1 and 2 in the appendix section.  In Table 1, it shows that the both the estimated sigma-squared (σ²) and gamma (γ) are highly significant.  The estimated sigma-squared (σ²) which measures the mean total variation over the four year time period of the study is highly significant at 0.6658 indicating that Chinese exports to these ASEAN countries have varied greatly over this time period. The estimated gamma (γ) of 0.9783 and the small value of log likelihood function shows that this variation is due to technical inefficiency in the model.  The large proportion of the mean total variation in the model is the result of country specific socio-political-institutional factors concerning exporting countries and the importing countries (Kalirajan 2007). Thus, further analysis of variables into the model is needed to understand this variation.

The Table 1 shows that the distance, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) and the ASEAN countries GDP significantly affect Chinese exports. The income elasticity of 1.26% of the ASEAN country significantly affects the Chinese exports at the 5% significance level. The bilateral distance between countries have negative effect on the flow of exports which therefore, affect trade.  The results presented shows that one percent increase in trade distance between China and the ASEAN countries will affect Chinese export by 0.3%. This is a proxy associated with transport costs.  However, this does not significantly impact on China’s export performance as China may have increase their production and volume of trade. China’s large manufacturing volume might be the key reason of why its production process can absorb the effects of distance costs to its trading partners. This argument is supported by Kalirajan and Singh (2008, p. 15) in their analysis that argue that cost advantages China has are good tools to boost exports.

Export Performance

Table 2 in the appendix shows the estimation results of technical efficiency estimates of Chinese export performance with each individual ASEAN countries. It covers the technical efficiency of China export to the 10 ASEAN countries over the period of study.

The mean technical efficiency of 61% is significantly high. This indicates that overall China trade well with the ASEAN countries. This is partly because China’s export composition has changed significantly from agriculture sector to a more advanced manufactured goods, such as consumer electronics, appliances, and computers (Amiti and Freund, 2010). In addition, the reduction in costs (transportation and communication) and elimination of tariff barriers as stipulated under the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (see ACFTA, n.d.) has promoted trade expansion and technological transfer from China to ASEAN countries, developing sophisticated production networks and reducing costs (Armstrong et al. 2008, p.11). Not surprisingly then the mean trade performance (technical efficiency) is high.


Amongst the 10 ASEAN countries, the results shows that Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore recorded highest technical efficiency with 92%, 91% and 89%, respectively. This shows that these countries are the most efficient countries that China trade with. This might be because of the high demand of machinery and electrical products in those countries, which is the comparative advantage of China. This can be seen from a larger share of their import from machinery and electrical products from China (57% of Malaysia’s total import, 38% of Singapore’s total import and 44% of total Vietnam’s total import, 27% of Myanmar’s total import, and 21% of Cambodia’s total import) (Salidjanova and Koch-Weser, 2015).


The technical efficiency recorded for other ASEAN countries like Thailand, Lao PDR, Philippines and Indonesia is relatively low. This implies that China are not significantly exporting to these countries, particularly Lao PDR. However, similarly to Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and Myanmar, machinery and electrical products imported from China are also accounted for a larger share of their total import (50% of Thailand’s total import, 47% of Lao’s total import, 33% of Philippines’ total import, and 47% of Indonesia’s total import, and 21% of Cambodia’s total import) (Salidjanova and Koch-Weser, 2015). This indicates that there could be other trade barriers, such as political, economic or social factors, that undermine China’s export potential to achieve technical efficiency to those countries. Hence, further analysis might be necessary for future research. Despite the promotion of a range of trade reforms, including the ACFTA, there might be still trade resistances that have not been addressed by the reform. Identifying and measuring all these frictions is difficult as they can be country-specific social, economic, political, and institutional factors (Kalirajan 2007, p. 86)


From the above discussion of the estimation results, it can be concluded that China’s international trade with ASEAN countries has grown steadily since the implementation of the opening-up policy and the inception of ACFTA agreement with the ASEAN economies. China has become a big trader not only in the Asian markets but also in the world markets.

Although there still remains other factors affecting China’s export potential to ASEAN, the most important finding of our analysis is the fast growth of China’s trade from labor-intensive to capital and technology intensive exports. The massive technological transfer particularly through intermediate goods has contributed significantly to the improvement in China’s manufactured exports particularly to Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. In addition, progressive removal of non-tariff barriers and obstacles to trade in services and investment as well as increasing relocation of Chinese companies to ASEAN countries could lead to further growth in trade between China and ASEAN.


Table 1: Maximum likelihood estimates of the coefficients stochastic frontier gravity model for China export to ASEAN, 2012-2015

Variables Est. Coefficient Std. error t-ratio
Constant -45.1708 9.8443 -4.5885
GDP of China 1.2117 0.2303 5.2609
GDP of ASEAN countries 1.2612 0.1382 9.1278
Population -0.2582 0.1341 -1.9263
Distance -0.3192 1.0089 -0.3164
Exchange rate 0.1177 0.0457 2.5761
Tariff 0.0354 0.0154 2.2964
Sigma-squared 0.6658 0.2905 2.2923
gamma 0.9783 0.0108 90.2444
mu 0.0000
log likelihood function 8.2674
LR test of one sided error 71.4400




Table 2: Technical efficiency estimates

Trading partners Efficient est.
Brunei Darussalam 0.5389
Cambodia 0.8698
Indonesia 0.1520
Lao PDR 0.3684
Malaysia 0.9128
Myanmar 0.5907
Philippines 0.5057
Singapore 0.8922
Thailand 0.4224
Vietnam 0.9264
mean efficiency 0.6179












Table 3: China’s export determinants (2012-2015)

YEAR 2012 Trading partners Exports (000) China GDP (USD million) ASEAN GDP (USD million) Population Distance (km) Exchange rate (USD) Tariff (%)
1 Brunei Darussalam       1,252,438          8,462,000                  16,954            405,512 3650.79 1.25 2.39
2 Cambodia       2,708,103          8,462,000                  14,038      14,832,255 2594.53 4033.00 9.91
3 Indonesia    34,285,244          8,462,000                917,870   248,037,853 4202.83 9386.63 2.59
4 Lao PDR          937,094          8,462,000                    9,359        6,473,050 1993.52 8007.76 13.20
5 Malaysia    36,525,700          8,462,000                314,443      29,021,940 3530.76 3.09 2.81
6 Myanmar       5,673,756          8,462,000                  74,690      52,543,841 1745.99 640.65 2.75
7 Philippines    16,732,210          8,462,000                250,092      96,017,322 3106.22 42.23 4.37
8 Singapore    40,750,209          8,462,000                289,269        5,312,437 3841.78 1.25 0.00
9 Thailand    31,196,768          8,462,000                397,291      67,164,130 2248.06 31.08 4.78
10 Vietnam    34,212,587          8,462,000                155,820      88,809,200 2461.15 20828.00 5.66



YEAR 2013 Trading partners Exports (000) China GDP (USD million) ASEAN GDP (USD million) Population Distance (km) Ex rate (US$) Tariff (%)
1 Brunei Darussalam       1,703,776          9,491,000                  16,111            411,499 3650.79 1.25 2.39
2 Cambodia       3,409,507          9,491,000                  14,450      15,078,564 2594.53 4027.25 9.91
3 Indonesia    36,930,490          9,491,000                912,524   251,268,276 4202.83 10461.24 2.27
4 Lao PDR       1,722,577          9,491,000                  11,192        6,579,985 1993.52 7860.14 13.20
5 Malaysia    45,930,593          9,491,000                323,343      29,465,372 3530.76 3.15 2.81
6 Myanmar       7,338,689          9,491,000                  58,653      52,983,829 1745.99 933.57 2.75
7 Philippines    19,868,125          9,491,000                271,927      97,571,676 3106.22 42.45 4.37
8 Singapore    45,831,865          9,491,000                300,288        5,399,162 3841.78 1.25 0.00
9 Thailand    32,717,904          9,491,000                419,889      67,451,422 2248.06 30.73 4.78
10 Vietnam    48,586,298          9,491,000                171,222      89,759,500 2461.15 20933.42 3.54


YEAR 2014 Trading partners Exports (000) China GDP (USD million) ASEAN GDP (USD million) Population Distance (km) Ex rate (US$) Tariff (%)
1 Brunei Darussalam       1,746,814        10,351,000                  17,105            417,394 3650.79 1.27 0.46
2 Cambodia       3,275,454        10,351,000                  16,778      15,328,136 2594.53 4037.50 4.85
3 Indonesia    39,060,020        10,351,000                890,487   254,454,778 4202.83 11865.21 2.27
4 Lao PDR       1,838,932        10,351,000                  11,716        6,689,300 1993.52 8048.96 5.22
5 Malaysia    46,355,435        10,351,000                338,104      29,901,997 3530.76 3.27 2.81
6 Myanmar       9,367,605        10,351,000                  64,330      53,437,159 1745.99 984.35 2.75
7 Philippines    23,474,238        10,351,000                284,777      99,138,690 3106.22 44.40 4.37
8 Singapore    48,911,898        10,351,000                306,344        5,469,724 3841.78 1.27 0.00
9 Thailand    34,293,357        10,351,000                404,320      67,725,979 2248.06 32.48 3.59
10 Vietnam    63,731,485        10,351,000                186,205      90,728,900 2461.15 21148.00 3.43



YEAR 2015 Trading partners Exports (000) China GDP (USD million) ASEAN GDP (USD million) Population Distance (km) Ex rate (US$) Tariff (%)
1 Brunei Darussalam       1,411,657        10,866,000                  15,492            423,188 3650.79 1.37 0.46
2 Cambodia       3,770,011        10,866,000                  18,050      15,577,899 2594.53 4067.75 4.85
3 Indonesia    34,375,284        10,866,000                861,934   257,563,815 4202.83 13389.41 2.27
4 Lao PDR       1,212,287        10,866,000                  12,327        6,802,023 1993.52 8147.91 5.22
5 Malaysia    44,192,327        10,866,000                296,218      30,331,007 3530.76 3.91 2.81
6 Myanmar       9,429,575        10,866,000                  64,866      53,897,154 1745.99 1162.62 2.75
7 Philippines    26,692,700        10,866,000                291,965   100,699,395 3106.22 45.50 4.37
8 Singapore    53,139,141        10,866,000                292,739        5,535,002 3841.78 1.37 0.00
9 Thailand    38,310,626        10,866,000                395,282      67,959,359 2248.06 34.25 3.59
10 Vietnam    66,381,154        10,866,000                193,599      91,703,800 2461.15 21698.80 3.43



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