Southeast Asia’s transnational organized criminal economy is booming alongside increasing flows in legitimate regional trade, with underworld syndicates raking in more than U.S. $100 billion in annual revenue from narcotics smuggling and other illicit enterprises, the United Nations said Thursday.
The U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed this staggering figure in a statement it issued as some 200 diplomats and officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered in Bangkok for a high-level conference to discuss ways to improve border management and counter organized crime.
Trade flows within Southeast Asia have quadrupled over the past decade and are estimated to reach U.S. $375 billion per year by 2025, UNODC said.
“In parallel to these positive achievements, the criminal economy of East and Southeast Asia is growing, with conservative estimates of the value of transnational organized crime revenues exceeding U.S. $100 billion annually – more than the gross domestic product of several ASEAN-member states,” the U.N. agency said.
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who addressed the conference, warned that criminal syndicates and other nefarious groups could try to take advantage of the growing volume of legitimate commerce across the 10-member regional bloc.
“ASEAN economic and trade flows will continue to increase. While this is positive, it also provides increased opportunities for transnational crime groups who do not respect our borders,” he said.
“Illegal activities like trafficking often mirror legal flows and movements of goods and services, and as the economy expands criminal and even terrorist networks will look for ways to benefit,” added Prajin, who is also the justice minister.
During the conference, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, Thailand’s minister of transport, underscored the relevance of border management, as he highlighted major investments in infrastructure across the region.
Arkhom was apparently referring to a massive project to build roads and bridges in the region as part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s landmark geopolitical strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a modern-day Silk Road that aims to connect China to the rest of Asia and beyond.
“What we see as opportunities for economic and social development are seen by others as openings to expand cross-border criminal activity,” he said.
A significant increase in synthetic drug production and trafficking, growing timber and wildlife trafficking, as well as indications of new human trafficking and migrant smuggling patterns have been recorded in Southeast Asia, UNODC said.
China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) into ASEAN-member countries remains relatively small at 6.8 percent of the total net inflows in 2015, but Chinese corporations were currently involved in major infrastructure projects across the region, Singapore-based economist Weiwen Ng told Bloomberg News.
China accounted for 14 percent of net FDI inflows into Thailand last year, 8 percent in Vietnam and Indonesia, and 6 percent in Malaysia, Ng said. The Philippines received a marginal share of 0.14 percent, he said.