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China's Strong Economy Helped Fuel Growth in Asia, UN Study Shows - 2004-04-16

A new study says low global interest rates and China's strong economy helped fuel growth in Asia over the past year, and that should continue this year. But the study warns governments that excessive growth, trade imbalances and budget deficits could lead to serious problems.

China boosted its exports by more than 30 percent last year, but its imports rose by 40 percent. A new United Nations report says, that import surge helped drive Asian economies higher last year, as Chinese factories bought Thai rubber, Malaysian palm oil, Mongolian wool and thousands of other goods.

At the same time, the report says, low interest rates and relaxed monetary policies around the world helped stimulate growth.

Growth rates in Asia ranged from just over two percent in Japan to more than 20 percent in Turkmenistan. China expanded by 9.9 percent, and India, Asia's other developing giant, grew 7.5 percent.

The report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or UNESCAP, forecasts continued growth this year.

Kim Hak-su is the head of UNESCAP. At a news conference Friday in Hong Kong, he warns of hazards ahead, particularly because interest rates are likely to start rising this year. While rates have been low, governments and individuals have borrowed a lot of money, stimulating Asia's growth.

"So there is some caution across the Asian governments, since they have a fiscal deficit [that] almost reached the limit," Mr. Kim said. "And also people got used [to] low cost of interest rates, so they tend to borrow heavily, so this easy money policy has some limit."

There also is a risk of overheating - excessive growth that leads to inflation and piles of unpaid consumer and corporate debt. Mr. Kim also warns that trade imbalances around the world and government budget deficits must be corrected or they can stall growth.

China's rapid growth is of particular concern. The national government is trying to gradually bring growth down to about seven percent - a level many economists think is sustainable. But, UNESCAP economist Raj Kumar said Friday, if China's economy slows too rapidly, the pain will extend beyond its borders, because China influences trade and investment around the world.

"There'll be losers, and apart from losers that Mr. Kim has mentioned in Asia, there'll be losers in the rest of the world as well," he said. "So that therefore, as I said, there has to be an orderly adjustment."

It is crucial, Mr. Kumar says, that countries diversify their economies, so they do not rely on just one market or one source of income.

The UNESCAP report also says governments must do more to ease poverty. Mr. Kim says about 800 million Asians live on less than $1 a day and that is two thirds of the world's total number of extremely poor.