Vietnam ’s trade relationship with the ASEAN is growing in importance, according to Louis Taylor, CEO of the Standard Chartered Bank in Vietnam , Laos and Cambodia .

“This year will be better for the domestic economy although conditions remain challenging,” he told a press conference held in Hanoi on March 7.

“Exports are likely to be a key driver to the country’s economic growth in 2013. We expect the shift of manufacturing to Vietnam from other developing countries to continue to benefit its trading sector. Free trade agreements currently under negotiation are also likely to favour continued improvement in external trade in the coming years,” he explained.

The ASEAN is the third-largest export market for Vietnam , accounting for more than 10 percent of the country’s total exports; it is the second-largest supplier to the country, accounting for 20 percent of the nation’s total imports, according to Taylor .

A press release from the bank noted that Vietnam ’s trade with the bloc had grown significantly over the last three years.

In 2011, Vietnam ’s exports to ASEAN reached 13.6 billion VND while imports from the bloc amounted to 20.7 billion VND. Last year, its total exports grew by 20 percent, outpacing other regional nations.

“Intra-bloc trade will continue to grow as member countries turn to new trade corridors to reduce their dependence on Europe and the US ,” Taylor said.

“Further regional economic integration would benefit Vietnam more and particularly help it increase capital and investment flows,” he stressed.

Taylor claimed that a relatively stable exchange rate benefited Vietnamese exports but Vietnam had seen trade deficits with Singapore , Thailand and Malaysia for the last few years, a situation he said could be improved if the country’s export structure was upgraded.

Regionally, the country exported primary products such as crude oil and rice and imported higher-end products including refined oil and electronic parts.

The ASEAN groups Brunei , Cambodia , Indonesia , Laos , Malaysia , Myanmar , the Philippines , Singapore , Thailand , and Vietnam. -VNA