For residents of these four upstart nations, surging exports mean more jobs, more factories, and more money to spend. Little wonder that the average rate of economic expansion in these nations is rising, reaching 7.3% in 2013, versus 5.9% five years ago. At the same time, China’s growth has slipped from 9.6% to 7.7%.
Taken together, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, along with their larger, more developed neighbor Thailand, are on their way to becoming The New China.
A key attraction for manufacturers is the region’s low wages, relative to those in China. Photo: Planet Observer/Getty Images
Though their collective economies are much smaller than China’s, they are growing rapidly and showing manufacturing dynamism that reminds people of China in the 1990s. Indeed, these five nations’ collective annual economic output, at $641 billion last year, equals China some 20 years ago.
A key attraction for manufacturers is the region’s low wages, especially compared with those in China, where factory pay has soared 14% a year in the past decade. The typical factory worker in China gets about $700 a month, versus $250 in Vietnam, $130 in Cambodia, $110 in Myanmar, and $140 in Laos.
With China getting so expensive, global brands are putting pressure on their Chinese suppliers to set up factories in The New China and other low-wage parts of Asia.
Low wages in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are luring manufacturers away from China, where wages have soared 14% a year for the past decade. Another advantage: While the average worker in China is age 30 to 35, in its up-and-coming rivals, it’s closer to 25 Sources: Int’l Monetary Fund; CIA World Fact Book; Standard Chartered; Japan External Trade Organization

And, even if pay is dismal by Western standards, the investment influx promises to better the lives of millions living in The New China.
While the main manufacturing centers are still in China for Chinese textile powerhouses like Luen Thai (ticker: 311.Hong Kong), Shenzhou International  (2313.Hong Kong), and Pacific Textiles (1382.Hong Kong), they are being encouraged by their branded customers, such as Nike  (NKE), Adidas (ADDYY), the Uniqlo division of Fast Retailing (9983.Japan), and Coach (COH), to put incremental investment into Vietnam, Cambodia, and other parts of Southeast Asia, says Nick Beecroft, a Hong Kong–based portfolio specialist with T. Rowe Price.
In a survey last year by the management consulting firm McKinsey, 72% of foreign buyers said they planned to get fewer of their manufactured products from China and more from lower-cost locations in Asia. “Most of the companies we come across” that get all their goods from China “tell us that over the next five to 10 years, 30% to 40% will come from China, and 30% to 40% from Vietnam and Cambodia,” says Bobby Bao, who manages the Fidelity China Region fund (FHKCX) in Hong Kong.
One fan of the region is VF  (VFC), the Greensboro, N.C., company that owns the Timberland, Nautica, and North Face brands. VF now gets 17% of its production, including outerwear, backpacks, and footwear, from Vietnam. China, in contrast, now accounts for about 24% of VF’s outerwear production, down from 30%-plus a couple of years ago. Says Tom Nelson, VF’s head of global sourcing: “Vietnam has 93 million people; they’re fairly young; they need work. A lot of business has moved from China to Vietnam, and maybe even some from Indonesia to Vietnam. The efficiency is good; so is the ease of setting up factories and running factories.”

VIETNAM-- GDP: $170.6 billion; GDPGrowth: 5.42%; Exports: $129 billion; Export Growth: 12.48%; Population: 93.4 million; Monthly Mfg Wage: $250
William Fung, chairman of Li & Fung (LFUGY), the giant contract manufacturer, comments that “at the level of widgets -- clothing, toys, shoes -- you’ll see the migration to Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the newest entrant, Myanmar.”
WHILE CHINA still attracts more than $300 billion in direct-investment net inflows, only 38% of that goes into factories, down from 56% in 2009. “That’s a sharp drop,” says Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute. “Foreign firms are considerably less interested in China as a manufacturing base.”
These changes are due partly to China’s own policies. In 2012, its labor force shrank for the first time ever, thanks to the nation’s longstanding one-child per family limit. China still has interior regions with surplus labor. It wants to develop industry in these areas, but wages have risen fast in them, too. On top of that, China has focused on capital-intensive manufacturing, which requires fewer low-cost, low-skill workers.
Meanwhile, the flow of factory investment into The New China has been helped by the policies of Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. Once Soviet-style command economies, they have relaxed their rules to better accommodate capitalism.
The region should benefit from coming trade agreements, too. Vietnam is expected to conclude a free-trade pact by early next year with the European Union. It will also get preferential treatment from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. is negotiating with 11 countries in the region. Significantly, China isn’t part of the negotiations, though it’s trying to negotiate a competing trade pact with Asian nations.
It must be said that infrastructure remains a problem in The New China. Roads are lousy and transport, inefficient. The Asian Development Bank reckons the region needs at least $50 billion worth of infrastructure improvements. Still, “the region is attractive from the standpoint of consumer demand and also labor supply,” while its big coastline is good for distribution, says Betty Wang, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
CAMBODIA -- GDP: $15.5 billion; GDPGrowth: 7.43%: Exports: $6.78 billion; Export Growth: 12.72%; Population: 15.5 million; Monthly Mfg Wage: $130

The manufacturing shift away from China is reshaping global shipping. Jon Windham, Barclays analyst for Asian infrastructure and transport, notes that U.S. imports of light-manufactured goods from China, such as apparel and furniture, are trending lower. “We believe the establishment of new export manufacturing clusters will further erode China’s market share,” he predicts. He expects to see more overseas investment by Chinese port operators, such as Cosco Pacific  (1199.Hong Kong) and China Merchants (144.Hong Kong). Perhaps the best play is shipping company Orient Overseas International (316.Hong Kong), which trades at 0.8 times book value. “It is operationally nimble and able to grow return on equity, even though the industry is still in pretty significant oversupply,” says Windham.
THE POSTER CHILD for Southeast Asia’s success is Vietnam, which sits on a busy trade route. “You need high savings rates, clear land, labor-market freedom, and low-cost labor. Vietnam is the one that’s most proximate [to China] and has most of these,” says Jonathan Woetzel, a Shanghai-based consultant for McKinsey. Once one of the world’s poorest countries, Vietnam is now squarely “lower middle income,” by the World Bank’s reckoning. A little more than 10% of its population lives in poverty, and its literacy rate is 94%.
Still, domestic demand has been weak, as Vietnam’s economy works through a pile of bad debt in the banking system. Hanoi aims to shrink bad debt to 3% of loans by the end of 2015, from 4.1% in July. Moody’s and Fitch recently upgraded Vietnam. Next year, economic output is expected to accelerate to 6.2% from 5.4% this year.
Vietnamese manufacturers are moving from soft goods into more-sophisticated items, too. The nation is benefiting by being close to the electronics supply chain. Chip maker Intel  (INTC) made its first investment there in 2010. One reason: High-end manufacturing pays a corporate tax rate of 10%, less than half of Vietnam’s usual 22%. Intel’s investment had a multiplier effect. Taiwanese, Japanese, and South Koreans followed. Japanese investors there now include Bridgestone (5108.Japan), Panasonic                  (6752.Japan), and Fuji Xerox.

LAOS -- GDP: $10.8 billion; GDPGrowth: 8.03%; Exports: $2.31 billion; Export Growth: 16.58%; Population: 6.8million; Monthly Mfg Wage: $140
Fully 70% of Japanese companies already in Vietnam plan to expand their businesses there. Samsung Electronics (SSNLF) and LG Electronics (066570.Korea) have announced large investments, including a $3 billion Samsung smartphone factory, bringing its total investment in Vietnam to about $11 billion. By 2015, Samsung expects to ship 40% of its phone handsets from Vietnam. Says Simon Male, director of Asian equities at Auerbach Grayson: “This replaces assembly work that was being done in Korea and China. It encourages other suppliers to relocate.”
Phones have surpassed textiles as Vietnam’s No. 1 export. And next year, Intel predicts, 80% of its computer chips will be manufactured in Vietnam. Says Saigon Asset Management CEO Louis Nguyen: “Almost every chip in the world [will have] that Vietnam touch.”
There have been backlashes against Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam. In May, China deployed an oil rig in contested waters in what it calls the South China Sea and Vietnam calls the East Sea. As a result, deadly riots broke out at some of Vietnam’s foreign-owned factories, with Chinese-owned plants being particular targets.
But Vietnamese authorities, knowing that foreign-owned factories account for about 60% of the country’s exports, acted quickly. They cracked down on rioters and unveiled several measures to compensate factory owners, including tax and rent breaks. In addition, Hanoi announced that it would cut red tape to attract more foreign investors.
All of these measures were clearly aimed at keeping Vietnam’s export miracle intact. “We think this is just the beginning of manufacturing growth in Vietnam,” says Trinh Nguyen of HSBC.
Buying stocks in Vietnam can be tricky. The country has more than 600 listed stocks, but many are tiny, and foreigners must buy through a local brokerage.
One way to play Vietnam is through the Market Vectors Vietnam exchange-traded fund (VNM), which trades on the New York Stock Exchange and has assets under management of $547 million. The ETF is up 12% this year.
Many top-performing Asia funds, including the highly regarded Wasatch Frontier Emerging Markets Small Countries (WAFMX) and Matthews Pacific Tiger (MAPTX), prefer companies that cater to Vietnam’s growing domestic wealth. In Vietnam, this means bigger stocks like Vietnam Dairy Products (VNM.Vietnam), the leading dairy producer. “It’s having a tough year due to high input costs, but we believe there is a lot of room for growth in consumption,” says Wasatch manager Laura Geritz.
The fund also owns Hoa Phat Group (HPG.Vietnam), the country’s largest steel maker. Says Geritz: “Our belief is that ‘round two’ means Vietnam steals manufacturing share from China, and this will drive aggregate economic growth. We are overweight Vietnam for this reason in our frontier fund.”
Another popular play is Kinh Do (KDC.Vietnam), a food producer, which is partnering with snack and candy giant Mondelez International (MDLZ) to sell its goods abroad (see picks table, below).

COMING UP FAST behind Vietnam is Cambodia. With a population of 15 million and economic output of $15.5 billion in 2013, that country saw its exports rise 12.7% last year, partly on gains in its garment industry, whose global clients include giants such as Scandinavian fast-fashion retailer H&M (HMB.Sweden), VF, and the apparel company Warnaco Group, a unit of PVH  (PVH).
Apparel prices have been kept low by Cambodian manufacturers, in part because of the country’s policy of waiving corporate income tax for garment manufacturers for five profit-making years after they start operating in the country. On top of that, Cambodia can export to Europe duty-free under the Generalized System of Preferences pact, which also benefits Laos and Myanmar.
Cambodian garment workers have been agitating for higher wages with some success. In September, eight major fashion brands, including H&M, pledged to pay slightly higher prices for Cambodian goods to defray increased costs.
NEXT IN LINE is Myanmar: population 56 million and annual output of $57 billion. One of its chief boosters is Li & Fung’s William Fung, whose company has established a purchasing office there. “We’re the company that takes Myanmar from the agricultural stage to the industrial stage,” he crows.
Once known as Burma, Myanmar ended 50 years of military rule in 2011 and is quickly reforming its foreign-investment rules. It has significant natural resources, including offshore oil and a sizable population. Last year, exports grew 15.6%; foreign direct investment rose at an even faster clip, 16.9%. The McKinsey Global Institute believes that cumulative foreign investment in Myanmar could hit $100 billion by 2030. Aside from Fung, investors include Ford Motor (F), General Electric  (GE), Sumitomo  (8053.Japan), Mitsubishi   (8058.Japan), and steel maker Yongnam (YNH.Singapore).

THAILAND -- GDP: $387.2 billion; GDP Growth: 2.89%; Exports: $225.4 billion; Export Growth: -0.18%; Population: 67.7 million; Monthly Mfg Wage: $370

Landlocked and bordered by Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand, Laos is large but sparsely populated. It has a population of 6.8 million, or 75 people per square mile -- a tenth of the density of Vietnam. Its annual economic output is just over $10 billion, but it is also attracting foreign investment, partly due to a plan to export hydropower to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Between them, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos have few publicly traded companies, but that’s likely to change as the economy expands. In an important first step, Myanmar plans to open a stock exchange next year.
THE LARGEST ECONOMY in The New China is Thailand, with a population of 68 million and annual economic output of $387 billion. Thailand has long been considered an investible part of Southeast Asia and has a stock market value of $438 billion.
Last year, Thailand attracted $12.7 billion in net inflows of foreign direct investment. But economic growth has stalled, owing to Thailand’s halting recovery from catastrophic floods in 2011. Then came the political turmoil that resulted in a military coup this year. Another problem: Thailand’s population is aging. Still, Thailand is one of Asia’s car-manufacturing hubs and a tech exporter: Ford and Seagate Technology    (STX) are both big investors.
Thailand has Southeast Asia’s most extensive road network, plus thousands of miles of coastline and waterways. A series of rail and highway expansions are planned. All of these will improve logistics capabilities, refashioning Thailand as “a regional production hub and help it attract more foreign direct investment and boost its cross-border trade, particularly with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam,” Standard Chartered wrote in a recent report. Thai consumers are already The New China’s wealthiest.
This year, Thai shares are up 21%. The stock market trades at 18.7 times earnings, and dividend yields are 2.9%, on average. One popular investment among top-performing Asia funds is Land & Houses (LH.Thailand), with a market cap of $3.3 billion. Another is seafood giant Thai Union Frozen (TUF.Thailand), which produces the Chicken of the Sea brand tuna.
For investors who prefer ETFs, there’s iShares MSCI Thailand  (THD). It has $532 million in assets and is up 21.9% this year.
Bangladesh could be considered part of The New China, though its history and traditional trade patterns tie it more to India and the rest of the subcontinent. The garment industry was growing rapidly in Bangladesh until a series of horrific accidents, including a factory collapse last year, exposed shoddy labor-safety practices. Export growth plunged, from 27.8% in 2011 to 1.6% in 2012. Foreign investment shriveled, too. Yet, the worst seems to be over, as factory inspections were stepped up and foreign companies committed to safety upgrades. Companies such as Gap  (GPS), J.C. Penney  (JCP), and Target  (TGT) intend to stay.

MYANMAR -- GDP: $56.8 billion; GDP Growth: 8.25%; Exports: $9.04 billion; Export Growth: 15.64%; Population: 55.7 million; Monthly Mfg Wage: $110

Stocks in Bangladesh have climbed 27% this year. One tempting play is Envoy Textiles (ENTL.Bangladesh), one of the country’s largest denim producers, which went public in 2012.
Thomas Hugger, chief executive of the AFC Asia Frontier hedge fund, notes that Envoy’s revenue is growing at a 50% clip this year and that profits have shot up 63%, while the price/earnings multiple is only 11. “The move away from China will benefit countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam over the next five to 10 years,” Hugger says. “This massive shift will ultimately increase consumption of basic items in these countries because more people, who currently make their living in the countryside from farming, will be able to find a job and will receive a regular salary, which will be more and more used for consumer items. Thus, both of our funds [AFC Vietnam fund and AFC Asia Frontier fund] are about 40% invested in consumer stocks.”
India also has ambitious plans to attract foreign investment, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to overcome difficult labor unions and Byzantine government bureaucracy.
China remains an amazing growth story, its industrialization having lifted some 500 million people out of poverty -- more than any nation before it. But as China moves to manufacturing more sophisticated products and a bigger chunk of its output is consumed domestically, the five nations of The New China will have an opportunity to write a growth story of their own -- one that could let foreign investors do well and do good. 
Yue Jiang contributed to this article.