It seems that just about every major Asian economy is warming to the idea of a CBDC now, and India is no exception. Shaktikanta Das, governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), said recently New Delhi may be ready for digital rupee trials by year-end.
Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and is rapidly adopting digital financial technology, including blockchain-based solutions. Thus, it is only natural that central banks in the region are starting to think about a possible role for digital fiat currencies. The first country to make the jump to a CBDC is Cambodia, and it will definitely not be the last.
Try as it might, the cryptocurrency industry has not yet been able to shake its reputation for being not quite above board. The rebellious, underground side of crypto has won it many devoted fans – just not usually among financial regulators. But what if crypto – like many segments of Asia’s fintech industry – found a home in Singapore?
The crypto party may be over in South Korea, where the government is less than ecstatic about the widespread use of decentralized virtual currency in its economy. Unlike Japan, a crypto pioneer that has always been tolerant of decentralized digital currency, South Korea sees it as somewhere in between an annoyance and systemic financial risk. Seoul is now moving to curtail crypto’s influence in the country through strict regulation and higher taxation.
To date, South Korea has been less enthusiastic about launching a central bank digital currency (CBDC) than China or Japan. Beijing leads the world in CBDC development while Tokyo sees a CBDC as a necessity to stay competitive with its giant neighbor. Yet Seoul is now coming around to the need for a digital fiat currency, even if one of the government's purposes in developing one is to reduce the use of crypto in its economy.
Korea's K bank may have finally found the secret sauce. Long a laggard among Korean fintechs, the country's first digital lender is now riding the bitcoin boom thanks to a tie-up with the crypto exchange Upbit. Under a deal K bank and Upbit reached in June 2020, retail investors who want to trade crypto with Upbit must do so through the digital lender. Since last March, Korea has required exchanges to work with lenders like K Bank to ensure the use of valid, real-name accounts for trading. Eager to capitalize on the bitcoin boom, retail customers are signing up at K bank in droves.
The crypto faithful are crying foul as India once again mulls banning decentralized virtual currency. They say pulling the plug on crypto now would be like banning the internet in the 1990s - a reactionary move that would have grim repercussions for India's economy. To be sure, some Indian investors would lose out if they could no longer trade cryptocurrencies. They currently hold about US$1 billion worth. The fintech startup ecosystem might be hurt. But it is hard to imagine the broader Indian economy suffering.
Japan has noticeably stepped up its bid to become an international financial center over the past year. The immediate catalyst has been Hong Kong's political troubles. Japan would like to attract international financial institutions and talent from Hong Kong, offering a more predictable and stable business environment. Yet Japan's biggest financial opportunity lies not in replacing Hong Kong, but rather in developing itself as Asia's premier cryptocurrency hub. Japan has a big head start over its competitors in this area. With perseverance, it can emerge ahead of both Singapore and Hong Kong.
Japan may be a cashless payments laggard, but it still plans to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC). Tokyo's newfound interest in a digital yen derives at least in part from a desire to stay competitive with China. Beijing's launch of DCEP pilots this year showed that it was leaps and bounds ahead of other countries in the CBDC department. At the same time, a CBDC offers Japan a chance to accelerate the overall digitization of its financial system. Cash still accounts for about 73% of all transactions in Japan.
Cambodia has become the first country in Southeast Asia to launch a blockchain-based payment platform backed by its central bank. The Cambodian government is calling the platform, known as Project Bakong, a "retail central bank digital currency." Co-developed with the Japanese fintech firm Soramitsu, Bakong enables transactions in both Cambodian riel (KHR) and US dollars and works with Cambodia's existing payment systems. The Bakong app allows users with a Cambodian phone number and bank account to set up a digital wallet in either Riel or US dollars, transfer between accounts and make payments with a phone number or QR code.
U.S. regulators have always been ambivalent about blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. That translates to a lack of regulatory clarity for firms operating in the space. In the U.S., crypto could be a currency, property, commodity or security, depending which regulatory authority you ask. But for now, it remains in limbo. Frustrated with this situation, San Francisco-based Ripple Labs is considering packing its bags and relocating to Japan or Singapore, countries which have taken a more proactive approach to regulating cryptocurrency than the United States.
Facebook's virtual currency initiative is getting a much needed boost with the addition of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek to the Libra Association. Temasek is the first member based in Asia and brings the city-state's fintech prowess to the table. Over the past decade, Singapore has emerged as Asia's preeminent fintech hub. Its government has approached fintech as an enabler of a wider variety of financial services rather than a mere disruptor of the status quo. If Libra is going to succeed, it will need to move in that direction.
South Korea is eager to introduce more digital applications into its financial system, but unsure how far it wants to go with digital currency. That goes for not just crypto, but central bank digital currency as well. For now, payments is one fintech segment in which South Korean tech giants are poised to launch new applications.
Japan stealthily has become among the world's most pro-crypto countries. Amidst the boom and gloom that have defined the crypto space, Tokyo has avoided irrational exuberance or draconian restrictions on the use and trade of virtual currency. Instead, it has quietly incorporated digital currency into its existing financial system, linking it to the wider push to boost cashless payments. In Asia, no nation has been more consistent in its crypto approach. The next logical step would be to create a central bank digital currency. Japanese officials, however, have yet to commit to a CBDC. Pressure is mounting though, especially as China pushes ahead with its sovereign digital currency.