The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), however, warned of significant risks that could derail the region's growth, principally the threat of a bubble building in China's red-hot economy.

The EIU said it is crucial that Beijing succeed in its plans to cool the economy, especially in sectors suffering from overcapacity.

"If policy tightening is insufficiently aggressive to curb investment in sectors that already suffer from overcapacity, a significant investment bubble could develop," it said.

"If a bubble is building, this could have significant repercussions, not just for China itself but for the rest of the region (and the world), which has been benefiting from the recent strong demand in that key emerging market," it added.

Dependence on exports

"Weak US demand, combined with the negative implications of the SARS outbreak (particularly in Singapore), held growth back in 2003... but both countries will accelerate in 2004 as US import demand picks up, with Singapore reaching 5% growth and Malaysia 5.2%"

Economist Intelligence Unit

The EIU also listed the region's dependence on external demand to drive growth, especially on orders from countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as a possible risk to growth.

"In addition, OECD import demand growth will remain far slower than during the bubble years of the 1990s, acting as a drag on Asia's highly export-dependent economies," the report said.

"Demand in the technology industry has improved over the past six months but remains sluggish in comparison to the heady growth rates seen in the late 1990s," it added.

Prospects for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping are likely to remain mixed from 2004 to 2008 with gross domestic product (GDP) growth to average 4.8% during the period, the EIU said.

Singapore and Malaysia are expected to benefit from the resurgent US economy, a major buyer of goods from the two coutries, it said.

"Growth in Malaysia and Singapore, owing to their high dependence on exports, will track trends in world trade," the EIU said.

"Weak US demand, combined with the negative implications of the SARS outbreak (particularly in Singapore), held growth back in 2003... but both countries will accelerate in 2004 as US import demand picks up, with Singapore reaching 5% growth and Malaysia 5.2%."

Thailand ahead

Thailand will remain one of the fastest growing ASEAN economies with growth tipped at 6.9% for 2004, boosted by the government's agressive fiscal and monetary policies, the EIU said.

In Indonesia, growth is likely to come in at 4.6% this year, up from 4.1% in 2003.

The EIU said political uncertainty in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year could hurt the economy.

"However, assuming political stability is maintained, opportunities provided by the state asset disposal programme, which is expected to gain momentum in 2004, will ensure a positive contribution to growth from investment during the second half of 2004 and into 2005."

The presidential polls in the Philippines this year are also likely to delay much needed economic reforms, the EIU said.

"The heated political atmosphere in the run-up to the elections will ensure that economic reforms are delayed and more serious problems cannot be discounted - rumours of coups and military insurgencies continue to circulate."

Still, GDP in the Philippines is expected to grow 4.5% on the back of strong overseas demand for the country's electronics
goods.