By Dr. Swaran Singh/Ceylon Today
The Bo’ao Forum for Asia (BFA) is being held from March 26 to 29 in Bo’ao, the idyllic town in China’s southern- most and smallest province of Hainan.
It was in 2001, that 26 leading economies and emerging markets across the Asia-Pacific region led by China, established the Bo’ao Forum modelled on the famous Davos Economic Forum.
Since its inaugural meeting in April 2002, the Bo’ao Economic Forum has come to be an equally significant event in the calendar of most government, business and academic leaders across the region.
Also like the Davos Economic Forum, BFA is hosted every year at a fixed venue. Bo’ao, though its Secretariat is based in Beijing.
This time the theme of the BFA is ‘Shared Future, Concerted Action, Common Development’. It has once again attracted over 2,000 participants from over 60 countries including over 140 ministerial-level officials and six heads of states like Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith from Lao PDR, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel from Luxembourg, Sao Tome and Principe’s Prime Minister Jorge Bom Jesus, and Republic of Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon.
Several Finance Ministers and chiefs of Central Banks are also rubbing shoulders, hopping between meetings on the sidelines in addition to the pre-scheduled over 50 sessions.
A large number of invited officials, experts and entrepreneurs from esteemed institutions and reputed corporations including Fortune 500 companies are engaged in sharing their vision. They are brainstorming strategies for boosting the Asian and world economies which are facing volatility, triggered by President Trump’s trade war against one and all.
China — the engine of global growth — and world’s second largest economy reported the slowest growth of 6.6 per cent since 1990 sparking anxieties about its implications.
As its immediate backdrop, this week began with a sharp decline in Japanese stocks followed by reverberations across Asia.
Indeed, never before both the ascending as also the dominant powers were together dissatisfied with the status quo in the global order. While the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ policy has been raising tariff and non-tariff barriers and promoting protectionism since Xi Jinping’s January 2016 Davos speech, China has come to be the leading torch-bearer of globalization and also as a leader in global climate change mitigation that Trump has denounced as a hoax.
Juxtaposed with myriad challenges emanating from populist politics, technological competition and mounting nontraditional threats from piracy to cyber-security, rapidly eroding norms, institutions can no longer work with ad hoc solutions.
All this has made the China-led BFA a subject of global anticipation. The BFA has also expanded its agenda from financial reforms to larger issues of governance,social frictions and gender inequality.
Starting from 2015, following President Xi Jinping’s focus on building a shared future for mankind, the Bo’ao Forum has incorporated sessions on inter-religious and inter-cultural parleys. These are aimed at promoting co-existence by bridging the gap between societies that are facing an accelerated pace of intermingling thanks to improved transport and communications, especially the social media.
The 39th Session to be held on Friday, the the last day this year’s Forum, will see specially invited religious leaders holding a session on Religious Leaders’ Dialogue where different religious perspectives will be addressing problems of conflict and violence and how to work for long-term prosperity and peace.
As a host, China, of course, uses the BFA to showcase its achievements. The opening ceremony, for instance, released its 9th Asian Competitiveness Report that gauges 37 Asian economies through five perspectives: overall economic momentum, administrative efficiency in business, social development levels, infrastructure, human capital and innovative ability.
According to this 2019 index, the top five slots belong to South Korea, [China’s] Taiwan, Singapore, [China’s] Hong Kong and Japan while mainland China stands at 9th position.
The focus on China has also been rather intense this year given that the BFA coincides with an American delegation holding negotiations in Beijing to hammer out the much delayed trade deal.
Also, in face of continuing American allegations about China’s handling of intellectual property and business practices, various sessions this year have sought to evaluate the progress made in implementing President Xi Jinping’s pledge to liberalize the financial sector, the auto industry and the overhaul of foreign investments laws.
To cite few examples, China has since allowed foreign banks, insurers and securities to hold a majority stake in their subsidiaries in China. China passed a new law on investments banning forced technology transfers. But there have been reports of hiccups at the level of actual implementation. Reforms are still awaited in streamlining bloated state enterprises and opening up China’s car market which is the world’s largest.
Understandably, as a host, China has an advantage of having the largest contingent and several of the sessions are devoted to China-centric themes and formulations like Asian Competitiveness, Asian Economic Integration, Development of Emerging Economies, and Asian Financial Development that highlight centrality of China.
Debates this year, for instance, have sought to underline the linkages between China’s Belt & Road Initiative and globalization. In these presentations, the BRI is projected not just a vision for building physical infrastructure — railways, expressways, ports and airports — but also as a locomotive for promoting soft-infrastructure like policy coordination, liberalization of trade, investment facilitation and promoting free movement of capital, goods and yes, people.
So even if there may be only a small number of heads of states and no chief of internationals financial institutions attending the BFA 2019, it has surely drawn heightened global attention and has come to bear expanded responsibilities.
This has seen thought-leaders at the BFA gradually seeking solace in Asian wisdom and traditions. But Asia also presents a fast-moving kaleidoscope and sustain equilibrium will be a challenging task.
(The author is a Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi and a Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, Colombo.