The Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) continues to serve its function in Track I diplomacy by providing an avenue for China and other countries to make overtures for visits. It creates a conducive environment and opportunities for other state leaders to visit China’s top leaders. Later this month, the Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, will visit China and may meet Chinese President Xi Jinping during his attendance of the BFA. In turn, China will reciprocate with President Xi’s own visit to Nepal. This particular example indicates the intangible benefits of hosting and initiating the BFA. The high context cultures of Asian countries can tap into BFA events to initiate or reciprocate high level diplomacy or to create legitimate reasons for state visits.
What are the agendas for discussion in Boao Forum 2017, to be held between March 23 and March 26? The forum continues to engage with trendy topics in 2017 with the self-explanatory slogan: “Globalization and Free Trade: the Asian Perspectives”. Much has been said in the international media of China’s pro-globalization and pro-free trade stance in the context of Brexit in Europe and the outcome of the US presidential election. Some claim that the winds of protectionism are blowing. Given that China is a major beneficiary of globalization, it seems quite clear that the lead-up to Boao 2017 will focus on China’s advocacy for globalization and economic liberalization. In terms of institutions, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific appears to be tabled for discussion as well.
The official website of the BFA also argues that there are forces that may undo globalization and unravel multilateral free trade agreements (the so-called “de-globalization” phenomenon) but the same website argues that there are countervailing forces and coping mechanisms to handle economic and trade challenges, such as the G20’s approach to innovation and inclusiveness for economic growth, the rise of growing emerging markets in the developing world, as well as China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative for infrastructure construction. Given that the OBOR is the major foreign policy initiative of the Xi administration, it is therefore not surprising that this subject matter will be a center of focus at the gathering.
The idea of globalization that is couched in some Chinese narratives is one that veers towards a deterministic path. In this line of argument, globalization and economic liberalization are historical trends and cannot be stopped. The argument is that, rather than the process of globalization itself, the identifiable crux of the problem is the inequitable distribution of the benefits of the economic pie. Judging by the agenda disclosed at a BFA press conference in January 2017, it appears there is interest in aiding the groups ostracized by globalization. The argument goes that this process of helping the disenfranchised is mutually exclusive from the process of maintaining the march of globalization.
This process is perhaps made more urgent by the perception that the relentless development of automation technologies, robotics, and artificial intelligence is taking over jobs formerly held by humans. It is also not surprising therefore that this will also be a topic of discussion at the BFA. Officials are not the only entities keen to bring about more equitable and ethical development. Other stakeholders like multinational companies such as the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation supporting the Boao Forum are also keen to promote sustainable development. In other words, there are interested participants who are keen to contour the sharper edges of globalization.
As for the 14th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO), which will be held between September 12 and 15, 2017 in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it has adopted the theme of “jointly building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and boosting regional economic integration through tourism.” According to Chinese governmental sources, Brunei Darussalam is designated as a “country of honor” in CAEXPO 2017 and the Sultanate has mobilized a hundred private sector entities or individuals to attend the meeting as a means to build up the trade volume between the two countries. On a broader scale, the other agenda in the CAEXPO is to increase China’s trade with ASEAN while tapping into the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN.
Some insights into ASEAN economies’ opinion on the usefulness of CAEXPO are discernible from local media outlets in Southeast Asia. For example, the Philippine newspaper Cebu Daily News reported that CAEXPO was apparently useful for Filipino businesses and the overall Philippine economy because: (1) it serves as a platform for mainland Chinese business leaders to invest in the Southeast Asian region; (2) it is a platform for Southeast Asian products to enter China; (3) it also serves as an advocate for more bilateral trade between the two entities. Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is itself keen to become a logistics and transportation hub for the surrounding region, with a modernized agricultural industry, and food processing and retail/service industries. CAEXPO’s goals and platform are complementary with Nanning’s own developmental interests.