About five Centuries ago, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s daring global circumnavigation proved that the Earth is round, and the oceans are connected.
Over the following centuries, the power of industrial revolutions and technological breakthroughs has knitted almost all corners of the world together, quickened the pace of globalisation, and ushered in an age of unprecedented level of prosperity in human history.
However, the story of today’s world is a far cry from a fairy tale that usually closes with a Happily-Ever-After ending.
As many world leaders and business elites are gathering in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), globalisation seems to be both losing steam and facing a fork in the road.
Across the globe, protectionists and isolationists are turning their countries ever inward-looking, putting up barriers and crippling global efforts to combat mankind’s common challenges; the wealth gulf has been yawning, feeding the anger of populists in Latin America and Europe; unilateralists are brandishing sanctions, flexing military muscles, and leaving a host of multilateral deals in tatters.
The connective power that used to break the spatial isolation among continents and oceans and pull different parts of the world together is now needed more than ever at this time of mounting uncertainties and expanding divisions.
To begin with, the history of human progress has shown that free trade and open markets have been a proven formula to boost growth and generate wealth worldwide. Isolationism and protectionism, as shown by the International Monetary Fund’s repeated slashing of global growth forecasts, are only counterproductive.
In his speech addressing the 2017 edition of the WEF annual meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping compared the global economy to a big ocean from which no one can escape.
“Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible. Indeed, it runs counter to the historical trend,” he said.
Despite the strong headwind of protectionism, free traders worldwide have in the past year made notable strides in promoting regional economic integration.
The African Continental Free Trade Area has been launched, 15 participating countries of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have concluded text-based negotiations, and the European Union and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) have reached an agreement in principle on a free trade agreement. Those advancements have attested to Xi’s judgement three years ago.
Secondly, strengthening connective power by promoting practical cooperation worldwide can help bolster much needed economic development in the developing world so as to reduce global development deficits.
Lack of infrastructure remains a critical bottleneck for developing countries to deliver steady economic growth.
Take the African continent as an example. According to an African Development Bank estimate, Africa’s infrastructure needs are between 130 billion and 170 billion U.S. dollars per year, but there is a financing gap in the range of 68 billion and 108 billion dollars.
China has been a vigorous champion of boosting connectivity by helping developing countries build up infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is aimed at infrastructure development and acceleration of economic integration of countries along and beyond the routes of the historic Silk Road.
If implemented fully, the initiative could lift 32 million people living on less than 3.2 U.S. dollars a day out of moderate poverty, a recent World Bank Group study on the BRI found.
Last but not least, the international community needs to leverage a stronger connective power to tackle such non-traditional security challenges as climate change and terrorism that no single country, no matter how powerful it might be, can handle alone. There is no second option in this regard.
When the ambitious Magellan was on the sea, he and his fellow sailors faced all sorts of hardships. But they always managed to charge forward because they knew they were right in the direction.
Today, decisions-makers around the world, instead of being tempted to retreat to the past of isolation, should remain in the same spirit as that of Magellan and his seamen, and harness the connective power to heal this dividing world and build a cohesive and more prosperous Global Community.