After a hiatus imposed by COVID-19, Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) will resume its annual rendezvous at the eponymous tropical town in the Chinese Island Province of Hainan.

The Conference which will be held from April 18 to 21 with over 2,000 persons attending offline, will be “the world’s first large-scale on-site international conference in 2021,” BFA Secretary General Li Baodong said at a Press Conference in Beijing on March 30.

In addition, a number of national leaders, former political dignitaries and heads of international organizations will join the meeting via video link.

This year’s meeting will center on the theme A World in Change: Join Hands to Strengthen Global Governance and Advance Belt & Road Cooperation.

Topics for discussion fall into six categories: Explore China, Understand the Changing World, Belt & Road Initiative Cooperation, Embrace the Industrial Changes, Dance with New Technologies and Development for All.

The Primary task of the event is to help Asian countries and the wider world build a consensus on development, and reshape growth confidence while ensuring pandemic prevention, according to Li.

He also pointed out that this year’s gathering is special not only because of COVID-19, but also because it coincides with the 20th anniversary of the forum. “With azure skies, white clouds, rolling waves, a spring breeze and beautiful flowers, Boao is ready to welcome its guests,” he said.

A World in Change

The theme and topics for discussion at a BFA annual conference are usually formulated in light of the situation across Asia and the world at large at the time.

Since the beginning of last year, COVID-19 has been ravaging the world. As of April 5, the pandemic had resulted in 131 million confirmed cases worldwide, including more than 2.85 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

“Pandemic control, defense of international economic and trade rules, responses to climate change and the leapfrog development of science and technology will top the BFA’s agenda, especially in the post-pandemic era,” Zhou Xiaochuan, BFA Vice Chairman & Chief Representative of China, said.

“The pandemic has rendered a huge impact on the global economy and society, and triggered the most serious humanitarian and economic crisis in modern human history. The gap between the rich and the poor and that between the global North and South have further widened,” Li said.

The latest UN report shows that the pandemic has led to a loss of 114 million jobs worldwide, and left nearly 120 million people in extreme poverty.

Compounding the pandemic’s impact is rising trade protectionism. However, “in spite of deglobalization tendencies and COVID-19, the Asian economy remains resilient,” Zhou said.

The Asian Development Bank forecasted last December that the economy in developing Asia would contract by 0.4 percent in 2020, before picking up to growth of 6.8 percent in 2021. Official statistics show China’s GDP grew by 2.3 percent in 2020, owing to its effective containment of the epidemic.

“Measured by purchasing power parity, Asia is expected to account for more than 50 percent of the world economy in 2020, up from less than one third in 2000. Asia is also becoming a more integrated community, with the share of inter-regional trade in its total import and export volume up from 45.2 percent in 2000 to 58 percent at present,” Zhou remarked at the end of 2020.

In November 2020, 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). These countries together represent one third of the global GDP.

Zhou hailed the RCEP as the largest ever free trade agreement in terms of economic engagement and population coverage, marking a new chapter of economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region.

Moreover, cooperation under the Belt & Road Initiative has promoted economic recovery in Asia and adjacent regions, Li said. Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the initiative aims to better connect Asian, European and African countries along the ancient Silk Road Routes.

According to Li, Asia’s performance in achieving sustainable development goals is remarkable. “The number of people living in extreme poverty in Asia has dropped dramatically,” he said. “Basic education, health and other conditions on the continent have seen significant progress.”

Given these situations, during this year’s BFA annual conference, “great attention will be given to the global impact of COVID-19, the recovery trajectory of the world economy, and the consolidation of global confidence,” Zhou said.

Keeping-Up with Times

Proposed in 1998 by Fidel V. Ramos, former President of the Philippines, Bob Hawke, former Prime Minister of Australia, and Morihiro Hosokawa, former Prime Minister of Japan, the BFA was inaugurated 20 years ago as a non-governmental international organization headquartered in China.

With agreements signed by more than 20 countries, it is dedicated to building consensus in Asia, standing up for Asian countries, and providing Asian solutions. The forum has become a high-end platform for dialogue among leaders of national governments, industrial and business communities, and academic circles of countries in Asia and the wider world.

“The forum is already full-fledged, however, it keeps moving forward. The variety of topics discussed at the forum expands every year,” Viktor Zubkov, a BFA board member, said. Zubkov is also Russia’s special presidential representative for cooperation with the Gas Exporting Countries Forum.

The topics of the BFA annual conferences have been expanded from the economy, finance, commerce, trade, global governance, to technological innovation, green development and topics more directly pertaining to people’s livelihoods, such as public health, culture, education, elderly care and rural development. Usually, a large number of participants to the conferences are from the business community across the world.

In addition, the forum has launched separate conferences on specific topics. For instance, in June 2019, it hosted the First Conference of the BFA Global Health Forum in Qingdao, Shandong Province in east China, to facilitate the goal of “health for all.”

On the subjects of the discussions, Li said, “Each of them carries the forum’s ardent expectation for boosting international cooperation and common development.”

The advocacy of multilateralism and the pursuit of win-win cooperation are the very themes reverberating in all BFA sessions, he said.

When the BFA was born 20 years ago, globalization was changing the globe and in 2001, China, after 15 years of negotiations, eventually joined the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In recent years, “globalization has been suffering setbacks and the operation of the multilateral trading mechanism, with the WTO at its core, was disrupted,” Zhou said at a meeting in January launching the Free Trade Agreements: Asia’s Choice report.

He said prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, rising trade protectionism and unilateralism were causing frequent frictions between major economies; whereas after the outbreak, as economic development came to a standstill and supply chains were interrupted, many countries turned inward in their policies, bringing about further threats to the international trade order.

As the WTO has sunk into a predicament, having difficulties in updating and revising global trade rules, “in the short run, globalization is becoming more regionally focused, relying more on stronger regional cooperation to influence global governance,” Zhou said. He pointed out that multiple bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) and investment deals have been signed since the beginning of 2020, including the RCEP.

China ratified the RCEP in March. Once ratified by six ASEAN members and three non-ASEAN members, the agreement will enter into force in 60 days, expected to take place sometime next year. “There had been no free trade agreement involving China, Japan and the ROK at the same time. On that note, the RCEP for the first time brings all three economies together,” Zhou noted.

Last December, negotiations on the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment also completed, boosting cooperation between the two large economies.

In order to overcome development challenges, improve Asian and global governance, and enable sustainable development, the BFA should keep up with the times, Zhou said.

In response to a drastically changing international situation, the BFA’s board of directors has been dedicated to promoting dialogue, building mutual trust, and pooling positive energy for Asia and the globe, according to Zhou. The incumbent board took office in 2018 under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General.

An Influential Platform

“It is on the Boao stage that several momentous achievements in cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region have been developed and perfected, including the Belt & Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations, all of which have invigorated regional cooperation and economic growth,” Li said.

President Xi attended the BFA annual conference in 2013, 2015 and 2018. In 2013, he declared that China would accelerate its interconnectivity with neighboring countries and build a financing platform to strengthen regional economic integration and competitiveness. Months later, he unveiled the Belt & Road Initiative.

At the 2015 annual conference, he put forward four general principles for promoting a community with a shared future for humanity.

At the 2018 annual conference, he made it clear that “China’s open doors will not close, but will only open wider.” The promise was followed by concrete measures, including the launch of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

The BFA has facilitated the dialogue between Asia and other parts of the world. Its board of directors began to have European and American members in 2010, expanding the forum’s global influence. Several of its council of advisors members hail from non-Asian countries, such as Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former Prime Minister of France.

Zubkov became a BFA board member in 2017. “I am honored to have participated in the work of the BFA board of directors in the past years, and I have seen that the preparations of BFA events were meticulous, the topics discussed at the forum were carefully selected, and the dialogues were organized in an orderly manner,” he said.

Leif Johansson, Chairman of the Board of London-based multinational biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is also a BFA board member. He has participated in the forum since its inception. He said as the international situation becomes more and more complicated and volatile, dialogues and exchanges are needed more than ever.

In addition, the BFA annual conferences have special sessions on EU and U.S. related topics. In recent years, the forum has also stepped outside Asia and hosted seminars in Europe, Oceania and the Americas, Zhou added. The BFA’s partners include not only Chinese companies but also multinationals such as Samsung, AstraZeneca and U.S.-based Deloitte.

Over the past 20 years, the BFA has played a vital role in promoting globalization, regional integration and sustainable development, Molly Peck, Executive Director of Buick Sales and Marketing at SAIC-GM, a China-U.S. joint-venture carmaker, said. She added that she believes “this year’s conference will provide an opportunity for us to exchange our ideas and contribute to a shared future.”

Author: Wang Hairong