The recently concluded Boao Asian Forum on Hainan Island had all the appearance of a simple nongovernmental conference.
Modeled on the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, its function is evidently simple: to allow policymakers, businessmen and analysts interested in Asia to tackle and even quibble over various issues.
There is, however, more to the gathering than meet the eyes.
Coming at the heels of the Asian financial crisis three years ago, coupled with the purported neglect of the region by the United States at the height of the crisis, the forum is another attempt at regional consolidation.
It aims to bolster the region’s resilience by creating an additional avenue of private, albeit high-level, discussion.
The Boao Asian Forum constitutes the latest addition to the numerous “Track Two” conferences held in the region each year. These meetings represent a form of dialogue where individuals from the academia, business sector and even government all speak in their private capacities.
Be that as it may, the new forum is in many ways a different political animal as well. Originally proposed by former Philippine President Fidel Ramos and other Asian leaders in March 1998, it already claims a pedigree that no other Track Two entities can rival.
With Ajit Singh, the former secretary general of the ASEAN Secretariat, elected in November 2000 as its secretary pro tempore, the Boao forum has taken on an added degree of importance. It is led by a career diplomat known to have expanded the size of ASEAN.
And when one considers that it is also backed by China and 24 other countries in Asia, the forum appears set to be a major meeting place for Asian leaders and power brokers. Little wonder that the fee for corporate membership has been pegged at (US)$500,000.
The sudden manner in which it came into being should not be a surprise to anyone. This is because aside from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), there exist no institutional bodies where Asian decision-makers and business leaders can converge in one setting to collectively deal with issues of practical import.
Hence, the Boao forum is the logical manifestation of Asian self-interest. Not unlike the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) and the “Asian Plus Three” meetings, it represents a step forward at consolidating Asia’s regional interest viz-a-viz the West’s.
What further distinguishes the Boao Asian Forum from the other major conferences, however, is its “inclusiveness.”
Aside from the backing of Asian leaders, it also owes its existence to the initiative of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. As Labor Party stalwart, Hawke is widely remembered as the leader who had urged Australia to be an involved part of Asia; an idea later adopted by his successor, Paul Keating, only to undergo a slight reversal when the reins of power were handed to John Howard of the Liberal Party.
It was during Hawke’s tenure that APEC was formed in 1989, trailblazing the way for Australia’s more intimate involvement in the region.
While the Boao forum welcomes Australia’s engagement, its stance contrasts with the more “exclusive” pan-Asian vision of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia.
The latter’s vision of EAEC — originally introduced as East Asian Economic Group in 1991 — actually amounts to an attempt to create a region without “the Caucasians,” as some critics argued. This is attested by the exclusion of Australia, New Zealand and even the United States from the regional economic makeup.
Regardless of one’s verdict on the racist undertone of the EAEC, it is a fact that Asian countries are trying to strengthen regional cooperation in a panoply of forms — both of the “inclusive” genre, as well as the “exclusive” ones — to confront the perils of globalization.
Indeed, the singular effect of globalization is not so much an aggregate decrease in the economic livelihood of any given Asian country as the corresponding increase in the presence of bigger and better firms in the region.
The latter could wipe out domestic ones completely. The Boao Asian Forum is thus a regional, though nongovernmental, attempt to help countries deal with globalization.
Without the recourse to a regional body to stem the growing tide of globalization — a process mainly driven by the financial might of the West — it is widely believed, especially by the Chinese leadership in Beijing, that countries in the region would invariably be left more, not less, exposed to the vagaries of lower trade and tariff barriers.
What then can the forum achieve in the short and long term? Like all Track Two meetings, the Boao Asian Forum would achieve five gains.
One, allow the necessary power brokers and key personnel involved in policymaking to be acquainted with each other. The effects deriving from such networking must not be underestimated.
Two, allow new ideas to be broached, and problems affecting Asia to be quickly identified.
Three, inject a sense of camaraderie among the conferees that will enhance intergovernmental and intraindustry cohesion.
Four, create intricate networks that will be useful to both Asian leaders and high-ranking business executives in the long run. Already, the Boao Asian Forum can draw on the research resources of various think tanks in the region.
Lastly, help Asian leaders and policymakers get a grip of the diverse implications of globalization.
For what it’s worth, it’s high time that Asian leaders think and act as one — not necessarily to the exclusion of others, but to foster a dynamic identity, too.
That the Boao Asian Forum currently has the support of Australia is truly a plus. As such, the forum is an idea whose time has come.
Those interested in Asian issues are urged to keep a close watch on it when it formally holds its first conference in 2002.
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