Over the weekend, we saw on our television screens and in newspapers, reports of some 100,000 protesters demonstrating against globalisation at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg,
Germany. Many of the German reports indicate that the protesters really had no clear message, no declaration or set of demands, and many were anarchist groups. Indeed, the most prevalent placards held up by the demonstrators were ones which read: “Welcome to Hell”. Is this the direction that the world is headed? The last year has seen some major developments that have dramatically altered the international environment through which we may now have to find a new path. The current US Administration’s decision to leave the TPPA – Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement – and its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement has put into question the multilateral approach to solving global problems. Brexit is likely to result in a major refocusing of the EU’s priorities, at least for a time, away from multilateral links and towards the internal challenges.
These two developments alone indicate that future trade policies are more likely to include an increasing focus on a more bilateral approach than a multilateral one, as countries begin to pursue country-to-country transactional FTA’s to replace the former collective initiatives. The overall economic landscape has also changed dramatically and the changes continue. Some of the changes that stem from globalisation, technology and innovation indeed helped to fuel the weekend protests in Hamburg. A Portuguese colleague of mine recently pointed to the scope, and irony, of the changes. The largest taxi company, he pointed out, own no cars (Uber), the largest accommodation provider owns no hotels (Airbnb), the most valuable retailer has no inventory (Alibaba), the most popular media owner creates no content (WeChat). Indeed automation, robotisation and digitalisation is creating a new economic reality . This then is the general international economic backdrop against which our conference today and its search for “new approaches” are being conducted. But I feel the cause of open economies, of liberal trading and investment regimes, and of multilateral cooperation is still not lost for this region. I would like to think that the US withdrew from TPPA, but not from TPP or trans-Pacific partnership with a small “p” in the sense of “partnership” being an economic and political objective. The announced intention of President Trump to attend both the Apec Summit in Vietnam and the Asean Summit meetings in Manila towards the end of this year, provide opportunities to advance some new approaches. The TPPA, of course, is not the only regional economic cooperation initiative. At the Apec Summit in Danang, Vietnam in November, if President Xi Jinping’s suggestion to revive Apec’s Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) negotiations with a clear timeframe is seriously discussed, this could send a positive signal to the world. Encompassing all 21 Apec member economies, and accounting for two-thirds of world trade and investment, FTAAP could help ensure the sustainability of economic networks and relationships in the Asia Pacific which will ensure open global economy.
At the series of Asean summit meetings in Manila and Clark Field also in November, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP negotiations initiated by the 10 Asean countries, and which also includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, could perhaps be set on a firmer trajectory with a view to early conclusion. This would also send a very positive signal. The progress made in two short years by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or AIIB can serve as a model for future international collaboration. The AIIB has emphasised partnering, complementarity and co-financing with other multilateral lenders, and most importantly, has maintained high standards of corporate governance. I am glad to note that the President of the AIIB, Jin Liqun, is here with us for this conference. With the credibility that it has acquired, the AIIB is thus in a position to back up the Belt and Road Initiative – the BRI – which has the potential to change the economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific and far beyond, and bring significant opportunities and dividends to our businesses, governments and citizens. The BRI, in concert with existing schemes like the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity, and the Lancang-mekong Cooperation, promises to deliver significant GDP gains, open-up a network of commercial activities and unimpeded trade covering more than two-thirds of the world population. Ladies and Gentlemen, President Xi Jinping has proposed that we create, and I quote, “a big family of harmonious co-existence”. Certainly as we explore new approaches, nothing should hold us back from looking at globalism with regional characteristics, from exploring new ideas such as one community, many systems, of a community of shared destiny and shared dreams. But we should also remember that the word “community” comes from the Middle French word “communite” which means “joint ownership”. So it is fitting that the Boao Forum for Asia has taken up the theme of “Asian Regional Cooperation: New Challenges, New Approach”.
This conference will provide another platform for stakeholders in business, academia, government and mass media, to come together to exchange the latest information, explore new ideas, create networks of cooperation, and to claim ownership in defining the contours of a future that will be one of peace, prosperity and well-being for all. So once again, a warm welcome to the Boao Forum for Asia, and we in Thailand wish the BFA and every participant a very successful and productive conference here in Bangkok.
Excerpts from the opening speech at the Boao Forum for Asia, in Bangkok, a platform for debate among government leaders and
others taking place this week.
Professor Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, is
chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, and board member of the Asia Boao Forum. ________________________