The Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), which was formed in 2001, and manages to draw top world leaders, heads of multilateral institutions, and academics has been dubbed by many as ‘Summer Davos’ and has begun to understandably draw attention with China’s increasing economic clout and heft on the global stage. For this year’s forum held at Boao, a coastal town in Hainan province, Chinese President, Xi Jinping who was travelling to Europe, was absent, and many other senior Chinese officials were in Beijing in connection with the trade negotiations with the US. Last year there were a number of other high profile attendees including IMF Chief, Christine Lagarde.
There was a general perception, that last year’s Forum was given more importance, apart from the presence of President Xi and other senior Chinese officials, the event received greater coverage. Significantly, President Xi’s address last year was covered on Chinese Television, while Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s key note address was not televised.
The Chinese PM reiterated Beijing’s support for multilateral trading system, while pitching for reforms in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Chinese Premier also outlined some of the key reforms China is undertaking and flagged some of the steps being taken for encouraging Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Li also said that Beijing would take specific steps for opening up sectors such as transport, infrastructure, telecommunications, medical care and education, ..
Ever since US President has adopted insular policies, China has been trying to send an impression that unlike Washington it is in favour of globalization and Free Trade. This was evident during last year’s World Economic Forum held at Davos and even at the Boao Forum last year, President Xi Jinping had said:
“We will never threaten anyone, nor overthrow the existing international system”
Xi had also dispelled the notion that China was seeking to build spheres of influence. On the other hand, the Chinese President stated that he will contribute to world peace and that Beijing would seek to be ‘… a contributor to global development and a defender of international order,”
Boao Forum, BRI and East Asian Politics
The Forum was important, not just from the standpoint of Beijing highlighting some of its key economic policies, but also in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the future of the Japan-China relationship.
Importantly, Sri Lanka spoke in favour of the BRI. The Hambantota Port project, which has been handed over by Sri Lanka to Chinese companies for a period of 99 years, has contributed to Sri Lanka’s rising debt to China and has been cited as an instance of China’s Debt Trap Diplomacy.
The South Asian nation was represented by Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon,Governor of Southern Province. Chinese media highlighted this aspect of the Forum
With regard to closer cooperation between Japan and China in third countries, Hiroshi Nakaso, chairman of the Daiwa Institute of Research and former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) said that the currency swap of October 2018 would promote third party cooperation between private sectors of both countries.
The second development is particularly interesting, because on the one hand, Tokyo is seeking to provide an alternative to BRI, through the PQI (Partnership for Quality Infrastructure), but on the other it is also willing to cooperate where necessary.
Increasing relevance of Hainan Region
The forum was also used to strengthen ties between China’s Hainan region and neighbouring countries, but also to send a clear message, that it is a key player within the BRI.
Hainan, which was declared as China’s 12th Free Trade Zone in 2018, is important for a number of reasons. It is strategically located, and is an important component of the BRI as was emphasized by senior officials during the recent forum. Between November-2018 and March 2019 it has received over 27 Billion USD.
Hainan’s role in BRI and ties with ASEAN countries
If one were to look at Hainan-ASEAN ties. An ASEAN-China Governors/Mayors’ Dialogue has played a key role in bolstering links between Hainan and South East Asian Countries. Trade between Hainan and ASEAN was estimated at over 12.5 Billion USD for the year 2018 (ASEAN bloc was Hainan’s single largest trading partner). Apart from economic linkages, Hainan has strong connectivity with ASEAN.
Only recently, the Hainan-Singapore ASEAN liner route was begun. The launch of this route was co-hosted by the provincial government of Hainan and China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) SHIPPING .As a result of this, the Yangpu Port in Hainan has become a gateway between China’s Western Regions and Singapore. Hainan province has thus emerged as an important pivot of the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor (ILSTC) (also known as Chongqing Connectivity Initiative).
There are a number of cruises from Hainan to ASEAN countries – such as Vietnam and Phillipines. To harness its crucial geographic location, there is likely to be an emphasis on air connectivity between Hainan with not just Asian countries in the neighbourhood, but also Africa, Europe and Oceania. During this year’s Boao forum the theme of the ASEAN-China Governors/Mayors Dialogue was “ASEAN-China Connectivity and Hainan Free Trade Port,” ..
Hainan off course seeks to expand its cooperation with ASEAN countries, and not restrict it to just the economic sphere or connectivity.
Wang Sheng, director of the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan province, said that Hainan would explore greater collaboration in areas such as; ‘health, blue economy, tourism, culture, education, technology, tropical agriculture and seed production,’
Seed cooperation for instance, has been another area in which Hainan’s cooperation with neighbouring countries in ASEAN has witnessed a rise. Hybrid rice seeds cultivated by scientists at the Nanfan Scientific and Research Breeding Base in Hainan are being introduced not just in ASEAN countries, but South Asia as well (5,50,000 hectares of hybrid rice have been cultivated in countries in Philippines, Indonesia Vietnam and India).
The overall aim of this Local officials from both sides, signed an agreement to strengthen the strategic partnership between ASEAN and China.
Beijing obviously uses the Boao Forum as a tool for furthering its views on global economic and foreign policy issues. It has been receiving all the more attention in recent years due to Trump’s isolationist policies. China by appointing a high profile individual like Ban Ki Moon, Former Secretary General of UN as President of the Boao Forum for Asia in April 2018 has further enhanced the prestige of this event.
Second, it is interesting to see that international events and forums are not restricted to either Shanghai or Beijing. A large number of events such as G20, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are organised outside the big cities, this helps in raising the profile of these cities. Recent examples include the 2016 G20 Summit held in Hangzhou (Zhenjiang), Brazil Russia, India, China Summit (BRICS) Summit of 2017 at Xiamen (Fujian Province), SCO Summit 2018 held at Qingdao.
Even if one were to look beyond the symbolic aspect, a number of other points emerge.
First, that Chinese Provinces conduct their external outreach in a well thought out manner based on geographical location and synergies. For instance, while Hainan is seeking to build links across the world, its thrust has been on neighbouring countries within ASEAN, this is evident from its trade and connectivity initiatives. The fact, that each Province has been empowered to strengthen not just commercial linkages, but enhance people to people ties, and has designated provincial officials to facilitate outreach is also beneficial.
Second, linkages between Chinese provinces and other countries are not restricted to economics and connectivity, so as to send out a message, that Chinese provinces want to build links by effectively utilising ‘Soft Power’. This helps in blunting, to some extent, the perception that China is only interested in furthering its economic goals at any cost.