Boao Forum 2023: China’s Messaging and Beyond

The Boao Forum of Asia — dubbed as ‘Asian Davos’ – held at Boao (Hainan Province), China on March 28-31, 2023, was important for several reasons. First, this was the first in person event after the Covid-19 pandemic. The theme of the Forum was “An Uncertain World: Solidarity and Cooperation for Development amid Challenges.”

This event was held days after the China Development Forum in Beijing. The China Development Forum (March 25,2023-March 27, 2023) had been attended by global prominent business personalities including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Qualcomm president and CEO Cristiano Amon, Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bourla, US-China Business Council president Craig Allen, and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates.

Second, this was an important opportunity for Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who took office in March 2023, to reach out to an international audience. During his keynote address, Li Qiang sent out a clear message, that the Chinese economy was back on the rails. China’s zero Covid policy, along with some of Xi Jinping’s policies – especially tough policies vis-à-vis the real estate sector – were held responsible for the slow down. China’s zero Covid policy faced serious protests and Li Qiang is supposed to have played an important role in convincing Xi to do away with zero Covid policies. While speaking at Boao Forum, Li Qiang said: “The dynamism and momentum of China’s economic growth is strong.”

He also said that China was committed to reforms and against trade protectionism and supply chain decoupling. With an eye on putting the economy back on track, China has been easing out certain policies. During his address to the China Development Forum, Li Qiang said that irrespective of the global situation, China would continue to reform. He also said that China would make concerted efforts to create a “ world class business environment.”

It would be pertinent to mention here that Ali Baba CEO, Jack Ma returned to China in March 2023 after over a year. China had ordered a crackdown on Chinese tech companies, Ali Baba and Ant Group – Jack Ma’s digital technology firm. In 2020, Ma had criticized China’s financial sector and earlier this year he gave up ownership of the Ant group. In the aftermath of Covid-19, Xi Jinping’s economic policies and China’s zero Covid policies, China is no longer the obvious choice for foreign investors, who have started looking at alternatives. 

The Chinese Premier also made the point that China was an ‘anchor of peace’ , this is important because days earlier, Xi Jinping visited Russia and presented a peace proposal to Russia which has been rejected by the US. The Chinese Premier also spoke against a ‘cold war’ like atmosphere and US unilateralism. 

Third, leaders of two ASEAN countries – Singapore and Malaysia – made a pitch for cooling of tensions between Washington and US. Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong — who was in China for a six-day visit from March 27, 2023 to April 1, 2023 — during his address at the Boao Forum emphatically stated that strains between Washington-Beijing impacted not just Asia, but also has serious global ramifications. Said the Singapore PM: “The world feels the impact of these tensions keenly. Progress on tackling urgent problems such as climate change, energy and food security, and pandemic preparedness has been severely impeded.” 

Malaysian PM, Anwar Ibrahim, who visited China for the first time since taking office echoed Lee Hsien Loong. Two major bones of contention between US and China have been the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as cooperation in the tech sector. While speaking at the Boao Forum, Anwar Ibrahim lauded the BRI, and even during his meeting with Xi Jinping discussed the BRI and the need for expediting the  East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project. Both Ibrahim and the Singapore PM spoke not only against inward looking economic policies which would be counter-productive, but also to shed a zero sum approach vis-à-vis cooperation in the sphere of technology.

A joint statement issued after the meeting between Lee Hsien Loong and Xi Jinping quoted the Singapore PM as reiterating the need for greater cooperation in digital economy, artificial intelligence and e-commerce. The Singapore PM also said that Singapore and Beijing could work together in training talent, technology innovation and research and development. 

ASEAN countries have repeatedly stated that they would not like to make a choice between China and the US. The statements of the Singaporean and Malaysian Prime Ministers are a clear reiteration of the same, but it remains to be seen how Washington views ASEAN countries wanting to work closely with China in the domain of tech. One of the major bones of contention between the US and United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been the latter’s decision to allow Huawei in its 5G network. It was due to the US Pressure that other Five Eyes alliance members (the last being Canada in May 2022) banned Huawei from their 5G networks.

The Boao Forum was important in terms of China sending out a message that it is focused on getting its economy back on track, and attracting international investors. Another important takeaway from the Boao Forum was that most ASEAN countries – especially Singapore and Malaysia will want to stay neutral in the Beijing-Washington cold war and would also like to ensure that tensions between the two great powers do not escalate.

[Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), 2023]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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