by Chairman Ban Ki-moon
The Boao Forum for Asia is going to celebrate its 20th Anniversary in just a few months’ time. This is a moment of significance, with much to look back on and much more to look forward to; much to celebrate and much more to envision; much to take pride in and much more to think and plan ahead. It’s a moment of festivity, honor and responsibility.
For an institution, 20 years is but a short time span. The Boao Forum still looks “young” as compared with its international peers. But its short history coincides with one of the most challenging but dynamic periods of Asia. Its mission reflects the needs, wishes and fundamental interests of Asian countries. Its endeavor involves the broadest possible stakeholders of peace and prosperity in Asia. Each spring, more than 2000 heads of state, government leaders, CEOs and economists come from Asia and around the world for a four-day intensive, thought-provoking and forward-looking gathering on the most pressing issues of the time. This is an occasion for Asian and world leaders to listen to one another, exchange views, coordinate policies and take concerted actions. It is not only about governments but about business leaders, scholars and experts. It is the collective vision, wisdom and judgement of the one Boao Family that forms the voice, ideas and solutions for pressing challenges.
The Forum was conceived with a mission. We believe that greater levels of economic cooperation help bring Asian countries closer to their development goals. The ultimate goal is to achieve common prosperity through Asian economic integration. This is enshrined in the Forum’s Charter, and reaffirmed and reinforced in each and every annual conference over the past 20 years as the everlasting theme.
The path towards that goal is bumpy, but the progress turns out remarkable. Today, Asia has become the most dynamic growth engine in the world. Twenty years of growth and structural reforms have placed Asian economies on a much sounder footing. Their resilience and strength have withstood the tests of the Global Financial Crisis. Emerging markets such as China and India have risen to global significance. Victims of the 1998 financial storm such as South Korea have moved into the high-income ranking. Latecomers such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and the Philippines are now shining growth stars.
Not only have Asian countries done well individually, but they have done well together in close cooperation and coordination with one another. Intra-Asia trade and investment now account for more than half of the total, meaning that Asian countries turn more to one another for economic opportunities than to North America and Europe. Regional and bilateral trading arrangements have bound Asia together more than ever. Mega-deals such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have made or are making good progress. Bilateral FTAs have not only expanded coverage, but also upgraded to much higher levels. Free flow of goods, services, capital and labor has become a reality in many parts of Asia. The Asian continent is much more inter-connected and inter-dependent than 20 years ago. So is the pride as Asians and the Asian identity that are integral to an economically integrated Asia.
Asian development and integration are not isolated from the world. On the contrary, the past 20 years have largely coincided with the “Golden Days” of economic globalization. Particularly in the years prior to the Global Financial Crisis, we enjoyed a period of synchronized global prosperity and boom in global trade and investment. WTO tapped the potential of most countries by cutting tariffs and lowering barriers. The mood was confident, optimistic, open and forward-looking.
Things began to turn the other way with the 2008 crisis, and for the worse in recent years when unilateralism, protectionism and de-globalization asserted themselves. Tariffs are again revisited as the weapon for pursuing narrow national interests. Trade frictions loom larger and larger, pushing countries apart rather than drawing close. Multilateralism is giving way to unilateralist practice. Global institutions that have long underpinned global peace and prosperity risk being sidelined and marginalized.
Such negative developments cannot but endanger and derail the integration process of Asia and, further, its prospect of sustainable growth, running counter to the mission and purposes of the Boao Forum. We deem it our obligation and responsibility to speak out, loud and clear, for globalization, free trade, multilateralism and a shared future for Asia and the world. The time for action is now. Through conferences, workshops, dialogues and roundtables, we have endeavored to build consensus on one hand, and explore innovative responses and solutions on the other. On our platforms, we are encouraged to hear political leaders reaffirm their stance for an open world economy. President Xi of the host country China has sent out messages to the world that China would only open up wider and wider. Multilateral institutions such as the UN, IMF and WTO continue to enjoy firm support from the large majority of countries. New institutions such as the AIIB and the New Development Bank inject new blood and vigor into global governance. Fresh initiatives such as the Belt and Road promise to fuel a more balanced, open and inclusive globalization.
The beauty and value of the Boao Forum are people, idea and action. By bringing together the best minds, we are able to pool their vision and wisdom, inspire innovative ideas, and translate them into policies and actions that eventually change Asia and the world. This is the role the Forum has played for the past 20 years, fueling Asian economic integration, promoting Asian development and, today, fighting back undercurrents that jeopardize globalization, free trade, multilateralism and the shared future of us all.
But it is all the more important to think and plan ahead for the next 20 years and more, not just for Asia, but for the world as a whole. Years of work on global affairs have given me confidence in the ability of mankind to cope with challenges. But never underestimate the challenges lying ahead. In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). None of them are easy, especially for such a diverse continent as Asia. People living in extreme poverty have been cut by half, but it remains an arduous task to eliminate by 2030. Basic needs for education, healthcare, clean drinking water and sanitation are yet to be met in many parts of the world, let alone decent job and quality of life. Protecting our planet, preventing global warming and fighting climate change should by no means be empty talk. The urgency and necessity to act grows by the day as we experience more and more extreme weather and natural disasters.
All these challenges call for each and every country to do their homework well, and for all countries to work together in real earnest. There is no going back in globalization and there is no Planet B. We’re in the same boat, both in good days and hard times. 20 years ago, the Boao Forum came into being to bring Asian countries together. Today, the need for Asia to stand united as one has only grown with increasing complexity and volatility around the world.
The global pandemic of COVID-19 has taught us a bitter yet sobering lesson. Started as a medical crisis, it now has become an economic crisis and holds risks of turning into a financial crisis for governments, businesses and households. It is a crisis like no other. Tens of millions of people have been infected. As of late October, over 1.2 million lost their lives. The Great Lockdown has hit supply and demand system harder than the Global Financial Crisis. Countries face a trilemma of public health, economic re-opening/stimulus, and financial sustainability.
A global crisis of such level and magnitude calls for coordinated global response and international cooperation. Multilateral efforts are indispensable to build global defense against the virus. In particular, vulnerable countries need international assistance to make up for the shortfall in their public health systems. Access to vaccines, once ready for market, need coordination at the global level to ensure their availability and affordability.
So are macro-economic policies, international trade and cross-border investment. The IMF has warned against premature withdrawal of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. Countries need to sit down and coordinate their exit strategies. Global trade and investment are expected to plummet at double digits. This is the time to reinforce the rules-based multilateral trading system, and rekindle globalization and free trade, not otherwise.
There is also a lesson for Asia and the Boao Forum. The sustainable future of Asia is more than economy and trade. It is about health, education, innovation, culture and media, affordable and clean energy, equality, climate change and a lot more. The Forum’s agenda should be expanded to reflect the SDGs and respond to the changing needs of the future.
And we shall not confine ourselves to geographic Asia. The Boao Forum is a forum based in Asia, but its vision, mission, outlook and footprints should go beyond Asia. Asia can’t grow in isolation from the world. Asian integration is an integral part of economic globalization. A forum for Asia should be at the same time a forum for the world.
We already started to move in that direction. BFA conferences and events have expanded to cover areas of innovation, health and media. Our footprints are extending to Europe and North America. Our themes and topics, too, are diversifying beyond economy. Our stakeholders, speakers and delegates are representing a wider spectrum of society.
The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. The Boao Forum has changed, is still changing and will continue to change to keep pace with challenges. But there is still one thing that won’t change: the power of cooperation. The strength of the Boao Forum stems from the cooperation of its 29 Initial Countries, Board of Directors, Council of Advisors, members, partners and delegates. Its mission of the Forum is achieving economic integration in Asia – the ultimate form of cooperation of Asian countries. The shared future of Asia and the world can only be secured by close and win-win cooperation of us all. This was the case in the past 20 years, and will continue to be so in the next 20 years and beyond.