Officials, business people and scholars who attended the recently concluded Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2013 may have voiced different opinions on various topics, but they all felt the Boao Spirit, as is reflected by this year’s theme – “Asia Seeking Development for All: Restructuring, Responsibility and Co-operation.” The Boao Forum for Asia was launched by 26 Asia-Pacific countries in 2001 as an unofficial, non-profit forum. Starting in 2002, the forum has been held in Boao, Hainan Province, China every year since and has served as an alternative to the free trade organizations established by Western powers.
After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the region developed a stronger sense of “Asians’ Asia” and a common understanding for peace, cooperation and win-win co-existence. Waves of cooperation in the form of free trade agreements swept the region over the past decade covering trade, investment, financing, monetary mechanisms and disaster prevention and reduction. The cooperative projects helped promote economic development, social progress and cultural exchanges in the region and led to the birth of a model of cooperation that is characteristic of Asia and features inclusiveness, diversity and openness. Asian-style cooperation played a vital role in helping the region withstand the impact of the financial crisis and maintain a steady growth of regional economies. Therefore, Asia has become a new engine propelling the global economy, bringing the world into the “Asian Times”.
Covering 30 percent of the earth’s total geographical area and making up 60 percent of the world’s population, Asia carries a lot of clout in global affairs. As the world’s economic, cultural, political and communication center long before the Industrial Revolution in Western countries, it was only in modern times that Asia declined as a result of invasions and colonial rule by Western powers and Japan.
After World War II, Asian countries were liberated from colonial rule, regaining independence and sovereignty. However, the world was soon plunged into the Cold War, and Asia’s economic development was once again delayed as it was positioned behind the United States, Western Europe and Japan.
In the early 1990s, the Cold War came to an end with ideological confrontation replaced by economic globalization. Asia began reform drives to embrace market economies and achieved vigorous development marked by the “East Asia Miracle”.
In early 1990s the United States and Europe set up their respective regional economic communities almost simultaneously – the North American Free Trade Area and the European Union. They used their powerful financing markets to dominate the international financing system and hence the global economy, while Asia was marginalized for failing to establish its own protective bloc against global competition.
China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 marked the beginning of a new era in Asia’s economic development. Thanks to its enormous market and huge manufacturing ability, China drew massive international investment, which stimulated trade and economic development in Asia. In 2001, China and ASEAN reached agreements to initiate talks for establishing a free trade area. Ten years later, the agreement was finally established. The “China-ASEAN model” became an exemplar for cooperation among developing countries in the post-Cold War global competition.
Also in 2001, at China’s suggestion, political, commercial and academic leaders from 26 countries in the Asia-Pacific region gathered in Boao, Hainan, to launch the Boao Forum for Asia. Following the principle of cooperation and mutual benefit and calling for equality and respect of differences among nations, the forum played a positive role in promoting regional and international exchanges in economy, culture and politics for consensus and joint development. After these years, participants to the forum have developed a “Boao Spirit,” which advocates cooperation without binding force and emphasizes equality without enforced uniformity. The spirit respects differences but opposes the theory of “power centers.”
Today, developed nations such as the United States, Europe and Japan hope to again play the leading role in “local economic circles” through the TPP/TPIP and try to set rules for global economic development, widening the North-South disparity. Whether Asian countries will follow and promote the Boao Spirit to realize peace, cooperation and mutual benefit in the region will not only influence Asia’s development but will also bring opportunities to developing countries in other parts of the world.
Liu Junhong is a researcher fellow at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations.