An annual gathering of business people and government representatives from the Asia Pacific region and beyond each year at the Boao Forum for Asia in south China’s Hainan Island is always an occasion to gain fresh insights into economic development in the region and the rest of the world. Since taking the helm of the country, President Xi Jinping has addressed the forum’s annual conference multiple times. The theme of this year’s conference is "A World in Change: Join Hands to Strengthen Global Governance and Advance Belt and Road Cooperation." In the backdrop of the major tensions between China and the U.S. and the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world over the past year, President Xi, in his speech delivered at the opening ceremony of the 2021 conference, presented a pathway forward for the region and the world, based on cooperation and mutual respect between nations and rather than on unilateral decisions of individual countries, while emphasizing the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.
Photo taken on April 17, 2021 shows the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) International Conference Center in Boao Town, Hainan Province (XINHUA)
Noting that this was the 20th anniversary of the Boao Forum for Asia, Xi reflected on how the economy of the Asia Pacific region has seen incredible development during that period. “Over these two decades, Asian countries have advanced regional economic integration and worked in unison to pursue both economic and social development, which has turned Asia into the most vibrant and promising region in the global economy,” Xi said. At the same time, he noted that the world has entered a period of dramatic and unsettling changes. “Now, the combined forces of changes and a pandemic both unseen in a century have brought the world into a phase of fluidity and transformation,” Xi said. “Instability and uncertainty are clearly on the rise. Humanity is facing growing governance deficit, trust deficit, development deficit, and peace deficit. Much remains to be done to achieve universal security and common development.” The question now before mankind, Xi pointed out, was which way humanity should proceed in order to secure the future for the coming generations.
Trucks run at Youyiguan border gate in Pingxiang City, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, April 13, 2020 (XINHUA)
With many nations still mired in the fight to overcome the pandemic, the growing fear of this deadly killer has led many countries to turn inward and seek scapegoats abroad to blame for their own dilemma. The growth of unilateralism and xenophobia has again taken root in this era of crisis. President Xi, as the leader of the second largest economy in the world is offering a better pathway to the future than acrimony and fear. He listed several steps that could be taken to move in the direction of a better and more peaceful world. Firstly, he called for consultation between nations on an equal footing to create a future of shared benefits. Secondly, he underlined the need for greater openness and innovation within and among nations. Thirdly, he called for solidarity and cooperation in the area of health and security. The type of beggar-thy-neighbor attitude with regard to vaccine development that we have seen in certain countries is not only a form of injustice, but will only prolong the pandemic on a global scale. And fourthly, he called for a commitment to justice “to create a future of mutual respect and mutual learning. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it all clearer to people around the world that we must reject the cold-war and zero-sum mentality and oppose a new ‘Cold War’ and ideological confrontation in whatever form,” Xi said. “In state-to-state relations, the principles of equality, mutual respect, and mutual trust must be put front and center.” Making this important speech several days before the upcoming virtual climate summit summoned by President Biden, which President Xi will also attend, was extremely well-timed. On the climate issue, it is hoped that the U.S. and China can see eye-to-eye and begin to repair their tattered relationship. The continued efforts by the Biden administration to hold on to the spirit, if not the letter, of “America First,” has also found its expression in the area of climate. While the U.S. has been largely absent in the discussion recently, the Biden administration now feels that it must be the “teacher” or at least the “coordinator” of other nations, a view that is undoubtedly not shared by most of the countries that will attend that virtual summit. Making the climate issue an issue of “geopolitics” will certainly not lead to any productive results.
The fact that the chief negotiators of both China and the U.S. have succeeded in issuing a joint statement of purpose gives an indication that the discussion may not be impeded by “geopolitics” but will indeed be characterized by mutual respect. At least this is the hope. President Xi has already committed to an extensive program of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. This goal will be a major undertaking for China given the fact that it is still largely reliant on fossil fuels for its energy production, but seeing the measures that have already been taken by China in this respect, there can be little doubt that this commitment is real and do-able.
In his speech, President Xi also emphasized the other great task of our era, namely bringing mankind out of the vicious circle of endemic poverty. China has shown the way by bringing around 800 million people out of poverty over the last several decades. This remains now an important marker for the rest of the world to follow. Xi also underlined the importance of the BRI in this large poverty alleviation program. “A World Bank report suggests that by 2030, Belt and Road projects could help lift 7.6 million people from extreme poverty and 32 million people from moderate poverty across the world,” Xi said.
Xi assured his listeners that China would “continue to play its part in building world peace, promoting global development, and defending international order.” “By setting sail together, we could ride the wind, break the waves, and brave the journey of ten thousand miles,” Xi said. “We may at times encounter stormy waves and dangerous rapids, but as long as we pool our efforts and keep to the right direction, the giant vessel of human development will stay on an even keel and sail toward a brighter future.” This is a message of great hope in a world still torn apart by great divisions which still remain to be overcome.
The author is a Washington policy analyst and a non-resident fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under Renmin University of China.