Last week it was announced that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will visit China from 24-29 March 2015. Besides visiting Shanghai and Shenzhen, he will also travel to the South-Chinese island of Hainan to participate in the Boao Forum for Asia. Why would Prime Minister Rutte be interested in attending a forum that is hardly known in Europe?
The Boao Forum – named for the Chinese coastal city of Boao where the forum takes place – was officially established in 2001 by a number of Asian countries including China, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines, with the aim to promote regional development and integration. From the beginning, however, China has been the driving force behind the organization. The annual forum for government leaders, politicians, business leaders, Nobel laureates, and media takes does not only take place in China, its agenda is also largely shaped by China. Although the Board of the organization is chaired by former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, its secretariat is located in Beijing and the Forum enjoys continued attention and support from the Chinese government.
The format of the Forum is highly reminiscent of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and that is exactly China’s intention. Beijing hopes that the Boao Forum will become an equally successful Asian counterpart of the Davos Forum and it is not unlikely that the forum will one day achieve that goal. It is the largest international forum in Asia and the list of participating leaders – especially from the Asian region – and CEOs of major banks and companies like Samsung, KPMG, Microsoft, Gazprom and Lenovo, is expanding year by year. In 2014 the list included the prime ministers of China, Australia, South Korea and Pakistan. The list of high-level participants in this year’s forum is not yet available but China already announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping will give a keynote speech at the official opening of the Forum on 28 March 2015.
The Boao Forum is a good opportunity for Prime Minister Rutte to do business with several Chinese and other Asian leaders in a short period of time and to meet with bank directors and CEOs of major companies. These meetings will take place in the Corridors of the Forum: with government leaders in so-called ‘bilaterals’, scheduled short meetings; with others more casually during meals and forum sessions. As leaders of the major European countries, such as Merkel, Hollande and Cameron, will not attend the forum, relatively more time will be available for the Dutch prime minister. In addition, with his participation in the Boao Forum, Prime Minister Rutte will create goodwill in Beijing. As it is China’s ambition to make the Boao Forum as successful as Davos, the participation of a government leader, especially one from outside the Asian region, will be appreciated by the Chinese host. A win-win situation, as they call it in China.
What can premier Rutte learn at the Boao Forum?
Initially the Boao Forum focused on economic issues but in recent years politics and security have been on the agenda too. The theme of this this year’s Forum is ‘Asia’s New Future: Towards a Common Destiny’. This title supports the overall message that China wants to convey to Asia, namely that China aims for a common future and is not seeking dominance in the Asian region. Apart from topics such as macroeconomic developments, industry trends and technological innovation, the program will include the subjects of religion, agriculture, law, and history. And in case Prime Minister Rutte needs a break, he could try to escape from the conference venue for an hour and take a swim in the South China Sea.