Japanese thin on the ground at Boao Forum

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2007, 12:00am

If the warmth during last week's meetings between Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe highlighted the potential in the Sino-Japanese relationship, the Boao Forum on Hainan Island shows just how much ground there is to cover.

A loose annual gathering of regional investors, politicians and media, Japanese delegates are thin on the ground as Boao kicks off today.

Japanese investment on the mainland may be steadily rising and trade flows now usurping the previously dominant Japanese-American relationship, but Japanese delegates are conspicuous by their absence, outnumbered by Koreans, Americans and Indians.

Representatives from Pakistan and the Philippines are more prominent, backed by the presence of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, respectively.

While touted as a regional forum, for many business delegates Boao has always been about giving face to China for many foreign business delegates. Some of the world's largest firms are represented. Bill Gates is the biggest name, flying the Microsoft flag. Sweden's Ericsson Group, Merrill Lynch, America's Starbucks, Hong Kong's Li and Fung and South Korea's SK Group are also prominent. China's biggest firms, such as Sinopec, CNOOC and Cosco, are once again present in force.

'Maybe they are just not in the mood,' a Korean delegate said of his Japanese rivals. 'I see it as an advantage for everyone else. Maybe we can expect them to be back in force next year, given all the recent developments.'

Fidel Ramos, a Boao founder and former Philippine president, sees things a little differently. A keen observer of China's growing regional role, he said he was unconcerned about the absence of Japanese businessmen. 'There is more to the Boao Forum than just swanning around looking to sign millions of dollars of deals,' he said.

'The Japanese have always played a significant part in Boao and are continuing to do so ... they are doing a lot to develop values and a culture for Asia and respect for the environment, all the things our children need.'

Mr Ramos pointed to the recent work of fellow Boao board member Jiro Nemoto, former chairman of Japanese shipping giant NYK, who led a study entitled 'Globalisation and Asian Values'.

Mr Nemoto warned of growing disdain for basic humanity across eastern and western societies and the need for shared values. 'Education is the most important issue ... we must establish in Asia a society that supports lifelong education for all people.'

But copies of the study are piled high in the conference corridors.

It is another reminder of Boao's struggle for identity as it enters its eighth year. Inevitably compared to the growing annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Boao is neither purely economic, nor entirely academic.

The forum's secretary-general, former Chinese trade negotiator Long Yongtu , repeatedly defended the role of Boao, insisting its role could not be underestimated. The role of Asia at other forums had 'always been marginalised', he said. 'We have to have a platform of Asian issues, reflecting the reality ... they are of relevance to the world. We are fortunate to have such economic interest in Asia at this point.'

Besides, Europe was simply too cold to have meaningful intellectual and practical discussions about the future, Mr Ramos said.

'The ambience is perfect ... even the dress code is informal.'

The search for an identity seems set to continue, as is the hunt for wider representation needed to give the body real regional heft.

If Japanese delegates are hard to find, some emerging nations are completely absent, including Vietnam and Thailand. For some, it seems, the Boao experiment remains a work in progress.