By Janina C. Lim

FOREIGN AND LOCAL delegates at the 2019 annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia called for closer development coordination among peers, building on China’s Belt and Road initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in order to resist a wave of protectionism threatening the rules-based multilateral system.

“The Philippines is hopeful that as we bring the Boao Forum to Manila, we can further build on previous discussions with our partners so we may forge deeper consensus as we strengthen regional cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea said on Monday night at the start of the conference in Taguig City as he read President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s speech. “We will also assess our progress in the implementation of various initiatives arising from the Forum and other platforms, especially in the areas of infrastructure, energy, trade and investments, science and technology, and environmental protection.”

Mr. Duterte, who has lately been critical of China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea despite his visible strategic partiality towards the regional power, was noticeably absent from the event, although he did attend a briefing in Pampanga late Tuesday afternoon on post-earthquake measures.

Asked on Mr. Duterte’s absence from the conference, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo told reporters in a mobile phone message: “He is not feeling well due to his punishing schedule and successive campaign sorties… [T]hat’s the reason. Overworked.”

House Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo, Boao Forum director and keynote speaker in Tuesday’s conference, called for continued globalization and free trade “tempered, of course, by each country’s unique history and tradition.”

Ms. Arroyo — who analysts have noted played the “China card” in her government’s dealings with Washington during her own 2001-2010 presidency — lauded China’s transformation into a “powerful advocate for globalization and free trade”, a role the United States used to play.

“I say this because, traditionally, this used to be the familiar role of the United States. But now that the Trump-style conservatism is presidential policy in the United State, past trade agreements are being viewed by conservate nationalists as too concessionary,” she noted.

The conference, this year themed “Concerted Action for Common Development in the New Era,” is held annually to serve a venue for government and business leaders, as well as academicians to discuss key issues in the region and in the world.

Zhou Xiaochuan, vice-chairman of the Boao Forum, as the second keynote speaker, said: “We… [are] here to discuss how to take concerted action on common development concerns and share the future.”

Mr. Zhou, also the former governor of the People’s Bank of China, cited challenges such as nuclear security, geopolitical conflict, terrorist attack and the influx of refugees which “have not yet been effectively resolved…”

“Both global trade and economic growth are losing steam. The rules-based multilateral system is under threat. Emerging markets in developing countries are more vulnerable…” he said, as he also cited emerging challenges such as the growing digital divide.

Surakiart Sathirathai, also member of the Boao Forum’s board and former deputy prime minister of Thailand, warned that the lack of action in addressing technological disruptions will push this divide “wider than before”, adding that “the speed of such divide [growing] is unthinkable if not managed and planned properly.”

Mr. Sathirathai emphasized the need for economies to invest more in training, retraining and upskilling to cope with technological advancements.

Mr. Sathirathai also noted that BRI and RCEP go hand in glove in promoting economic connectivity in Asia

“… [B]oth the RCEP and BRI will be the great common synergy that drives Asia’s common and inclusive development to benefit everyone in Asia,” Mr. Sathirathai said.

Mr. Duterte, in his speech read for him by Mr. Medialdea on Monday, also cited the conference’s significance for the Philippines.

“We are optimistic that this conference will not only serve as a platform to introduce the Boao Forum to the Philippine business community, but also to provide our neighbors adequate insight on the business environment and trade policies currently prevailing in the Philippines,” his speech read.

Ms. Arroyo, however, emphasized the need to remove hurdles to growing Chinese investments here.

“The main thing to focus now is the implementation side,” she said.

“On the part of the Philippines, we know we have to have maximum efforts to remove the on-the-ground bottle-necks that impede implementation of projects that involve trade and investment growth of China,” she added.

“But this Boao forum Manila is one way of enlightening our foreign businessmen from China with regard to the believed restrictions.”

Speaking to reporters later, Ms. Arroyo said representatives of 16 tech firms from China who met local counterparts on Tuesday initially expressed worry about restrictions on foreign participation in several sectors. A meeting with Department of Information and Communications Technology Secretary Eliseo M. Rio, Jr. helped assuage their concerns somewhat, Ms. Arroyo said.

Zhao Jianhua, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, said in his speech read on his behalf by the embassy’s deputy chief of mission and minister counsellor, Tan Qingsheng, said he expects Philippine-China trade relations to mark a “new high” this year. He noted, among others, that value of bilateral merchandise trade grew 8.5% to $55.7 billion last year, making the regional giant the Philippines’ largest source of imports and the fourth-largest market for Philippine goods.

“Our economic cooperation will also increase employment, it’s more cost effective. About 50 large-scale Chinese economics in the Philippines have employed 16,000 Filipinos and the number will increase in the coming years,” Mr. Tan said as he delivered Mr. Zhao’s speech.

Mr. Tan added that the Chinese embassy to the Philippines expects more than 1.5 million Chinese tourists to come to the Philippines this year and generate P62 billion in sales receipts for the local economy.

Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry member Elton See Tan, said the conference and efforts in its aftermath will benefit his hotel business as well as the country’s broader tourism sector. “If we can get a portion of their tourism business here, it will be very beneficial for the Philippines especially we’re building the tourism infrastructure now and the new airports. With them coming in, it will greatly increase the value of our tourism industry,” Mr. Tan said in an interview at the sidelines of the forum on Tuesday.

At the latter part of the forum, top Philippine officials like Energy Secretary Alfonso M. Cusi encouraged Chinese businessmen to invest in the country as the government moves to further improve the ease of doing business, particularly by further reducing steps to get permits.

Trade Undersecretary Ceferino S. Rodolfo, who is in charge of the department’s Industry Development and Trade Policy Group, touted the Philippines’ manufacturing potentials, asking investors to “locate in the Philippines and… be able to take advantage of our market access to the big markets of US, EU, our ASEAN and Asian partners.”

According to its Web site, the Boao Forum for Asia is a nongovernment, nonprofit international organization proposed in 1998 by Fidel V. Ramos, former president of the Philippines; Bob Hawke, former prime minister of Australia, and Morihiro Hosokawa, former prime minister of Japan.

Officialy inaugurated on February 27, 2001, the forum is headquartered in Boao, Hainan Province, China and has been holding annual conferences since 2002.