Beijing has just announced that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) will be the main speaker at this year’s Boao Forum for Asia, where the roster of leaders expected to participate is a virtual Who’s Who of the continent: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe, Mongolian Prime Minister S. Bayar, Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Kopsak Saphawasu.
Such meetings are vital for Asia because the continent lacks the dense institutional infrastructure that Europe has built over the past five decades. This year’s Boao Forum has become even more important because of the cancelation of the ASEAN summit following violent protests.
Multinational companies increasingly treat Asia as a single economic space, at least as far as production is concerned. This, of course, does not mean that Asia is, or is becoming, a single market, but rather that is now something of a tight-knit pan-national supply chain.
But, although Asia is becoming more like Europe in terms of economic integration, political and diplomatic integration lags behind.
As such, because Asia lacks such institutional arrangements, personal diplomacy of the type that the Boao Forum represents, like the annual global winter gathering at Davos, remains vitally important.
Indeed, it was at last year’s Boao Forum that Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) began to express optimism about the positive trends in mainland China-Taiwan relations.
That rapprochement was possible because Taiwan’s then-newly elected vice president was given permission by China to attend the forum, where he was able to meet informally with Hu.
In February, I headed a 40-member trade delegation to Taipei.
That mission’s highlight was my dialogue with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who stressed the importance of connecting Taiwan to the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA) in the light of warmer relations developing between the mainland and Taiwan.
At this time of global economic turmoil, increasing Taiwan’s formal economic links with China and its regional partners can only benefit everyone involved, because an inevitable side-effect will be a lessening of tension.
Unfortunately, some analysts suggest that a Taiwan-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement like CAFTA may not yet be possible, so, in the interim, the Ma administration is striving to achieve separate free-trade agreements with various members of ASEAN.
Understandably, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has taken the stand that Taiwan should seek closer ties with ASEAN countries rather than depend too much on mainland China, but Ma does not see the two efforts as being mutually exclusive.
From a wider perspective, Ma and I exchanged views on the synergy of an emerging “Central East Asia Growth Polygon” (CEAGPOL) consisting of the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and the mainland Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian — plus, eventually, Hainan, Okinawa and Guam/Marianas.
With goodwill on all sides, real advantages can materialize from building up this informal grouping, as it is a gateway to the huge markets of Southeast and Northeast Asia.
An economic bonus of such an effort for the entire region would come from an increased opening of direct flights and sea transport across the Taiwan Strait.