Worrying development as Australia absent from Boao Forum, eschews regional engagement

Apr 3, 2024
March 28, 2024, shows the third day of the four-day Boao Forum for Asia annual conference in China's Hainan Province. (Kyodo)==Kyodo Photo via Credit: Newscom/Alamy Live News

Just a week ago, Wang Yi was in Australia and it appeared to be something of a reset. Australian media were happy(ish), barley is back, wine sales looked set to be back (and was formally confirmed that the tariffs would be dropped only a few days later). Only lobsters left on the list, there are still a few issues with food health concerns and meat from some abattoirs but everything appeared good. At least that was the hope a week ago.

Globally, there are some hugely positive steps taking place right now, such as a meeting between Xi Jinping and a large delegation of US business and academic leaders, the arrival in Beijing of the Dutch Prime Minister, the Nauruan PM, and the Sri Lankan PM both also met with Xi and the Dominican Republic’s PM also had a state reception in Beijing.

But there is a worrying development too. Anyone paying attention might note that Australia is fundamentally absent from this week’s Boao Forum. Outside the Region, little is known about a small town called Boao on China’s Hainan island province but it’s a remarkably important place for a few days of each year when thousands of delegates arrive from dozens of countries, usually Asian but always some from different regions.

The forum has not only been ignored totally by the ABC, it appears the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) too. If they are there, there is no mention of it on DFAT’s web page; the last article related to this Forum was Tim Ayres announcing he would attend last year. One must wonder if Australia wants to be part of the Region or prefers something else, since the only media mention of Australia’s involvement in this important regional forum is a Global Times interview with the CEO of Fortescue Mining.

Given the importance of the reset in the relationship, an absent, or low-key Australia is confusing. Boao was initially formed, with Australia as one of the key players and founding members, as an “Asian Davos”, it is strange that the Australian government and Australian media would ignore this event and some might interpret this as a telling moment in the Sino-Australian relationship.

Whilst not getting the same coverage as Davos might, the Forum is significant. Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, former Cambodian prime minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization Daren Tang, and Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECDE) Mathias Cormann were all in attendance.

The theme of “Asia and the World: Common Challenges, Shared Responsibilities” is a good one. The world sits on the edge of conflict, tensions are high and there are several hotspots. On top of that global issues such as climate change and the developments of AI with the promotion of peace and prosperity are on the agenda for the four-day conference.

Prosperity and even peace are placed at risk by predatory practices, this is why we have international rules and international bodies to oversee them. However, as Danilo Turk, the former President of Slovenia said from the Forum: “It is widely known that sanctions do not achieve the intended results, but instead produce negative consequences”. Another indicator that politicians want one thing but business leaders want something else.

Proof of this, comes in the form of the Netherlands’ PM visiting for behind closed doors discussions at the highest possible level, as well as US Semiconductor manufacturer, Nvidia, entering into a business agreement with BYD, Xpeng and other NEV manufacturers to supply chips for both factory automation and autonomous vehicles. China wants their chips and they want China’s business.

This will no doubt please Dino Ortranto, Fortescue’s CEO as more vehicle construction means more steel and more steel means, at least for the time being, more Australian dirt in the form of iron ore will be needed. These things happen on the sidelines of these forums and are why no regional economy should want to miss them.

Inside the conference rooms of Boao delegates are discussing the threats and challenges posed by AI. China is currently the largest producer of research papers into AI and has filed more patents than the rest of the world combined. China is also a country that has dug deeply into the field and has tasked academics, rather than politicians, to create draft legislation (in Chinese). Western media might not like the proposed rules but Chinese people do and, of course, so do the academics. The problem for Western media is that, as usual in China, they protect the people using technology as much as the people creating it. All of this is in keeping with Australian research too, Professor James Laurenceson, of Sydney’s UTS reported this several years ago, there is far more for Australia to gain by cooperating with China in this field than it has to lose. He also pointed out in the same paper that China’s military was not the main developer, in fact, only 6% of all the papers had a military connection.

Another aspect of the Forum is China’s acknowledgement of its own diversification through a marked shift in China’s exports. This shift takes two forms, one is the transition from mass-produced, low-tech products to a high-tech environment, specifically with the “big three”: Photovoltaics; Lithium-ion batteries; and New Energy Vehicles. All things Australia could use. The other is the shift in exports to “Global South Countries”. The Dean of Peking University, Lin Yifu has said: “China will remain the primary driver of global economic growth”, this sentiment was echoed by Ajay Banga, the President of the World Bank in another Forum taking place right now in Beijing; the China Development Forum.

There are always risks doing business with China, but no more than there are doing business with any other major player any field. The benefits for Australia’s economy in maintaining a good relationship with China far outweigh the risks of ignoring the largest customer, largest supplier and the leader of the field in all the technologies Australia may need to survive impending challenges. Now isn’t the time to be moving away from China.

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