What 'world forum' without Asia?

SCMP February 7, 2005

The world is supposed to be getting smaller and more integrated as trade, capital flows and migration all grow a lot faster than populations and economies. But when it comes to ideas and interests, it is not at all clear that a fusion is taking place.

Take the just-ended Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum. This high-profile event is often supposed to be the Holy of Holies of the forces of globalisation, where the heads of great global companies meet their counterparts in politics and central banking. But judging from the latest forum, the perception gap between (geographic) east and west is increasing, while the narrowing of the actual (income) gap between north and south is being poorly reflected.

Davos is billed as a world event, but more than 75 per cent of those attending this year came from the broadly defined west - Europe, North America, plus the likes of Australia and Israel. Their preponderance is perhaps inevitable, given the location in Switzerland, but nonetheless it appears to have been increasing at a time when the west's relative position in the world has been in steep decline, mainly because of the rise of Asia.

In past years, significant delegations of business and other leaders from Hong Kong, not to mention the likes of Malaysia, Thailand and Japan, were to be found braving or enjoying the cold, crisp air. Chinese and Russians, too, have made an impact in the past. But Asia this year was represented by not a single head of government. Malaysia and Pakistan sent their second-in-commands, and China, a vice-premier. However, the meeting was bereft of senior businessmen from Asia, other than India, which appears to appreciate that the west has finally woken up to its existence as a place of business opportunity.

This poor turnout was, in turn, a reflection of the lack of Asian corporate sponsors. Only one company from East Asia - Nomura - was among the 80.

Inevitably, nearly 80 per cent of named speakers were drawn from the western world. Naturally, they reflected their own perceptions of the world. There was plenty of discussion of China, as befitting the west's current obsession with it, but largely to the exclusion of the rest of Asia.

Islam was another obsession, but one focused entirely on the Middle East. The organisers were curiously ignorant of the fact that nearly half the world's Muslims live east of Pakistan, in countries with secular institutions and which are mostly democratic. But it is easier to demonise Islam by reference to the Arab world in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Likewise, it is easier to define Iran as a major "global threat" if you ignore the fact that the threat is from the west against Iran's desire for nuclear equality with its neighbours.

Africa was much discussed - but largely by non-Africans, and even most of the Africans were from South Africa, not the more needy areas. Aid is needed, but it was perceived as a western issue, not one which could benefit from involving prospering Asia more closely.

Davos is about more than business and politics. It covers trends, science and issues such as climate change and global health. The west , and especially the US, remains the source of most new ideas and initiatives. Nonetheless, the divergence between the Davos world and the rest is not, as usually imagined, between the pro-globalisation forces and the anti-globalisation groups but between the old west and the new east.

Perhaps the reality of today's Davos is the fault of the organisers and their criteria for attendance. But equally, it could represent a real divergence of identity and interests. This is being papered over for the time being by mutual dependence - of the east on the US consumer and the west on the Asian saver. That linkage is unsustainable and, sooner or later it will break down, perhaps exposing the shallow nature of much of the globalisation. Is this far fetched? Perhaps, but it is worth discussing at Davos.




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