US no-shows mean advantage China at this year’s Davos?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 22, 2019

The elite descend on Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, and it may well be China’s game to lose. There will be no US delegation, no French president and no British prime minister at Davos. But China’s Vice-President Wang Qishan will be in attendance.

A piece in the South China Morning Post discussed the possibilities that might be available to Mr Wang because of all the no-shows. It quoted Zhang Yuquan, a specialist in American studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. In the absence of the Americans, said Mr Zhang, Mr Wang could hold talks with and convey Beijing’s message on economic and trade issues to the Europeans, Japanese and South Americans. “There’s more than just the United States in the world. This is ultimately the Americans’ loss because China will now try to make its case on the global stage,” Mr Zhang added.

Mr Wang could have a heart-to-heart with leaders of other top economies at Davos, not least Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But even more important for Beijing , the Post points out, is a “key audience” at Davos – global corporate executives and opinion leaders. The paper quotes Wang Huiyao, director of the Beijing-based think tank the Centre for China and Globalisation. The Chinese vice-president, he said, could usefully reprise his performance at a new economic forum organised by US billionaire Michael Bloomberg in Singapore in November. In Singapore, Vice-President Wang gave a speech criticising “unilateralism” without naming any country.

At Davos, the same sort of message would presumably be delivered by the Chinese. It would continue the drumbeat started by President Xi Jinping and his chief economic aide Liu, both of whom spoke at the forum in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Of course, it’s all very well for the Chinese to present their country as a business-friendly champion of globalisation. The message would be stronger if China walked the talk. As I said in a recent blog on the petroyuan, China has not indicated when (or even if) it will liberalize its financial markets and its capital account, allow foreigners to easily buy Chinese stocks and bonds and to move money in and out of the country as needed.