Forum moved to Singapore amid US-China trade war

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change. The event was planned to rival Davos in Switzerland.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change. The event was planned to rival Davos in Switzerland.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Fallout from the trade war between the United States and China has prompted Mr Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media executive and former mayor of New York City, to relocate what was planned as a conference of global business and political leaders in Beijing to rival Davos, the elite annual conclave in Switzerland.

Organisers in New York are moving the event to Singapore, where it is to take place from Nov 6 to 7. Mr Bloomberg made the decision after a Chinese partner asked organisers last week to postpone the event, according to people with knowledge of the planning.

Instead, the partner told organisers, President Xi Jinping and other leaders in China wanted to spotlight an import expo in Shanghai to bolster international interest in trade with the country.

The move highlights the difficulty of conducting business - or diplomacy - in China, both because of rising tensions with the US and because of an accelerating move towards hard authoritarianism under Mr Xi.

The relationship between Washington and Beijing has become increasingly fraught because of the trade war started by US President Donald Trump, and Chinese officials are more likely to question US-led events in China, even those that aim to take business leaders there.

The New Economy Forum intended for Beijing was supposed to highlight China's growing dominance in the global economy. Invitations had been sent to 400 business and political figures, 300 of them from outside China. The involvement of so many prominent people and companies which for years maintained strong ties with China makes the decision to move the event surprising.

Chairmen of the conference's advisory board include former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson Jr, both of whom occasionally meet Chinese leaders and preach engagement with China.

The Chinese partner for the event, the China Centre for Economic International Exchanges, is a research centre based in Beijing that is led by Mr Zeng Peiyan, a former vice-premier.


Its request last week came as a blow to Mr Bloomberg, who wants to engage with China on issues such as trade and climate change. Organisers scrambled to find another site, and prominent Singaporeans agreed to play host, the people familiar with planning said.

The Chinese centre is still expected to send some participants, but there will now be less of a focus on China, and programmers are scrambling to line up speakers after some dropped out, the people said.

"I think it is more clear that the increasing tensions in the US-China relationship are having an impact on everything," said Mr Scott Mulhauser, former chief of staff to Mr Max Baucus, an ambassador to China under the Obama administration.

The strengthening of authoritarianism in China poses a quandary for Westerners who want to engage with the country but also say they champion liberal thought and freedoms. In that context, some experts say, the move to Singapore could benefit the event.

Mr Orville Schell, director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, who has organised events in China, said: "As much as we see a need to have frank and honest discussions, it is almost impossible to confect such a thing in China. In my opinion, Singapore is a much better choice."

Organisers of the event said on Wednesday that Singapore was chosen "because of its position as one of the world's leading international and business hubs".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2018, with the headline 'Forum moved to S'pore amid US-China trade war'. Print Edition | Subscribe