The 21st century is Asia’s century. The unprecedented economic growth in Asia during the past few decades has shifted the centre of gravity of the global economy from the West to the East. As Asian economies have continued to grow exponentially, they have also become more complex and more integrated with each other and with the rest of the world, reflecting the reality of inter-dependence and globalization of the present day. Today, Asian enterprise is a key driver in global economic development. The theme of this year’s forum, “Asia’s New Future: Towards a Community of Common Destiny”, is therefore relevant and timely.
Despite such dynamism, grave challenges remain. While countries of Asia are home to a rich tapestry of shared historical and civilizational links, they are diverse in terms of socio-economic development, geographical size and natural resources. The wealth of Asia, if measured in GDP per capita terms, differs widely among and within states. While Asia holds the majority of the world’s population, accounting for almost 60% of the estimated 7.2 billion, it is also home to a majority of the world’s poor. The rising prosperity in many of our Asian societies is marked by high consumption and expenditure, coupled with an evergrowing income disparity. In Sri Lanka too, this phenomenon is a cause for concern. In my address to the Nation last month on the occasion of the National Day, I highlighted this issue and made a solemn pledge to reducing the income gap and eliminating poverty as a key objective of my Government.
The expansion in intra-regional economic integration in Asia has not seen an equitable increase in regional economic cooperation, particularly at a broader level. There remains a notable asymmetry in the degree of intra-regional integration. The Asian region is also still largely dependent on extra-regional markets for its final exports, and lacks significant complementarities within the region. Such asymmetries curtail our efforts to translate our collective economic success into a greater voice on global trade, investment and finance.
In such a scenario, how do we achieve a community of common destiny for Asia? How do we eliminate poverty and achieve inclusive and sustainable growth for our people? How do we make the Asian economies a catalyst for change to realize the full potential of the Asian community?
The answers lie in developing appropriate public policy strategies to respond to these challenges, while taking into consideration the particularities of our respective States. This calls for new thinking on an Asian growth strategy, and a more cooperative partnership among the community of nations. The vast asymmetries among Asian economies need to be acknowledged and addressed in this process of cooperation. The larger economies in the region can play a catalytic role for progress of the smaller economies. Preferential market access must take into consideration economic asymmetries for such access to be viable and beneficial. Connectivity among nations and people, in terms of travel, trade, logistics and technology, will play a pivotal role in Asian integration and prosperity. Simplifying trade and reducing non-tariff barriers is vital in order to enhance connectivity. In a highly interdependent and complex world, our destiny is inter-twined, and determined by our common agenda and collective action.
Sri Lanka is committed to such cooperation and collective action within the community of Asian nations. The people of Sri Lanka on the 8th of January gave me an overwhelming mandate to take the country on a path of progress as a nation welcoming a new dawn of democracy, good governance, the rule of law, and equal opportunities for all. Towards this end, my Government is implementing an ambitious 100-day programme, inclusive of constitutional reform, to usher in a new political culture, as well as achieve lasting national reconciliation among all communities.
As one of the first post-colonial democracies in the world that actively worked towards Asian-African solidarity, South-South cooperation and Non Alignment, Sri Lanka’s engagement with Asian solidarity and cooperation has a long and proud history. While we walk the middle path in our foreign policy, we also extend our hand of friendship to all nations, and renew our engagement with the international community. We will continue to nurture our special friendship with countries in our Asian neighbourhood. Our approach to governanceis founded upon the bedrock of Theravada Buddhism, which is part of our valued Asian heritage, where all our neighbours are treated with compassion as one’s own family. It is an inclusive approach，which embraces diversity and pluralism. Sri Lanka, as a maritime nation with natural geographical advantages, will work in tandem with friendly countries to maintain cooperation in the maritime sphere.
Sri Lanka is currently identified as an economy with relatively high growth among emerging market economies. The country’s substantial growth in per capita terms in recent years is comparable to middle income economy levels. The island nation’s strategic location as well as the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with India and Pakistan can be made use of by countries in accessing the vast potential of the Indian Subcontinent. We are hopeful that our FTA with China, currently under negotiation, will provide further impetus for value addition and economic cooperation in the region. Our inbound tourism from Asia has increased significantly in the past several years. While Asian countries rank among the top investors in Sri Lanka, the Government is instituting reforms which will make the investment climate even more favourable, to attract investors across the globe.
Asia has historically maintained its own values and identity. We must stand ready to harness the potential of the Asian community for collective benefit, and jointly explore the development path and model most suited to our specific circumstances. In these efforts, we could learn from each other. Our vision should be to ultimately achieve a fully integrated and connected Asia in the world.
This important forum can play a pivotal role in inspiring dialogue to achieve our collective vision of an Asian community of common destiny. Given the richness of our shared history and the resilience of our people, I am confident that this task would not be too onerous.
In conclusion, I take this opportunity to convey my best wishes for a successful and productive outcome for the Boao Forum for Asia 2015.