Michael Bloomberg, Henry Kissinger and Hank Paulson have picked Singapore over Beijing for their next annual conference on US-China relations.
Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and owner of the eponymous financial information group, told the Financial Times that “logistics”, including Singapore’s Covid-19 safety record and the “very concerning” conditions in China for journalists, had persuaded the group to hold the New Economy Forum in the city-state in November.
The conference was held in Beijing in 2019 and virtually last year. The inaugural event in 2018 was meant to be held in Beijing but had been moved to Singapore amid escalating US-China tensions that year.
Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the head of the World Trade Organization, are among the 400 leaders who have signed up for this year’s event, which will focus on how business should navigate China’s rise and other global economic power shifts.
Planning for the in-person format came at a time of uncertainty over how quickly executives will be ready to resume international networking.
Singapore’s low Covid-19 case count, high-tech approach to monitoring and relatively easy visa process has made it a popular hub for global gatherings. The World Economic Forum, which has been forced to delay its usual Davos gatherings, is also planning a meeting in the city-state in August.
The New Economy Forum also comes as multinationals struggle to navigate a US-China relationship defined by trade tensions, technology stand-offs and clashes over Beijing’s human rights record, including its handling of Hong Kong and treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
US-China relations remain at risk of “conflagration”, Kissinger told the FT, but the architect of Washington’s rapprochement with Beijing 50 years ago broke with conventional wisdom by arguing that US president Joe Biden was exploring more opportunities for negotiation than Donald Trump did as president.
“I think in this administration a clear line has not yet developed, but it seems to me to be moving towards a negotiation on a broad front in which the two major countries are trying to reset their relations to each other,” said Kissinger, former secretary of state under Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
“The language still has an adversarial character but I think the circumstances are better now,” Kissinger added, saying that during the Trump administration it had looked “as if the isolation of China was the principal objective of American foreign policy”.
As more brands find themselves caught between China and pressure from activists and socially responsible investors over Beijing’s policies regarding Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, Kissinger and Bloomberg warned against the US pushing China too hard on human rights.
“We should not use the human rights issue as a deliberate issue to undermine the existing structures, because if we do that, we will be in a permanent confrontation,” Kissinger said.
“Businesses understand that there’s no simple answer to cultural differences when you have to work together,” Bloomberg said, singling out climate change as the most important of the problems on which the US and China needed to collaborate.
Paulson, the former US Treasury secretary, said the US-China relationship would remain “fraught for the foreseeable future” but said he was hopeful that the Biden administration would find ways to co-operate with China on climate issues while giving business a seat at the table.
“Business has historically been and can continue to be a ballast for this relationship, to help ensure things don’t spiral out of control,” he said.
Despite his vote of confidence in Singapore, Bloomberg said he hoped the New Economy Forum would return to Beijing.
“When I told the Chinese ambassador to the United States . . . he said ‘we understand and we hope you will consider us the next year’.”