I am returning to Mumbai after a gap of nearly two decades and as I make my way in a government monitored pre-paid taxi (a no-nonsense commuting facility both for locals and foreigners and a service that Pakistan will be well advised to emulate for its incoming visitors) to the Trident/Oberoi Hotels, the venue of the ‘Asian Financial Cooperation Conference’, I am desperately trying to ascertain what has changed here (other than its name) from the time of my last visit. The city continues to be the house of Bollywood, still appears congested and a bit worn out in spite of the numerous modern buildings that have sprung up and the fancy car showrooms that have opened since, and the dark metropolis even now gives a rather creepy feeling to a new visitor, perhaps, like every other big Indian city at first glance - large expanse, indifferent people and in case of Mumbai the face of Bal Thackeray staring at you from a poster placed virtually at every downtown street corner (this may change though as I am told that he died a few days back and his body was cremated only yesterday). What has not changed is that Mumbai is still the nerve centre of Indian finance and commerce, and counted amongst the top 10 financial and commercial centres of the world - generates close to 10 percent of India’s GDP; accounts for 25 percent of Indian industrial output; 70 percent of maritime trade in India; 70 percent of capital transactions to its economy; and is the house to the Reserve Bank of India (Central Bank), numerous Indian stock exchanges, top corporations, leading MNCs (multinational corporations), and India’s premier nuclear institutes like BARC, NPCL and the Department of Atomic Energy. No wonder, the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) has chosen this city as the venue for its first Asian conference and board meeting to be held outside of China. The BFA, founded by 25 Asian countries (including Australia) in 2001, is the Asian answer for the World Economic Forum based in Davos, Switzerland.

The Oberoi and the Trident, which are interconnected hotels, are extremely impressive and as expected, the BFA team has made professional arrangements. Within 20 minutes of my arrival, I have been registered, handed over the conference material, my room key along with my entitlement vouchers and have even received a short briefing on my 40 minutes session on ‘inclusive growth’ to be conducted the following day involving four panelists. During the briefing I discover that not only am I the sole delegate speaker from Pakistan, but also the only Pakistani attending this conference. Conspiracy theories are already doing the rounds in mind, as I am entering the meeting room, thinking back to the 2001 inaugural BFA board meeting (the last one that I attended) where the tension between China and India was obvious. To everyone’s surprise, particularly to mine, the Secretary General had asked me to sit right next to him on his right side; an obvious enough gesture to marginalise India and prop up Pakistan. Will today be a repeat and could the real reason for this invitation be to reassure Pakistan and advise India that Asian and especially South Asian solutions need to include Pakistan?

The false feeling is short-lived. No special chair this time is reserved for me at the main board table. I quietly take a seat in the fourth row to watch in amazement as how in 2012, the representatives from China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia (all sitting at the main table) work in complete harmony to take key decisions in carving out a common Asian dream and to see Asia assume its rightful position in global decision making by taking its destiny into its own hands. No mention or even acknowledgement of Pakistan – surely, this conference is going to be different!

It is different alright, as it just dawns on me that the first day of the conference coincides with the anniversary of the tragic 26/11 Mumbai incident where 11 people also died at the Oberoi/Trident Hotels. The proceedings start at 9 am with a one minute silence, followed by prayers for the deceased during the incident and a condolence speech by a Chinese official. All leaders, which include the Chinese Vice Premier, former Japanese PM, Secretary General BFA, South Korean Finance Minister and, of course, the Indian Finance Minister and the Head of India’s Reserve Bank, begin by first referring to the tragic incident before going on to make their respective addresses. While Asia is eager to show its solidarity with the emerging India, I am trying to do my best to appear invisible. Finally, the sessions kick off at 11 am (the first two hours feeling like eternity) and the mood thankfully shifts to the main theme, ‘Open Asia - Open Finance’, through cooperation and innovation. No mention or even a hint by anyone on the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the islands in the South China Sea or the maritime issues amongst China, South Korea and Japan or for that matter on the perception about India being developed to counter China’s rising influence; just sheer focus on business on hand: Asian cooperation on finance, trade and economics to challenge the grip cum dominance of the West and to carve out a win-win formula for Asia as a whole.

Asian intra-regional trade one is being told is growing faster than its trade with traditional markets in the US and Europe. One of the major contributors to the Asian success story is the rise in its regional cooperation and integration. Intra-Asian trade has tripled since 2000 in contrast to its trade with the outside world, which has only doubled, with China having taken the lead role of an assembly hub for final goods exports. Greater intra-regional trade and financial integration in Asia have evolved from the fiscal crisis and the slow growth in the developed economies. In the past decade, the world has witnessed a shift in economic dynamism from the industrialised economies to the emerging markets in Asia. In 2011, Asia contributed 36.60 percent of the global GDP in comparison to the European Union (EU), which accounted for just 20.1 percent. The growth numbers tell another significant story of the rise in the Asian economies. In 2008-2011, Asia, on an average, had a real GDP growth of 5.8 percent, while the developed economies of North America and the EU grew at an average of just 0.4 percent and 0 percent. Further, the global foreign direct investment (FDI) in Asia has grown at an average rate of 5 percent per annum from 2000 to 2009.

While the shape of the Asian century is not set in stone, the scale and pace of Asia’s rise in the coming decades are expected to be staggering. Many nations in the region have just begun to catch up with the productivity levels enjoyed in advanced economies, promising strong growth for decades to come and a confident India it appears seems to be leading the pack. It is not afraid that the current $100 billion bilateral trade with China is tilted heavily in favour of the Chinese (India’s current trade deficit with China is around $40 billion/annum). It feels that as the incubator effect starts taking effect and Indian industry learns more, not will it close this trade gap, but will, in fact, post a surplus in the years to come. The Indian businesses are viewing China as an opportunity and not as a threat. I hear a joint presentation by the Reddy and the Birla groups, who talk about out-of-the-box financial solutions between India and China, such as turning the $40 billion/annum trade deficit amount into a mutual advantage by asking the Chinese to instead invest in India in Renminbi, which can yield higher returns and flexibility for China by keeping its export surplus out of the dollar denomination and, at the same time, provide India with the much needed regular annual finance to meet its colossal yet growing demand for investment in infrastructure development; following and partnering China in its quest for currency swaps (Chinese currency swap arrangements have already crossed the yuan 1 trillion mark and growing) where bilateral trade can take place in mutual currencies and without the additional cost of a foreign currency; cementing Asian cooperation in slowly but surely chipping away at the US dollar and euro dominance as the underlying global currencies; and last but not least, complementing the Chinese vision, rather than competing against it by reversing the focus to suit each other’s needs – meaning that, over the last decade China stimulated national investment, whereas, India stimulated consumption and now it is time for them to reverse the order of focus over the next decade.

Finally, we get to the last session of the first day that discusses the “overall impact on Asia of regional cooperation within Asia.” I’ve been eagerly awaiting this, since I am most interested in finding out India’s designs vis-à-vis its own backyard. Contrary to my expectation, the tone for South Asia continues on the same frequency as of Asia as a whole. On how by 2025 South Asia collectively will not just be the most populous region in the world, it will also be the biggest economic zone, the biggest consumption zone and the home to majority of the world’s middle class. However, in order for it to realise its true potential, there is a need for regional economic integration and a liberalised trade environment that can only be brought about by sound and stable fundamentals and mutual cooperation. Leading Indian corporations make powerful presentations to demonstrate how and why India’s private sector is keen to play its due part in lifting South Asia to the top of the Asian table. And with these upbeat cum positive notes, the first day is drawing to a close and I am already thinking that the ‘Indian business’ has assumed the driving seat of the South Asian economic bus and Pakistan will be well served to be on it rather than off it!

The writer is an entrepreneur and economic analyst. Email: kamalmannoo@hotmail.com