An Asian business council for an Asian Century?

We speak to Ronnie Chan about the Asia Business Council of top CEOs he helped found and now chairs.

In a telling move that signals Asia's increasingly important place in the global economy, Asian business finally has a voice. Incorporated in Hong Kong this March, the Asian Business Council, is an elite grouping of Asia's most important business leaders.

Deliberately compact (with 60 members), the list includes the likes of: Noboyuki Idei of Sony, Morris Chang of TSMC, Suppiah Dhanabalan of Temasek, Chey Tae-Won of SK Corp, David Li of Bank of East Asia, Narayana Murthy of Infosys, Stan Shih of Acer, Banthoon Lamsam of Thai Farmers, Daniel Tsai of Fubon, Yang Yuanqing of Legend and Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala II of Ayala Corp.

A sprinkling of key global business leaders such as John Chambers of Cisco and Gerard Kleisterlee of Philips are included to add a broader perspective.

Its chairman is Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hong Kong's Hang Lung Group. Says Chan: "A few of us got together a couple of years ago, and realized that while Asia is maturing economically, there's no organization that really spans the whole region at the CEO level, and that it is time to have one. In the old days, Asia was a spoke and hub, with each country linking up with the US, rather than each other. Whereas, there are a lot of issues are common to all of us.

So what are its objectives: "We have three. The first, is to create a place where Asian CEOs can regularly interact with one another and discuss issues of common interest, or common problems. The second is that we all have a common interest in Asia's sustainable growth. So we do research; with much of the data coming from our member companies. We have a corporate governance task force, for example, that looks at what corporate governance means in an Asian context, and is chaired by Morris Chang.

"Finally, if we have a consensus, we will make our business voice known publicly."

So is this a lobbying group? "We're not interested in pressuring governments, but by virtue of who our members are, it should be a voice that is listened to. Our members are not just deep pockets, but thoughtful CEOs, so our voice will be heard."

The Asian Business Council gets together in the Spring and Autumn for forums and tries to limit participation to 40 people. Its executive director is Ruth Shapiro who says: "There is an agenda which is jointly-developed with the members. We pick topics of interest."

Clearly the most interesting topic for all members is China and what it means for Asia. Says Shapiro: "All of our members know they cannot run from China. Everyone is saying we can't beat them, so we have to join them. So all of our members are trying to figure out where their opportunity lies within China, and that is both frightening and energizing."

Says Chan: "Everybody is apprehensive. They know China is where the opportunity is, but they wonder æCan we make money there?'. On the other hand, everybody recognizes they have no choice. China is very high on all of our members' agenda."

He mentions an anecdote: "Yesterday, I discovered a lot of people in China have children studying in the US and the UK, and are now using the internet to communicate face to face with video. So they are technology leapfrogging."

So are we talking about an Asia Business Council for an Asian Century? Chan answers thus: "First, when everyone was crazy about the idea of the Asian century, I was not one of those. On the other hand, now that everyone is so down on Asia, I believe whether we have an Asian century or not depends on two countries: China and Japan. If these two nations can get it right, then I see no reason to be pessimistic about Asia.

"The good thing about Confucianism is it makes Asian people willing to suffer pain as long as they see a future. So if China and Japan can become the twin engines of Asia - like an airplane - then we have a very good future.

"Asia is struggling to mature economically, socially and institutionally. The Asian crisis caused Asia to improve, and there is still some way to go; but I believe the key issue will be whether China and Japan can get it right."

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