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Insight: The relevance of Forum Macau

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image Paulo Barbosa

The fourth ministerial conference of the Forum for Economic and Trade Co-operation between China and Portuguese Countries (Forum Macau) closed with the usual congratulatory speeches.
The Chinese Minister of Commerce, Mr Gao Hucheng, expressed Beijing’s intention to promote Macau as a platform between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries (PSC) several times. “We all agree that we should give Macau an indispensable role to play in the future,” he said, adding that economic and trade relations between the parties are expected to amount to USD160 billion in 2016.  The Portuguese Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Luís Campos Ferreira, said enthusiastically that the “Forum can inclusively change our peoples’ livelihoods.”
It remains to be seen how Macau will play its role and what will become of the Forum.
Before the conference kicked off, the Cape Verde ambassador in Beijing, Júlio Morais, hit the nail on the head by arguing that the relevance of Forum Macau has been minimal to date, and that its actions are lacking consequence and impact.
“The Forum is facing a turning point and evolving in a positive way, but if we take a retrospective view, until now the Forum has promoted professional training short-term events, as well as Lusophone fairs and not much more,” he told TDM.  
The fact is that the Forum can’t only be about setting up a ministerial conference every three years and helping with the organization of a yearly festival, using the same model each time.
It also doesn’t help that measures announced with great pomp take an inexplicable amount of time to be implemented. That was the case with the USD1 billion fund, which China announced at the previous ministerial conference, but which is only just now starting to become available (the first project supported by the fund has recently been launched). Let’s see what will happen with the “three strategic centers” to be set up in Macau, announced during this conference superficially and without detail. The Secretary for Economy and Finance, Francis Tam, has already stated that the MSAR is looking to achieve results following the ministerial conference and made an assurance that the centers will be fully operational within three years. But that doesn’t echo previous comments made by Gao Hucheng, where the Minister of Commerce was quoted as saying that the centers are being planned and would take time (a lot of time, it seemed) to be established.
This ministerial conference once again made clear the fact that Forum member countries have different opinions about its relevance and even about China’s role in Africa (with Brazil trying to contain that role). This time, Brazil was represented by Vice President Michel Temer. However, that doesn’t mean that the huge country, with a population of 201 million, views the Forum as any more relevant than it did previously. Temer was headed to the third session of the China-Brazil High-level Coordination and Cooperation Committee that took place in Guangzhou on the day after Macau’s ministerial conference. After that, he went to Beijing where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People. According to the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, during the meeting Xi congratulated Temer on the positive outcomes of the third session of the Coordination and Cooperation Committee. Temer said that “Brazil is ready to enhance communication and cooperation with China within the framework of BRICS to boost global governance and to join hands promoting the development of Latin America-China relations.” Apparently Forum Macau was not even mentioned.
It seems to me that the Forum is potentially a good idea, and it is clear that Beijing has identified cooperation with the PSC as an area where Macau can have a relevant role (concomitantly to all the bilateral relations with each of the involved countries), due to historical reasons and to the fact that there’s a Lusophone community based here. Maybe the central government also wants to promote the diversification of the local economy (in case they are worried that the region is becoming a huge floating casino, and it seems that they are) through the Forum.
With the Forum’s Secretariat based in Macau and a large staff working for it on a permanent basis, it would be expected that more business matching, training and cultural activities would be promoted and that the Forum’s relationship with the region would become more lively and permanent, instead of being officious. 
 What has been done until now is not enough: the laudatory speeches can achieve political ends, but little else.

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