Speech by the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the Boao Forum for Asia: ‘An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity’ in Hainan, China

It’s an honour and a privilege to be back at the Boao Forum for Asia. A body that fosters economic development in Asia, and also encourages economic cooperation worldwide. Since my first visit here in 2015, the world economy has continued its fast recovery, and relations between Asia and Europe have blossomed. But of course many challenges remain, and an ever more important one is free and fair trade.

One of the greatest minds in Dutch history was the jurist Hugo Grotius. Back in the early seventeenth century he set out the international principles of free movement of people and goods. He was impressed by the peoples of Asia, especially their inventiveness. In his day, knowledge of each other’s economy and culture was limited. But even back then, Grotius recognised the Chinese as – and I quote: ‘the cleverest of all peoples’.

'Protectionism is a reflex that we see time and again in world history. Even though history shows that trade barriers divide not only markets, but also people and their ideas. Protectionism stands in the way of progress.'

That same outward-looking spirit and curiosity are at the heart of this forum about openness and innovation. I firmly believe that free and fair trade relations promote these concepts, as Hugo Grotius wrote over four centuries ago. Protectionism is a reflex that we see time and again in world history. Even though history shows that trade barriers divide not only markets, but also people and their ideas. Protectionism stands in the way of progress. I believe that international trade should not be a zero sum game. Free trade isn’t about how to divide the cake, but how to make the cake bigger. If it’s free and fair, there’s added value for everybody.

I say this as the prime minister of an open trading economy that relies on imports and exports for almost a third of its national income and employment. That openness has made the Netherlands one of the most prosperous OECD countries. I also say this as a representative of one of the founding countries of the European Union. A Union with an open and single market of 500 million affluent consumers, which seeks to promote free and fair trade worldwide. For instance by concluding trade agreements that benefit all parties.

'In the new digital economy, borders are becoming less important, companies can choose where they do business, and information and knowledge can spread easily. So trade barriers really don’t fit this day and age.'

That challenge is all the more relevant in today’s global economy, in which geography plays less and less of a role. In the new digital economy, borders are becoming less important, companies can choose where they do business, and information and knowledge can spread easily. So trade barriers really don’t fit this day and age..

The Netherlands has always been an open economy and a connective logistics hub. And it always will be. For many Asian companies, the port of Rotterdam is the gateway to Europe. The endless stream of containers passing through Rotterdam every day, on their way from Asia to Europe, underlines the importance of that relationship. The Netherlands is also a digital knowledge hub, where almost everyone is connected to the internet. And that type of connectivity is becoming more and more crucial for international trade.

Today I have two key messages. First: I call on you, our Asian friends and partners, to reaffirm our collective interest in a free and fair multilateral trade system. Openness and innovation are vital for a world of greater prosperity. So the theme of this Boao Forum for Asia is spot on. But putting these concepts into practice remains a challenge. Together we must move forward on promoting cross-border digital trade, services trade, transfer of knowledge, and transparent and fair competition on a level playing field. The Netherlands will always welcome initiatives in these areas. And in this spirit, we will work within the EU to see how best we can collaborate on President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Second: together we should reaffirm and support the mission of the World Trade Organization – achieving open and free trade for the benefit of all. In a complex world of interlinked and digital opportunities, this mission has lost none of its relevance. And it’s in the interest of Asia, Europe and other regions to make it happen.

Ladies and gentlemen, around the same time that Hugo Grotius was writing a book on the free movement of people and goods, the first Dutch merchants were reaching the shores of Asia, landing at Hainan to trade and learn. Four centuries later we have come here to do the same, and to forge new partnerships. Working together in a system of free and fair trade is our best way forward!

Thank you.

Ministry responsible