DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — When can we stop calling China an emerging economy?
Top business leaders, politicians and social activists tackled this and a host of other issues as the World Economic Forum opened Wednesday amid a burst of optimism that the world has seen the worst of the financial crisis and now faces a "new reality."
The 2,500 participants at this year's annual meeting in the picturesque Alpine town of Davos are focusing much of their concentrated expertise on China's growing clout, simmering anxieties about Europe's debt crisis and consideration of the possible aftershocks of the financial crisis that has wrought layoffs, cutbacks and austerity measures.
With China overtaking Japan as the world's No. 2 economy last year, and growth predicted to hold steady in the upper single digits this year, panelists questioned whether Beijing hasn't already arrived at the top table.
"We have to get out of the lexicon the words 'developing' or 'emerging,'" said Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising giant WPP Group.
China and India have both sent their biggest ever delegations to this year's forum, spearheaded by business leaders seeking to plant their flags on a world stage previously dominated by U.S. and European companies.
"In 10 years the economies of the emerging world will be in excess to $20 trillion , which is equal to the U.S. economy," noted Azim Premji, chairman of India's Wipro.
Zhu Min, former deputy governor of the Bank of China and now a special adviser to IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, cautioned that the figures obscure huge expectations among the poorest in the developing world that cannot be met soon.
The theme of this year's meeting is "Shared Norms for the New Reality," and part of that includes the new economic reality, too.
Participants largely concurred that there is a new sense of optimism this year.
Speaking at a morning session about whether elements of a new economic reality were in place, economist Nouriel Roubini said the risk of double dip recession and dramatic inflation had lessened since a year ago.
While Europe tries to stabilize the euro and the U.S. seeks to put a lid on runaway public spending, China has to promote domestic demand to keep its economy churning, said Roubini, known in financial circles as "Dr. Doom" for being one of a number of commentators who forecast the global crisis.
"The challenge China is facing is that the U.S. cannot be the consumer of first and last resort."
"Every uncertainty in the world has to do with Chinese politics," said Arturo Bris, professor of finance at the IMD business school in Lausanne. "I'm not expecting any surprises from the Western leaders, but we may have surprises coming from China."
He told The Associated Press that China-watchers would be analyzing comments by a host of Chinese business leaders for insights into that nation's economy and future plans.
"Whether China decides to buy Spanish and Portuguese government debt. Whether China decides to lessen the pressure on the dollar. That's what I'm going to be looking out for," he said.
The shift of jobs from West to East is on the minds of many.
"What is missing in the West is a ... sense of urgency" about unemployment, especially among young people whose skills aren't always what the fast-evolving labor market needs, said Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and editor in chief of the The Huffington Post news website, at a panel on the future of employment.
The general consensus among the CEOs present was that the most promising job markets are in the East, and the West has no easy answers.
"In terms of quantitative growth, I don't think the West can do anything," said Lars Olofsson, CEO of retailer Carrefour SA, Europe's largest employer.
Philip Jennings, head of the UNI Global Union, urged an end to austerity programs and said the Group of 20 should do more to create jobs. "People have to wake up. G20, wake up."
"If I have to go to a group of workers and I say the future is in the East, there will be more Jasmine Revolutions by the day," he said, referring to the ouster of Tunisia's president this month after weeks of protests over joblessness and corruption.
The five-day meeting features a keynote address Wednesday evening by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who postponed his planned arrival by a day after a suicide bombing killed 35 people in the country's busiest airport amid lax security.
The topic of Medvedev's speech hasn't been shared, but given the intense security surrounding the meeting, and the fact that terrorism remains an issue of both political and commercial concern, his audience is expected to listen keenly to what Medvedev has to say.
Another major theme will be how to avoid the mistakes of past years.
"A lot of effort has gone in over the last couple of years to really understand what went wrong," Dennis Nally, chairman of PwC International Ltd. told the AP on Tuesday night after he unveiled a strongly positive global survey of CEOs that showed 48 percent of them were "very confident" about growth in the coming year.
Nally added that while confidence is improving "there is a degree of realism that there are some real issues out there that could derail the recovery."