Manila (By Megha Rajagopalan for Reuters) — U.S. President Barack Obama took time off at an Asia-Pacific summit on Wednesday for an unusual task – putting questions to Chinese internet billionaire Jack Ma and a young Filipina entrepreneur on government-business ties in a panel discussion.
Obama joked comfortably with the eccentric founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, which is looking to make inroads into foreign markets, including the United States.
During the discussion on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila, the U.S. president probed Ma on how he thought government and established businesses could help young entrepreneurs.
“Government is simple – just reduce the tax, or no tax, for these guys,” Ma responded, to a wave of laughter and applause from the audience of business executives.
“You got a lot of cheers from your fellow CEOs,” Obama quipped in response.
Ma’s remarks come as Alibaba works to invest heavily in ventures abroad. Executives have said its push beyond the China market is a top priority, as the company works to maintain its rapid growth even as the prospect of e-commerce saturation at home looms large.
Alibaba has said some of its larger overseas markets include Brazil and Russia.
Obama also praised the relatively unknown Filipina entrepreneur, Aisa Mijeno, a professor of engineering who invented a lamp powered by salt water. He suggested that Ma should invest in the company of his fellow panelist after she said she was looking for funding to mass-produce the lamps.
“I’m just saying,” Obama said, throwing Ma a suggestive look. “Serving as a matchmaker here, a little bit.”
Ma smiled in response. He said Alibaba had been putting 0.3 percent of the company’s total revenue for the past six years toward encouraging young people to find solutions to climate change and other environmental issues.
Ma added that he thought it was a “fantastic idea” to invest in clean technology, referring to a recent conversation in which Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates broached the idea.
Agreement on climate change is one of the bright spots in Washington’s troubled relationship with Beijing, which has been shaken recently by a row over China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea.
Leaders of the two countries agreed in September to a common vision for a global climate change agreement, including steps to deliver on earlier pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
(Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)