Elsewhere in this edition of Insight you will find discussion of our most recent Washington DC Doorknock. Our Chairman, Robert Theleen, shares his perspective in his monthly column, and there is a separate article summarizing the Doorknock results prepared by our government relations team. Those two pieces cover the Doorknock quite thoroughly and you do not need a third article from me on the same subject.
However, in my role as the Chamber’s unofficial historian, I would like to note that our Doorknock trips are part of a long tradition that began in 1920, when a Chamber member – J.B. Powell – traveled to Washington to secure passage of the China Trade Act. Powell traveled as a delegation of one, as opposed to the 14 we had this year. He also had a very specific mandate, about which he eventually succeeded, albeit not until 1922, when Congress finally passed the proposed legislation. Those differences notwithstanding, our Doorknocks today closely resemble those of decades ago – an effort to shape policy decisions by sharing our views from the front lines of business in China.
Just as some historical perspective helps us assess the utility of our Washington Doorknocks, the same is true for the upcoming State visit of Xi Jinping to the United States. As I write this column, that visit is right around the corner. By the time this issue of Insight is published, the visit will be old news. In the lead-up to the visit, there is a sense of doom and gloom about the current state of U.S.-China relations, especially in the media. One cannot dispute that U.S.-China relations face significant problems today, perhaps more serious than in many years. But this is not the first time we have faced troubles. All of us can remember dips in the relationship that followed Tiananmen in 1989, the mistaken bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy in 1999 and the EP-3 surveillance plane crash in 2001. Yet each time, U.S.-China relations recovered and moved forward. Are there reasons to think this time will be different?
If there is a difference in the nature of U.S.-China relations today, it is in the shifting balance of power between our two countries. After decades of fast economic growth, China enjoys newfound power and influence that has translated into greater assertiveness and a desire to be a global player. China wants to be treated as an equal and with respect. In contrast, the United States, while still the world’s preeminent power and largest economy, lacks the wherewithal – and desire – to dominate world affairs. Increasingly, the United States and China find they must work together to address global problems and regional hotspots, but the starting point of national interests is not always the same.
This creates a difficult backdrop for the Xi Jinping visit. An atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion permeates the bilateral relationship. Government officials in Washington and Beijing openly express frustration with each other. At this stage, we can only hope that the Xi visit will ameliorate these tensions and set the bilateral relationship on a steadier path. The business community can play an important role in this endeavor as drivers of the most important dimension of U.S.-China relations, namely commercial ties. Commerce brings tangible benefits in a way that can’t be matched by other aspects of the relationship. Commerce is by no means problem free, but it serves as a visible and constant reminder that economic interaction creates prosperity, improves living conditions and is a plus for both countries. It is at a time like this that our voice must be heard, not just during an annual Washington Doorknock, but throughout the year.