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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

A Cooperative, Not Co-Opted, China

April 14, 2017 

 Rodney King asked an internationally profound question: “Can’t we all just get along!?”  Can we?  President Trump’s private Florida resort was the epicenter of the world last week when the two top dogs, President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping—met for two days.

They certainly were not lacking for important topics to discuss during this time of global tension and transition.  There HAD been some impolite, pre-dinner talk from then-candidate Trump when he accused China of “raping our country” during his quest to become president.  Tweeting insults for political gain is not helpful in developing the “leader-to-leader” and “people-to-people” connection so vital to this unfolding 21st century.

Creating a level playing field for free and fair trade has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for decades and, indeed, was echoed as a cornerstone of Trump’s presidential campaign.  Now is the time to deliver.

Not unlike others before him – whether Democratic or Republican – Candidate Trump strutted and stoked his base by challenging, threatening, and cajoling Beijing; making China into a bogeyman in order to consolidate and receive American votes.  Once elected, American Presidents have historically pivoted, finding ways to accommodate China’s continued world rise in ways that do not come at America’s demise.  Yet, President Trump has doubled down on his anti-China rhetoric in fewer than 100 days in the White House.

Neither President Trump nor our nation can afford for him to stumble on China. The U.S./China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.  All major world issues intersect at the corner of Washington D.C. and Beijing.  As goes our relationship, so goes the world. 

I suspect that Trump intends for his tweets to continue stirring the China hot pot.  However, the two leaders must come to a realization that our national interests involving North Korea, open sea lanes in the South China Sea, continued tumult in the Middle East, Syria, ISIS and terrorism—as well as the world economy—will remain as entwined as a bowl of noodles.

Our leaders need to untangle this knot.

When Giants Fight, Everyone Gets Trampled

Chinese leaders and the country’s euphoric, nationalistic citizens are very sensitive to the perception (or reality) that another country is attempting to interfere with their internal affairs.  Trump’s saber- rattling and branding of China as a “currency manipulator”, while continuing to snuggle up to Taiwan, plays directly into these fears.  If pushed into a corner, the Chinese will likely respond with their own heated rhetoric (the axiom that “all politics is local” is an international reality) and retaliate, perhaps sparking a trade war that no one will escape unscathed.  

President Trump is playing with fire. The last thing the world economy and the American or Chinese worker needs now is for the two superpowers to face off.  

It is time to stop digging moats and building walls and start building bridges, especially when it comes to the Chinese people.  Trump’s political rhetoric does nothing to create job-producing relationships with what the International Monetary Fund refers to as the world’s fastest growing large economy.  It DOES, however, play on fears of American workers, who have been rocked by the hyper-competitive, technology-driven global economy, where ideas and jobs can and DO move around the world effortlessly.

Automation or China To Blame?

Industrial robots alone have eliminated up to 670,000 American jobs between 1990 and 2007, according to recent research from MIT.  Last year China invested a record $45 billion in the US.  Is it easier to blame China than it is to blame our own U.S. technology for creating robots that replace people in American and global jobs? 

America needs an aggressive plan that makes China’s rise and globalization work FOR us, not against us.  Bashing China and other rising countries is not a workable plan.  How these issues are managed will not only impact Americans and the Chinese, but all of humanity.  What America needs is leadership with global vision; leaders that create American jobs.  Real leaders don’t perpetuate fear, they produce results.

Our government at the national, state, and local levels has an important role to play in building economic, cultural and educational bridges with China.  In an era where the Chinese continue to seek places throughout the world to invest their new wealth, we should be bending over backward to accommodate.  We should do all we can to make Michigan and America an economic magnet for such investment to grow jobs for the American workers thrown under the bus in this global, technologically changing world.

Governor Snyder Leads the Way

Trump could take a lesson from Governor Snyder in the value of developing “guanxi” – “relationships” – the ones necessary to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect that can lead to lasting and beneficial relationship between our two nations.  Gov. Snyder has done more to build cultural, educational, and economic bridges with China and its 1.3 billion new consumers than all his predecessors combined.

Michigan welcomes Chinese investment in shovel-ready infrastructure projects, especially those that involve transportation: Roads, bridges, water and sewers. Building these sustainable relationships will continue to add jobs and wealth to Pure Michigan.

We need a balance of power that is mutually beneficial, not a game of see-saw, where one nation’s rise comes at the other’s expense.  As the two Presidents have discovered, there is no Tinker Bell or pixie dust that will solve ours—or the world’s, problems.

What was the outcome of this first face-to-face meeting between the only two superpowers?  President Trump disrespected the Chinese leader by pounding a Syrian airbase with Tomahawk missiles in Syria, as they broke bread together for the first time at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.  The bombing complicated and overshadowed an already tense and complicated first meeting between the two.

President Xi was looking at this visit to shore up his international status, but instead was relegated to a prop in President Trump’s wag-the-dog moment.  Trump may have wanted to appear tough, but he humiliated a world leader in the process. 

Will Trump’s action give Xi pause on what military action he may take in regards to North Korea? Time will tell.

100 Day Plan

The US and China may have averted, or at least delayed a trade war for at least the next 100 days while the two sides  negotiate what is referred to as the “100 day Plan.”  This “Plan” is aimed at addressing trade imbalances between China and the U.S.  A “plan to plan” is not a giant leap for mankind, but is welcome relief and a preferred outcome to a trade war.

The goal of the 100 Day Plan is to increase U.S. exports to China and to reduce the $347 billion trade deficit in goods. This could bode well for Michigan as we have much that the Chinese need and want.

The New York Times quote the two presidents as saying, “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “Lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”  Mr. Xi replied in Mandarin that the talks had accomplished many things, “most important being deepening our friendship and building a kind of trust in keeping with the Sino-U.S. working relationship and friendship.”

The only other immediate, tangible result of this first meeting between these world leaders is that they agreed to meet again.  President Trump has accepted an invitation to visit China, perhaps as early as later this year.  Mr Trump said that during dinner at Mar-a-Lago, he had “developed a friendship” with Mr Xi and that he thinks he will have a “very, very great relationship” with the Chinese leader. 

We all should hope so.

It is critical to both countries and the global order that our leaders find a peaceful way forward.  “Coexistence” lifts all boats.  The thought of our two countries at war—on any level–is too ugly to contemplate.

Tom Watkins is an advisor to the Michigan/China Innovation Center and the Detroit Chinese Business Association. Watkins is a sought out commentator on all things China and has written extensively about the need to build two-way bridges between our respective countries for the prestigious China/USfocus @ is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


April 13, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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