Time to rethink U.S.-China trade relations

The U.S. government and the business community need to rethink our China strategy and retool our trade bureaucracy to face the tangled web of emerging Chinese policies. Otherwise, American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.

With nearly half of his Cabinet heading to Beijing for the May 24-25 bilateral «strategic and economic dialogue,» President Obama should launch such a strategic economic dialogue among ourselves. The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans.

What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

At issue is an array of Chinese policies and initiatives aimed at building «national champion» companies through subsidies and preferential policies while using China’s market power to appropriate foreign technology, tweak it and create Chinese «indigenous innovations» that will come back at us globally.

China has long been a «pay-to-play» market for foreigners, with mandated joint ventures in key industries, local manufacturing requirements and forced technology transfers as the price of market admission. Its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was supposed to do away with the bulk of those barriers — and many were eliminated on paper.

But long gone are the days of China acting as a supplicant to gain access to foreign markets or obtain foreign investment. China now funds the U.S. budget deficit. Its rapidly developing domestic markets are expected to lead global growth for decades. The quarterly earnings of the world’s biggest multinational companies increasingly depend on their China business.

Chinese leaders — shrewd students of political and economic leverage — are shifting their focus from global trade and investment principles to the creation of their own rules and a «China model» of economic development that is difficult to challenge in international courts. Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules. Facing off against this are 30 lawyers in the U.S. trade representative’s office of general counsel — only one of whom can read Chinese. This small cadre handles all WTO cases and supports all our trade negotiations globally. Only a half-dozen people in the office focus on China.

As part of their «China model,» that country’s leaders have decided that key sectors of the economy will remain «state dominated,» including automotive, chemical, construction, electronic information, equipment manufacturing, iron and steel, non-ferrous metals, and science and technology. Others will stay «largely in state hands,» including aviation, coal, defense, electric power and grid, oil and petrochemicals, shipping and telecommunications. State-owned companies in these industries are thriving in their protected home market. They have buckets of cash and easy access to state bank loans to carry out government directives to pursue overseas acquisitions and «go global.»

Most worrisome is the Chinese government mandate to replace core foreign technology in critical infrastructure — such as chips, software and communications hardware — with Chinese technology within a decade. The tools to accomplish this include a foreign-focused anti-monopoly law, mandatory technology transfers, compulsory technology licensing, rigged Chinese standards and testing rules, local content requirements, mandates to reveal encryption codes, excessive disclosure for scientific permits and technology patents, discriminatory government procurement policies, and the continued failure to adequately protect intellectual property rights. The poster child is the evolving «indigenous innovation» policy, which appears aimed at using China’s market power to coerce foreign companies to transfer and license their latest technology for «co-innovation» and «re-innovation» by Chinese companies.

American business has to figure out how to balance out today’s profits with tomorrow’s threat. This dilemma is causing a split between U.S.-based chief executives who sing China’s praises based on current growth and profits, and their China-based executives who see the self-destructive results of blindly following the new initiatives.

As the recent Wall Street scandals have made clear, we can’t always depend on private industry and profit-driven executives to focus on doing what is best for the country. It is clear, however, that the Chinese government is very focused on doing what it believes is best for China.

James McGregor, a former chairman of the nonprofit American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China (AmCham-China) and the author of One Billion Customers: Lessons From the Front Lines of Doing Business in China.