Growing ‘suspicion’ in US of doing business with China, ex-US diplomat says

Amanda Lee

Doing business with China is increasingly seen in the US through a “suspicious lens” amid an increasing rhetoric opposing close relations between the world’s two largest economies, according to a former US diplomat.

Speaking at the Caixin Summit in Beijing on Friday, Mark Brzenzinski, who was US ambassador to Sweden in the Obama administration, said the trade war had evolved into a technology conflict and given groups long suspicious of China the opportunity to attack the relationship.

“Increasingly, doing business in China is seen, quite frankly, with an increasingly suspicious lens,” Brzezinski said, contrasting US sentiment against China with its positive view of doing business with Sweden. One reason, he suggested, was the Swedish emphasis on public relations.

Increasingly, doing business in China is seen, quite frankly, with an increasingly suspicious lens

Mark Brzenzinski

“Unfortunately, the Chinese do not do public relations. That is a fact. Therefore, the human interest story of doing business with China is identified by others, including those who do not like the US-China relationship,” he said.

“For a long time, there has been a small demographic of the security community, military community, policy community and business community who did not like Sino-US relations. They were waiting for an opportunity to demonise that relationship and they have a perfect opportunity now.

“[There are] massive ramifications to this in terms of regular Chinese businesspeople who come to the US and how they are treated in comparison to people from elsewhere.

“Beyond the trade dispute, I am very much worried there is developing in the US an industry around demonising China, an industry built around steering businesspeople away from normal business engagement with the Chinese,” Brzezinski said.

Tensions between China and US remain high and the spat has gone beyond the tit-for-tat tariff war to include competition in technology. In May, Washington blacklisted Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei over national security concerns.

Last month, the US government barred 28 Chinese organisations – including five of China’s top artificial intelligence firms – from buying products from US companies without approval because of their alleged involvement in abuses against ethnic Uygurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

“Using law enforcement and national security tools to smother business propositions is totally inconsistent with the fundamental thesis which underlined normalisation [of US and China relations] 40 years ago,” Brzezinski said.

Brzezinski, now president and chief executive of consulting firm Brzezinski Strategies, is also the son of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter in 1979 when the US granted full diplomatic recognition to China.

The US and China began engaging with each other in 1972 with president Richard Nixon’s visit, ending years of Chinese isolation. Seven years later, Deng Xiaoping – who led China through its major economic reforms – became the first Chinese leader to visit the White House, at Carter’s invitation.

“I disagree fundamentally with those who say that American technology and science was – quote – stolen by the Chinese. On the contrary, science and technology sharing was an essential part of the agreement to get the Chinese to join us in the fight during the cold war,” Brzezinski said.

The sentiment against China in the field of science and technology among some in the US was raised at another panel discussion at the Caixin summit on computer chip technology.

“Under current special circumstances, US companies would do better [to engage with the US government],” said Zhao Weiguo, chairman and chief executive of Tsinghua Unigroup, a state-backed chip maker based in Beijing.

“Some US firms are doing well, some are not doing so well. On the one hand, they have made a lot of money in China, on the other hand they are saying bad things about China to the US government. I think US firms need to be more confident,” he said.

“Because of China’s rise, they felt threatened. They should focus more on innovation and lead on that. It shouldn’t be about their insecurity pushing others down.”

Zhao said China’s computer chip industry was still a long way from being competitive in advanced markets.

“We are far behind [the US],” said Zhao. “The US may be a bit too nervous [about China], they really should take a break.”

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