This year’s Government Affairs Conference centered on fundamental shifts in the US-China relationship, China’s economic outlook, and the challenges facing multinational companies (MNCs) in China. Amidst deteriorating US-China relations, dialogues highlighted both the uncertainties and opportunities present in the bilateral relationship. The Conference also coincided with the launch of the 2021 American Business in China White Paper, and saw close to 150 guests from the wider business community attend.
The second keynote speaker, Fu Ying (pictured above), Chairperson at the Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS) at Tsinghua University, emphasized the importance of the White Paper as a tool to encourage communication and cooperation between the US and China during this difficult time in the bilateral relationship. Fu noted that many companies see their top challenge as deteriorating US-China relations. However, she provided some reassurances for MNCs when she said that in order for the Chinese government to achieve its goal of fully integrating into the world economy, it would continue helping foreign enterprises.
The first panel (pictured above) touched on the size and breadth of this year’s White Paper, predicting it would continue to expand in years to come as competition increases. “We are witnessing the biggest changes to the relationship in 39 years, with underlying assumptions that stabilized the relationship for years no longer holding true,” remarked Tim Stratford, Managing Partner at Covington & Burling. “China is making clear it will go its own way,” he said.
Joanna Mao, Deputy Managing Director of United States Information Technology Office (USITO), explained that the ICT chapter – which almost doubled in length this year – now encompasses many industries with business concerns that require the Chinese government’s attention. Meanwhile, Albert Xie, Vice President, Public Policy and Government Relations at General Motors, was also another speaker to indicate climate change as an area of possible cooperation between the two countries. Xie further advised that companies should work to strengthen the quality of their products, and find new ways to meet consumer expectations.
In his afternoon keynote address, Fernando Vallina, Chairman at ExxonMobil China, stressed that MNCs need to maintain robust Government Affairs (GA) teams in China. He argued that GA departments in China do much more than set up meetings and organize events, and are an integral part of a company’s strategic process. With the right support and set up, he said a GA department can help enhance a company’s brand, identify and react to non-market opportunities, and aid in the building of government relationships.
The second panel (pictured below) discussed recent events that highlighted the paramount importance of GA teams. Anita Wei, Vice President at Danaher China, pointed out how the function of a GA professional in China has evolved over time. In the past, the GA team’s main role was to establish relationships with Chinese leadership, she said, whereas today it is expected to participate in formulating companies’ strategic development goals, help manage risk, and aid in crisis management.
Dr. Shauna Huang, VP Corporate Affairs China at NBC Universal, said she believed that US-China competition is here to stay, and that the focus should shift to managing that competition. As both sides seek to balance cooperation and competition, she predicted we will increasingly see multilateral approaches, enlarging the maneuvering space for both countries.
While participants disagreed about the trajectory of the bilateral relationship, there was a broad consensus that the role of GA professionals is more important than ever. In today’s complex regulatory environment, it is essential for GA professionals to have access to clear communication channels, to fully understand the impact of non-market events, and to be able to make informed determinations on the level of importance and urgency of issues.
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