The Symposium on Asia-U.S. Partnership Opportunities has carved out a niche as one of the South’s largest Asia conferences largely by convening constituencies to discuss how best to work together across borders.
But this year, the Kennesaw State University-sponsored event gave a glimpse into how the U.S. trading relationships across the region are fragmenting, little by little.
Speaking during luncheon keynotes, diplomats from Japan, South Korea and China outlined existing tensions and their proposed paths toward reconciliation.
From the Korean perspective, nuclear theater with the North may have stolen headlines, but underneath, a simmering trade battle has put South Korea on the defensive at a time when the U.S. is calling for greater diplomatic cooperation.
“I have serious concern about recent protective trade measures by the U.S. federal government, such as safeguards on washing machines and tariff regulations on imported steel. These unilateral measures would increase in uncertainty in business circles around the world and could hurt global trade,” said Young-jun Kim, consul general for Korea in the Southeast U.S.
His remarks came after he outlined the important of Korean investment to Georgia. Many companies, especially auto suppliers, have set up shop in the state to serve a car corridor stretching along Interstate 85 between the Hyundai Motors plant in Montgomery, Ala., and its sister Kia Motors factory in LaGrange, Ga. Korean investment has meant 33,000 jobs for the Southeast U.S., and that’s not including those created by the greatly increased trade volumes between Georgia and the country. Korea is now the the fourth largest import market for Georgia, ahead of Japan and Canada.
Mr. Kim said tariffs should be a last resort, suggesting a more constructive dialogue should be adopted.
“Instead, government policy should pursue a way to enhance competitiveness from along-term perspective,” he said, fretting that the U.S.-backed global trading system is at risk if its main sponsor reneges on promises.
China’s representative, meanwhile, sounded notes of cooperation while not-so-subtly hinting that the country wouldn’t take a trade war lying down.
“China strongly opposes unilateral protectionist measures,” said Zhou Zhencheng, a consul focused on commerce in the Consulate General of China in Houston. “We don’t want a trade war, but we’re not afraid of one.”
Echoing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Boao Forum, Mr. Zhou outlined a number of measures showing how China is further welcoming the U.S. to an increasingly open market. China will import more than $10 trillion in goods and services over the next five years, he said, and the U.S. is invited to participate in this bonanza. U.S. cabinet officials are visiting China this week for a meeting aimed at remedying what they call unfair trade practices and avoiding escalation of recently announced tit-for-tat tariff measures that have yet to go into effect.
This tense binational climate stands in stark contrast to the “Southern hospitality” that Japanese companies have experienced on a local level, said Yutaka Nakamura, deputy consul general at the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta.
Mr. Nakamura counted more than $37 billion in Japanese investments across the region, with 600-plus Japanese-owned outposts in Georgia employing 34,000 people. In Alabama, 158 companies have hired 24,000 workers.
All regions have their distinct advantages, from incentives to available land and workforce to logistics operations. But the South has a nont-so-secret weapon in the “bidding wars” for projects like the recently announced $1.6 billion Toyota-Mazda plant in Huntsville, Ala.
“One component that should never be overlooked is the importance of welcoming communities,” Mr. Nakamura said.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill agreed, joking that winning the Toyota-Mazda project could in part be attributed to one key incentive: University of Alabama football tickets.
In seriousness, he said communities should tear down barriers to investment and illustrate that they’re willing to solve problems for foreign prospects.
“If we continue to have those walls up, we continue to limit ourselves on what our opportunities can possibly be with our potential partners,” Mr. Merrill said.
As an example, he pointed to another project he worked on in the early 1990s: Mercedes-Benz’s massive plant in Tuscaloosa County, which has now become a success and a magnet for broader German investment.