- REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
- HNA Group CEO Adam Tan is one of the most powerful CEOs in China. The company employs over 410,000 worldwide and 45,000 in the US. China and the US have a long history of economic cooperation. The well being of both nations is tied through trade with Chinese firms growing in the US and the future of US industry rooted in China.
Editor’s Note: Adam Tan is the co-founder, vice-chairman, and CEO of HNA Group. Founded in 1993 as a small regional airline, HNA is now one of China’s most powerful privately held companies with substantial investments in travel, hospitality, finance, real estate, logistics, heavy industry, and eco-tech. Its holdings include Carlson Hotels, Avolon, GateGroup, and Swissport. HNA also owns 10% of Deutsche Bank and with a 25% stake is the largest shareholder in Hilton Worldwide. However, its flagship business is still Hainan Airlines, which has since blossomed into one the highest rated international carriers in the world. Since 2015, HNA Group’s revenues have doubled to more than $53 billion this year.
Undoubtedly, one of the most recognized symbols of U.S.-China relations over the last 45 years has been the panda. China’s use of giant pandas as gifts to other countries dates back to the Tang Dynasty (625-705), serving to strengthen ties with its trading partners.
The Chinese government’s gift of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the United States in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China represents the most recognized example of “Panda Diplomacy” in modern history and kicked off one of the largest economic trade relationships ever. According to the World Bank, U.S. GDP expanded from $5.1 trillion to its current level of nearly $17 trillion and China, likewise, grew from $207 billion to $9.5 trillion today.
And so, it is serendipitous that President Trump’s upcoming first visit to China coincides with new direct flight routes between Sichuan Province in western China (home of the giant pandas) and New York City. These routes will open new opportunities for American businesses providing access to Chengdu and Chongqing, the largest cities in the region as well as for tourists interested in visiting panda habitats.
I remember vividly my first trip to the US in 1993, in the nascent days of HNA. As I saw the dazzling lights of the New York City skyline from the air, I knew that I had arrived in a country where anything was possible. Today, Americans may experience the same feeling upon traveling to China, as they experience our megacities and Chinese technological advancement that has even permeated street side sellers of Beijing pancakes (jianbing) who accept mobile payments from smartphones.
- Flickr/ Lord of the Wings
While pandas may have been one of the first symbols of the bond between the U.S. and China, the alliance today is built on the tangible exchange of goods and services. As China has opened up, the symbolism that once connected it to many nations around the world has been replaced by new business partnerships, economic ties, and cultural exchanges. This new era of what I call “Panda Diplomacy 2.0”, is characterized by business leaders working together for bilateral benefit and, at the same time, forging stronger ties between our countries.
A strong China-US relationship means economic success
As CEO of HNA Group, one of China’s largest privately held companies, with some 45,000 employees in the U.S., I believe the interlinked nature of the Chinese and American economies is here to stay. Even against the backdrop of a sensationalized media narrative, I’m sure that most would agree that our relationship is one marked primarily by a sense of deep mutual respect.
And as our two presidents meet this week I am confident our nations will continue to build on the established framework providing even greater opportunities for both nations. It is encouraging that Secretary Mnuchin confirmed in the media that a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) is on the Trump Administration’s agenda.
The very fact that improved trade relations are at the forefront of bilateral discussions is very good news. I recognize that coming to agreement on such issues is not simple, especially if we think in terms of winners and losers. However, the relationship between our countries over the past 45 years has proven that a focus on ‘shared success’ prevails.
Examples of Panda Diplomacy 2.0 in action abound, driven by both U.S. and Chinese business leaders on the front lines of economic growth. The ongoing expansion of trade and transit routes is particularly relevant. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2014 and 2015 alone, the number of Chinese tourists who visited the U.S. grew by 18 percent, and China is on track to become the biggest source of international tourists coming to America by 2021.
The new flight routes to the U.S by Hainan Airlines will undeniably contribute to U.S. economic growth through tourist spending, international business deals and the purchase of American-made aircraft. In fact, Boeing now is the largest supplier of aircraft to HNA and they hold an impressive 52 percent of the aircraft market in China.
This economic relationship is far from a one-way street. Walmart operates 400 stores in China, up from just one in 1996, while Starbucks maintains 2,600 stores, opening on average one per day. General Motors (GM) now sells more cars in China than it does in the U.S. Even with this scale, US companies understandably hunger for an even larger piece of the biggest consumer market in the world.
It is in our collective interest to maintain these strong ties. And, it is imperative for global business leaders to continue practicing Panda Diplomacy 2.0, reinforcing the need for the U.S.-China relationship to remain open and constructive. This is critical to continue the unprecedented economic prosperity that President Nixon and Chairman Mao cemented in 1972-starting with the symbolic gift of two pandas.