JUL/AUG 2016 COVER STORY – CONNECTIVITY WITH SUBSTANCE

A 16-member team of business executives representing AmCham Hong Kong travels to Washington DC for a series of discussions with US government officials and elected representatives as well as key personnel of various think tanks and international agencies on a broad spectrum of relevant issues on behalf of US businesses and members of the Chamber.

The purpose of the delegation led by AmCham Chairman Walter Dias, Vice Chairman Steve Lackey and President Richard Vuylsteke is to promote international trade, share Hong Kong’s perspectives on regional and global political, economic and commercial trends, and gain a better understanding of the latest US views on Sino-US relations, global financial development and other trade-related topics

By Kenny Lau


A 16-member team of business executives representing AmCham Hong Kong has logged in nearly 40 meetings with US Administration officials (including a briefing with incoming Consul General to Hong Kong & Macau Kurt Tong), elected representatives and their staffs on Capitol Hill, scholars of think tanks and NGOs, and key personnel of various international agencies and business associations for a series of discussions during a four-day “Doorknock” advocacy trip to Washington DC in the week of June 13th-16th.

The delegation, led by AmCham Chairman Walter Dias, Vice Chairman Steve Lackey, and President Richard Vuylsteke, was in the nation’s capital to promote international trade, share Hong Kong’s perspectives on regional and global political, economic and commercial trends, and gain a better understanding of the latest US views on Sino-US relations, global financial development and other trade-related topics.

With the purpose of “keeping Hong Kong on the map,” it was a strategic dialogue on a broad spectrum of relevant issues on behalf of US corporations and businesses as well as other MNCs based in the Asia Pacific region as a result of AmCham’s continuous efforts in promoting free trade, private enterprise and the rule of law. And it was particularly timely because of the US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held earlier in Beijing and the ongoing US presidential campaign this year.

The annual “Washington Doorknock” is a highlight of AmCham Hong Kong’s vigorous year-round advocacy agenda targeting government officials in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the US as well as various other countries in Asia for meetings and roundtable discussions far beyond mere courtesy calls. The Chamber is privileged to have extraordinary access in Washington DC as delegations have for many years “knocked on the doors” of key leaders and decision-makers to provide candid, constructively critical comments on key issues.

“The annual trip to Washington is part of our ongoing advocacy efforts in addition to the opportunity to brief US officials whenever they visit Hong Kong,” Dias points out. “Oftentimes we’re able to meet with them on more than one occasion. It means we can be more straight-forward during our discussions on issues – and we have a track record for providing good information and insights from an Asia perspective. This gives us great credibility.”

From left: Joseph Van Houten, Jeremy Plotnick, Joshua Snear, House Ways and Means Committee Chief Trade Counsel (Majority) Angela Ellard, Walter Dias and Simon Ogus
From left: Joseph Van Houten, Jeremy Plotnick, Joshua Snear, House Ways and Means Committee Chief Trade Counsel (Majority) Angela Ellard, Walter Dias and Simon Ogus

The agenda: trade  

Formal meetings were held across different agencies of the US Administration, including the Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Treasury, Department of Commerce, and Office of US Trade Representative, in addition to briefings with Congressional leaders and discussions at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Brookings Institution.

Topping this year’s agenda was international trade – an area for which the delegation urged stronger support in Washington and highlighted the case of Hong Kong as an example of a highly successful open economy where trade continues to play a big role. It was a critical message given some of the current political rhetoric against trade agreement of any sort largely because of the ongoing presidential campaigns in the US.

The stance on trade in the US Congress seems especially harsh, particularly the prospect of passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and there are mixed feelings as to whether TPP will be ratified during the lame duck period later this year. Moreover, despite a certain extent of optimism, the trade community is increasingly skeptical of the possibility because of divergent views among officials and other specific issues which remain unsolved.

In Washington, expectations come from both sides of the aisle: on one hand, some believe that “no way the TPP can pass” and that “unions are anti-trade,” while others say “the TPP has to pass and should make it during the lame duck session of Congress [between the November election and the inauguration of the next President].” But one thing is certain, TPP has gone from an issue of economics to become a political debate.

Whether TPP will be passed in 2016 has also become a symbol of US commitment to the Asia Pacific region. While there is a general understanding of the relevance and importance of free trade agreements to the US market in the form of employment and export opportunities, there is a far greater emphasis on the domestic economy in an election year, despite the US notion of a strategic pivot of rebalancing towards Asia.

Many are worried that failure to approve TPP at this stage would be a negative message about US engagement in the region and that it could lead to the possibility of increased anti-trade and protectionist sentiments within the US in the coming years. Others point out that “TPP is a security issue for Japan as well as Southeast Asia and a reflection of the increasing geopolitical and security tension in the region.”

It had also been suggested repeatedly in a number of the meetings that the business community can play a larger role in relation to advocating for the passage of TPP from a US perspective by making a better case on the expectation of domestic job creation from the international trade agreement.

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Key takeaways

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) The agreement covers countries in the fastest growing region of the world and will be a driver of job creation, export opportunities and overall economic growth. The ratification of TPP will demonstrate US leadership and renewed commitment to a geopolitically diverse and dynamic region that is Asia. The lame duck session after the presidential election on November 8, 2016 presents a narrow window for ratification.

China “Reciprocity” rather than “engagement” is key to balanced US-China relations on issues ranging from market access to defense and cyber security, and other aspects. While China’s economy is on a downward trend, there is still decent growth and consumption in various sectors across different regions. The lack of available details about the Belt and Road initiative signals at present a “wait-and-see” position as the best approach.

Hong Kong The HKSAR has unique value to China as a “connector” to global markets and as a source of high quality services for Chinese companies seeking global expansion. The rule of law, judiciary independence and connectivity within the Pearl River Delta region are named to be Hong Kong’s competitive advantages. The “one country, two systems” guaranteed in the Basic Law is essential to the continuing success of Hong Kong.

US-ASEAN Relations The engagement of ASEAN nations with the US has grown more intensely as a result of air and maritime disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea. There isn’t, however, much expectation for an early resolution to China’s claims in the region, and security concerns are on the rise. Separately, military and economic activities in North Korea may have a significant impact on the stability of the Asia Pacific region.

Financial Services The creation of renminbi (RMB) clearance facilities in US is in good progress following an agreement between the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) and the US Department of Treasury on the standard operating procedure through a Memorandum of Understanding. Meanwhile, more lobbying efforts are suggested for the possibility of modifying FATCA in order to reduce the enormous cost and burden on US citizens.

From left: Jeremy Plotnick, Steven Chan, Walter Dias, Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA), John Rindlaub, Joseph Van Houten, Jack Lange, Simon Ogus and Ming-Lai Cheung
From left: Jeremy Plotnick, Steven Chan, Walter Dias, Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA), John Rindlaub, Joseph Van Houten, Jack Lange, Simon Ogus and Ming-Lai Cheung
From left: Joseph McGowan, Simon Ogus, Steven Chan, Alan Turley, Jack Lange, Walter Dias, Under Secretary of Commerce (International Trade) Stefan Selig, Steve Lackey, Joseph Van Houten, Richard Vuylsteke, Jeremy Plotnick and Larenda Mielke
From left: Joseph McGowan, Simon Ogus, Steven Chan, Alan Turley, Jack Lange, Walter Dias, Under Secretary of Commerce (International Trade) Stefan Selig, Steve Lackey, Joseph Van Houten, Richard Vuylsteke, Jeremy Plotnick and Larenda Mielke

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Impact of advocacy  

The annual “Washington Doorknock” is indeed an important exchange of views and an opportunity to give direct feedback based on the day-to-day business engagement of MNCs and smaller businesses here in Hong Kong and in the region, Vuylsteke points out. “We are often asked why we travel halfway around the world to meet with US government officials, and that’s in fact one of the very first questions we get in our meetings on the Hill and elsewhere in Washington.”

“The reason is simple: our business executives operating here in Asia are in the trenches,” he explains. “We see the challenges every day, and we feel the impact of the decisions being made in Washington regarding policy and regulations on US businesses and individuals and on the region as well. That’s why we are in Washington year after year to speak on behalf of our members.”

“While the actual impact of a Doorknock trip is difficult to know, we can confidently say that the closed-door meetings in Washington provide AmCham Hong Kong with important insights into how its own advocacy agenda should be adjusted, refined, and strengthened in light of what Washington leaders need to know,” Vuylsteke explains.

“Our Doorknock experiences have been positive, thanks to having first-rate participants who are willing to have their voices heard on issues,” he adds. “This is an effective means to support – or to counterbalance – issues under discussion in our nation’s capital. One week in Washington has year-round impact on AmCham’s informational and advocacy activities.”

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