US Ambassador to China Gary Locke paid his third visit to Yunnan province on Thursday, November 21, one day after the announcement of his unexpected resignation. His visit was part of an investment promotion roadshow entitled “The Best of America” traveling around China’s southwestern provinces and organized by the US consulates in Chengdu and Guangzhou. The event was hosted by provincial vice-governor Gao Feng and attended by Yunnanese business interests and officials from the provincial international trade promotion department, tourism department and public health departments. Core economic strengths of the US were represented by CEOs and officers of Deliotte, GE, Motorola, CISCO systems, Intel, and Miller Canfield Law firm in addition to other firms. United Airlines was also in attendance and eager to promote its new direct flight from Chengdu-San Francisco opening early 2014.
Opening remarks were given by both Ambassador Locke and Vice Governor Gao. Both speeches highlighted the United States’ and Yunnan’s shared history of cooperation through the Flying Tigers, as well as the need for present day economic cooperation. In his remarks, Ambassador Locke boasted of the increase of China-to-US FDI under his tenure. In the past 21 months, investments from China totaled USD 18 billion, more than the past 10 years combined, an accomplishment Locke can only take partial credit for, as larger macroeconomic trends in the US and China were also important factors. Locke was also able to highlight the increase of Chinese students in the US in recent years. According to the ambassador, the number of Chinese students in the US reached 280,000 in 2012. In addition, Ambassador Locke was also able to point to decrease in wait time for US visas and a new, expanded visa office at the Chengdu consulate as notable achievements under his tenure. Aside from pushing investment in America, Locke also promoted core American values like legal transparency, free trade and intellectual property rights, issues that have been divisive for the two countries in past years.
Speaking directly after Ambassador Locke, Yunnan’s Vice Governor Gao Feng also promoted bilateral trade and cooperation. In his remarks, Vice Governor Gao emphasized Yunnan’s role as China’s gateway to South Asia and Southeast Asia and its fast pace of the its economic growth. Gao pointed to the recent China-South Asia Expo as a marker of Yunnan’s rise in national and regional importance. The US delegation noted that Locke’s visit to Yunnan went very smoothly and all requests for visits to companies and government ministries were granted, including a visit to Yunnan University, where the Ambassador met with students and professors. This is in contrast to the difficulty encountered when US delegations request access in other provinces and autonomous regions in southwest China, particularly Tibet.
The roadshow was planned with the specific purpose of promoting Chinese FDI to the US, the export of medical technology to Yunnan’s developing healthcare sector, and tourism to the US. After the Green Lake Hotel event, the delegation met mostly with potential investors from the agriculture and mining sectors reflective of these two sectors as two core pillars of Yunnan’s economy – tourism. Locke also encouraged US investment in Yunnan tourism management systems – something sorely needed in Yunnan, and China at large, as localities struggle to protect cultural capital bases and natural endowments from the damaging onslaught of mass Chinese tourism.
The inability of Yunnan’s medical infrastructure to keep up with the demand for medical services was apparent when the delegation was shown MRI scanner purchased from the US that had been use for 10 years at the Kunming Number One Hospital. The machine was being used 70-80 times per day non-stop for seven days per week. Cumulative cost of parts and supplies maintenance, all imported from the US, had greatly exceeded the original cost of the machine.
Lastly, Chinese tourism to the US was high on the list of promotion for the delegation. In 2012, tourism to the US was the US’s top service sector export with Chinese tourists leading the way in number of tourists visiting the US in a by country breakdown. In international trade accounting, foreign tourist visits are counted as an export due to the positive accumulation of foreign income.
Locke’s visit is recognition of the fruits of the China’s Western development program – namely economic progress to the degree that US investors are now drawn to the fast growth rates coming out of China’s southwestern provinces. And as a result of that economic progress, Yunnanese investors have reached levels of wealth garnering capabilities to invest in the US, half a globe away. His visit is also reinforcement of Yunnan’s strategic location as a gateway for regional investment to Southeast Asia and South Asia – a key point mentioned by both the US delegation and the provincial hosts.
Later in the day, Locke’s diplomatic rock star status was confirmed by an exuberant crowd of students at Yunnan University proud of their shared heritage with the US ambassador. Locke returned that exuberance with hugs. With Locke stepping down it may be a while until another US ambassador to China receives the kind of welcome received in Thursday in Yunnan.
Consensus among some of the ExSE members is that Locke may be stepping down in preparation for a high appointment related to the 2016 presidential election. He is an extremely successful career politician with experience managing Americans’ most important bilateral relationship, domestic economic and international trade relations as US Commerce Secretary, and a successful run as governor of Washington State. This portfolio positions Locke as a strong candidate for VP or Secretary of State under a future Democratic presidency. Gary Locke will step down as US Ambassador to China early 2014 after taking up the post in August, 2011.