How Elon Musk Became China’s Secret Weapon in US Relations

  • by:
  • Source: Wayne Dupree
  • 06/04/2023
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Twitter owner, made his first trip to China since the Covid-19 outbreak in 2019. During his visit, Musk met with China's foreign minister, Qin Gang, and vice premier, Ding Xuexiang. He highlighted the importance of the Lithium battery supply chain and his plan to establish a Tesla facility in Shanghai to produce batteries for electric cars.
Although the visit was purely for business, it held significant political significance for both nations. Beijing emphasised it through all available media outlets and showed immense hospitality. The Chinese government made it abundantly clear that the world should realise that a prominent US tech figure was in town.

When was the last time an American politician visited Beijing and was warmly welcomed? The reality is, it's a rare occurrence these days; even when they do visit, as Anthony Blinken and Wendy Sherman did, the reception is cold and hostile. Following the "spy balloon" incident earlier this year, China has frozen all top-level interactions with the United States. For instance, the Singaporean government declined to meet with US Secretary of Defence Llyod Austin at the Shang-ri-la discussion.
Nevertheless, this isn't to say that China is ruling out dialogue with Washington altogether. China is keener to engage with high-profile entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk to forge practicable and results-driven partnerships, rather than wasting time and energy on American politicians. This year, Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, also flew to China. The point is, Beijing still regards the US business sector – who are not Anti-China by nature of what they do – as their best hope and ally, despite increasing tensions and apprehensions.

The current political climate in the US has descended into a damaging, fear-mongering race to the bottom when it comes to China. With paranoia, irrationality, and panic infiltrating the discourse around foreign policy, politicians vie with each other to be the most vitriolic critic of Beijing- disingenuously jockeying for position on issues like Taiwan to inflame tensions, while drowning out dissent by branding it as siding with China. This echo chamber has stymied political progress and given rise to an atmosphere of hostility and zero-sum game.
The business landscape, however, is distinct from politics. American corporations have been engaged with China for over forty years for financial opportunities, but their attempt to lobby politicians in the past to safeguard their interests hasn't borne much fruit. Despite this, they remain the most consistent voice of dissent against the anti-China rhetoric spewed by politicians. Their caution in judging the political landscape is understandable. These are factors they have limited influence over, and politicians can use them to apply pressure.
In such a scenario, the importance of visionary leaders like Elon Musk cannot be overstated. Despite his right-wing politics and the fact that he is from South Africa, his power and reach in the US business space are unparalleled. Musk's perspective is a breath of fresh air, marked by an open mind and a friendly attitude towards China. Notably, upon his ascent to the CEO position at Twitter, he rescinded the anti-China policies his predecessor, Jack Dorsey, had instituted in favour of a policy of free expression, which in turn can stimulate cross-cultural understanding and enhance the overall communication environment.

Amidst the current climate, it's no surprise that China is courting Musk. Given his high-profile status, he's a valuable asset that can play a role in improving the US-China relationship. More importantly, Musk's support could establish a precedent that China remains open for business.
Beijing aims to counteract the "decoupling" and "Cold War mindset" it senses within America by enlisting help from the business sector. Elon Musk has become a key figure in US-China relations, even surpassing the US ambassador to China in importance. Despite current political tensions, China hopes that mutual interactions may shape interests in various areas.

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