Elon Musk deploys his business diplomacy in China | International



In times of commercial and technological battle, and with ties between Washington and Beijing at a freezing moment, the American tycoon Elon Musk has come to visit China almost turned into an icebreaker. One of the richest men in the world, and CEO – among others – of the electric vehicle company Tesla, Musk has important business interests in the Asian giant. But his trip has also had a diplomatic background. After landing in Beijing in his private jet, on Tuesday he met with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, and this Wednesday with the heads of Commerce and Industry. “We must keep the steering wheel in the right direction of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation,” Chancellor Qin demanded.

During the interview with the head of Foreign Affairs, Tesla and the electric vehicle sector were frequently mentioned, but deep down both parties seemed to be clear about what they were talking about. Qin exploited the metaphor and called for “applying the brakes in time” and “avoiding “dangerous driving” in China-US relations; and he also asked to “step on the accelerator to promote mutually beneficial cooperation,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Musk stated that the interests of the United States and China “are intertwined as if they were Siamese twins,” according to the same note. Tesla, he added, “opposes decoupling and chain breaking.” [de suministro], and is willing to continue expanding its business in China and share the development opportunities of the country”. From the beginning, the businessman has made clear the calming intentions of his trip. Taking advantage of the news known on Monday that China plans to take astronauts to the Moon in 2030, Musk used the social network he owns (Twitter) to assess Chinese achievements in a sector in which he also has interests: “The program Chinese spacecraft is far more advanced than most realize.” As this network is banned in China, he also advertised it on his less frequented profile on the Chinese alternative, Weibo.

The Chinese foreign minister, known for his record as a tough diplomat, likes to use vehicle analogies to decry what Beijing sees as a “contain, encircle and suppress” strategy by the United States aimed at slowing its development. In March, in his first appearance as minister, he warned: “If the United States does not hit the brakes and continues at full speed on the wrong path, there will be no guardrail to prevent derailment, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”

In the frictions with Washington denounced by Beijing, the constant tensions on behalf of Taiwan, the trade war started in the era of Donald Trump in the White House and the blockade against the Chinese company Huawei are mixed. One of the latest points of tension broke out with the restrictions on the semiconductor sector decreed last October by Washington, which hopes that China does not have access to cutting-edge technology that allows it to develop the most sophisticated weapons.

Meanwhile, the United States views with concern China’s growing siege of US interests based in the Asian giant, such as the recent ban on semiconductors from the US company Micron in key infrastructure projects, a move by Beijing that is interpreted in part as a reaction to Washington’s blows.

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These last few weeks have seen some signs of a “thaw”, a word that US President Joe Biden came to utter after the G-7 summit in Hiroshima (Japan) held this month. Another symptom of that détente was the meeting held last week in Washington between Chinese Trade Minister Wang Wentao and his US counterpart Gina Raimondo, the first such exchange in months. But communications are still affected: this week Beijing has rejected Washington’s invitation for a meeting between the defense ministers in Singapore.

It is not clear that the businessman has the backing of Washington in his initiative. Last year, Biden assured that Musk’s relations with other countries “should be studied.” But his round of interviews on Chinese soil is already more than any senior US official has accomplished since the February incident of the alleged Chinese spy balloon over US territory: its downing and ensuing superpower scuffle wiped out the trip. scheduled Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing and has dragged relations into a hole ever since.

The foreign minister assured Musk that China’s development “is an opportunity for the world,” and called for “a healthy, stable and constructive Sino-US relationship” that is “beneficial for both countries.” He praised China’s “high-level opening” for international companies and stressed that the alternative energy-powered automobile industry “has broad prospects for development.”

China wants to take advantage of the visit to reiterate its call to foreign investors at a time when the economy continues to show no signs of clear recovery after abandoning the strict zero covid policy at the end of 2022. The well-known political commentator Hu Xijin, usually aligned with the government’s theses, has published on social networks the image of the Foreign Minister shaking hands with Musk. “Just look at how beaming the expressions on these two people are,” he wrote. “The expression of one represents the temperature of the Chinese government and that of the other reflects the enthusiasm of the American company.”

Thanks to the boost in the manufacture of electric cars, China will become the second world exporter of vehicles in 2022, surpassing Germany. And, according to the authorities of the Asian giant, they have already passed to Japan in the first quarter of 2023 to become world leaders. Musk’s visit can be framed in that context in which the planet seems to be changing its automotive paradigm and there is a lot of business at stake.

Tesla sees a huge market in China where its vehicles already compete fiercely with local electric cars. But it is also the factory from which their cars come out. The company opened its first overseas plant in Shanghai in 2019, at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing were in an abyss after Donald Trump landed in the White House. Then, at the head of the financial capital of the country was Li Qiang, the current prime minister of China. In April this year, with relations between Washington and Beijing at record lows, Musk announced the opening of a new production facility for Megapack, large energy storage units.

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