Belmont’s Center for International Business held its third annual International Business Symposium Thursday morning, featuring a panel discussion and a conversation with former U.S. Senator and U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, James Sasser.
The event opened with a panel discussion tackling the topic, “What are Nashville organizations doing to promote international trade and investment?” The panel included Will Alexander, assistant commissioner, Strategy for the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development; Andy Collier with the U.S. Commercial Service, Nashville Export Assistance Center; and Blewett Melton, director of international business for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Melton stated that one of key elements of the Chamber’s future strategy is to promote Nashville as a center for international business, noting that 22 percent of the 103 expansions/relocations in Nashville during 2010/2011 were from internationally owned companies. Alexander also emphasized the growing international focus among Tennessee businesses, stating that 735 foreign companies currently employ roughly 100,000 Tennesseans. Collier pointed at that China is the third largest market for Tennessee exports, commenting that this is often a surprise to many people and providing an appropriate transition to the next segment of the symposium.
Following the panel, Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher introduced Sasser and his son Gray, an attorney and current adjunct professor at Belmont, for a conversation on the expected impact of China’s leadership succession on Sino-US diplomatic, economic and business relationships.
Gray Sasser pointed out that in November 2012 China will experience a transition as significant as the United States own presidential election when the 18th Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, the party’s top leadership and most powerful decision-making body, takes office. Experts expect a great deal of turnover from the current committee structure due to the anticipated retirement of seven of the group’s nine members.
Despite the turnover, neither of the Sassers expects sudden changes in China. “I don’t see any dramatic changes in China’s foreign or economic policies in the next few years,” said Jim Sasser, who served as an ambassador to that nation from 1995-2001. “There’ll be more of a maintenance of the status quo. There won’t be substantial changes as [the new members] try to get their feet under them for the first 2-3 years.”
The younger Sasser also mentioned that China has recently seen a dip in its rate of economic growth and questioned whether it was time for American companies to start “booking flights to Brazil instead of Beijing.”
Jim Sasser said, “China is still going to grow, but we’re not going to see the same double digit growth. Economies naturally mature and slow down over time.”
Both men advised that the best way for American business to enjoy tax breaks in China would be to build factories in the nation’s interior rather than along the coast, where the middleclass is already thriving. The Chinese government is more inclined to develop the interior where extreme poverty and economic disparity remain an issue.
Most importantly, however, “The one thing not to do is to go to China with a U.S. model for a business. That’s not going to work,” said Jim Sasser. “Instead, you need to take the time to understand the Chinese culture and to establish contacts. You can’t do it in a hurry.”
The International Business Symposium was co-sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Society of International Business Fellows, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, the U.S. Department of Commerce Nashville Export Assistance Center, the Tennessee World Affairs Council, Sister Cities of Nashville and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.
Senator Sasser also spoke in the evening to Gray Sasser’s undergraduate “Asian Business & Political Economies” class.