Bad time for the White House to name and shame companies

When it comes to U.S.-China relations, the Trump administration speaks with several voices – often conveying conflicting messages. Many in the business world have been left feeling confused about the president’s overall strategy. But one voice has been clearer and more consistent than many others, and it belongs to Vice President Mike Pence.

He gave a major speech about China last month – exactly a year after his first one on the subject. The speech was tough on Beijing, but overall the criticism was fair and constructive. At the same time, the speech reveals an ongoing lack of awareness by the White House about simple things it needs to do to assist businesses during these challenging times.

The part of the speech that pleased me the most was the nice shout-outs for Taiwan as “one of the world’s great trading economies.” Pence reminded the international community that engaging with Taiwan “does not threaten peace.”

The well-crafted lines are evidence that the administration is staffed with people who understand and appreciate Taiwan.

I also appreciated Pence’s recognition of how China’s spectacular economic success has been partly driven by U.S. investment. Indeed, Taiwan also played an outsized role in supercharging the Chinese economy.

In addition, the vice president emphasized that the U.S. does not seek confrontation with China, nor does it want to contain the country’s development.  What the U.S. is seeking is “a level playing field, open markets, fair trade, and a respect for our values,” he said.

In my view, one of the most important lines was Pence’s strong assertion that the Trump administration is not looking to “de-couple” from China. He argued that it’s actually the Chinese Communist Party that’s de-coupling China from the wider world.

The portion of Pence’s speech that inspired the most headlines was his criticism of specific companies, which he accused of abandoning U.S. values as they kowtow to the “lure of China’s money.”

To be fair, this is the hardest time to be doing business in this part of the world. Boards are struggling to find ways to respond to unprecedented levels of pressure. Rather than naming and shaming multinational companies, the government should be conscious that those corporations need help. I’m urging the Trump administration to do three things:

  1. Be consistent. It’s difficult for companies to craft a policy, strategy or messaging for these complex times when the White House often fails to be consistent and predictable on core issues of its foreign relations. U.S. foreign policy too often seems to flip-flop from tweet to tweet.
  2. Lead by example. An excellent way for the Trump administration to show that it adheres to U.S. values is to send more high-level officials on visits to Taiwan. It was once common practice for Cabinet-level officials to come here. Only one has made the trip in the past two decades.
  3. Work with allies. What was striking about Pence’s speech was the lack of any effort to rally U.S. allies to work together to counter China’s pressure. I can’t help but wonder whether the administration has come to regret having walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sticking with the TPP would have made the U.S. an important member of a bloc designed to counter Chinese dominance in the Pacific Rim. It’s not too late to reverse the decision.