Forty years ago last month, President Nixon made history when he traveled to China to begin – in his own words – “(building) a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past.”

In the 21st century, the hard work of maintaining that bridge will increasingly be borne by citizen diplomats: business owners, students and local elected officials who complement the traditional diplomacy undertaken by our federal government. While serious disagreements between the United States and China remain, the responsibility for building that metaphorical bridge between our countries is increasingly falling to America’s global cities, with Los Angeles at the forefront.

In December, we accompanied Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on a trade mission to China’s major business and government centers: Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai. This was the latest trip of dozens to China that we have made over the last several decades. On these shores, we often talk about how the United States will cope with China’s rise, but this most recent visit reinforced our shared belief in America’s enduring importance for China.

California is home to many of the innovative technologies and industries that drive the global economy and secure China’s role as an essential partner for many American industries, while China’s growing influence and wealth fuel boardroom debates from Silicon Valley to Hollywood.

Forging partnerships

Within California, L.A.’s purchasing power as the second largest city in the United States, strategic geography, vibrant economy and diverse population position the city to lead the United States in forging partnerships with China. Los Angeles has America’s largest concentration of Chinese-Americans. Forty percent of all containers going to or from China come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. If current trends continue, Los Angeles could very well become the epicenter of transpacific cooperation.

Forty years ago, a very slim minority of the Chinese people had an opportunity to glimpse life outside of communism. Contrast that picture with today and the millions of Chinese citizens who have lived here as students or worked here as expatriates, with Los Angeles and California being among the most welcoming places in the country for such exchanges. Such people are a powerful force for gradual change within China. They have experienced life in an open society and that experience is not easily forgotten.

The importance of these people-to-people exchanges cannot be overstated. To the average person on the street, China is an alien and vaguely threatening concept, an authoritarian and overpopulated country with an economic strategy that depends on the relentless theft of American jobs. Chinese students in American classrooms, American students interning in China, and increased trade and investment linkages help to demystify both countries. Continued exposure through technology, educational and business exchanges is mutually advantageous. 

When it comes to smoothing the way for increased commerce between the world’s two economic juggernauts, local officials, academic deans and business leaders on the West Coast are less likely to look to Washington, D.C., for results. Local and state governments are progressively recognizing the important role they play in engaging China directly and they are stepping up. The people of Los Angeles have benefited from a willingness to “look East” for needed resources; the Chinese electric-car firm BYD is building its North American headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, driving new construction and creating jobs. Across the Pacific, American companies like L.A.’s Forever 21 are setting up shop at a breakneck pace.

Bombastic rhetoric

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to fight unfair trade practices. This makes sense, but others have turned to unpredictable and bombastic rhetoric about China. This comes from Democrats and Republicans and it should be greatly toned down.

Serious challenges will keep the United States and China on opposite sides of many diplomatic and economic debates, from intellectual property piracy to currency devaluation to China’s troubling military posture in the South China Sea to our nearly $300 billion annual trade deficit. China’s obstructionism as the United Nations Security Council debates a resolution on Syria is only the latest challenge. However, no single dispute between our two countries should jettison 40 years of economic integration and building of political trust. A policy of engagement where we can address these issues from our divergent positions will yield far better results than a policy of confrontation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently outlined the framework of a major U.S. foreign policy shift, in which our country will “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward Asia. Such a pivot toward the hub of nearly every global supply chain is a welcome development, but Washington must realize that it no longer has a monopoly on foreign policy. In the 21st century, our tech entrepreneurs, students and business leaders will play a much larger role in improving our relations with China and other emerging powers.

Los Angeles is America’s gateway to Asia, and harnessing our own unique brand of people power will be a critical factor in determining our future prosperity.

Mickey Kantor is a former secretary of commerce and U.S. trade representative. David Fisher is chairman emeritus of investment management firm Capital Group International in Los Angeles. Both are members of the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

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