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Donald Trump’s meeting with Jack Ma suggests new wave of ‘business diplomacy’

US president-elect’s talks with Alibaba boss and other businessmen seen as sign that business contacts will add new dimension to foreign relations, say analysts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 10:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 11:29pm

Donald Trump’s surprising meeting with Jack Ma, chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, has triggered concerns about a new “business-to-business” approach on the diplomatic front lines.

As Trump would be the first US president with a career spent exclusively in business, it was likely that he would pay more attention to personal connections and contacts – on top of established diplomatic channels – to deal with international economic issues, including Sino-US ones, analysts said.

Since Trump won the US election in November, he has been breaking protocol by throwing out his views on his Twitter account, and his base in New York City has been frequented by business executives. He had met Masayoshi Son, the Softbank chairman, before he met Ma, and Son said he intended to invest US$50 billion in the US and create 50,000 jobs. Trump had also invited executives from firms like Google, Apple and Facebook for a meeting to discuss jobs and the economy.

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Trump is also trying to fill key public offices with business executives, including proposing Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of oil company Exxon Mobile, as secretary of state.

Li Mingjiang, a professor from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, said Trump’s interactions with business figures had been “vigorous”.

“[Mr Trump] is not a political figure, it’s natural for him to meet political leaders as well as business leaders from other countries,” Li said. “Other national political leaders meet important foreign business leaders quite often as well. We can’t judge whether he’s a person who only likes to meet with businesspeople because of this meeting with Jack Ma.”

Li said political leaders in western countries came from many different backgrounds, and to judge an elected president’s political policies after the campaign based on his or her background was a stretch.

“There might be some influence because he’s been in business for decades,” Li said. “But once his position changes to the presidential level, the most influential factor will be politics, not business.”

Mutual interests outweigh conflicts

Philip Le Corre, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the meeting between Ma, whose Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post, and Trump showed only that the new president would be of a different type than his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Asked if the Trump-Ma meeting was authorised by the Chinese government, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said “the two governments are encouraging the cooperation of companies from the two countries, and creating better conditions”.

In his first press conference after being elected, Trump said last Wednesday that he had been meeting people who would create jobs for the US, including Ma.

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“And I will say, if the election didn’t turn out the way it did, they would not be here,” Trump said.

Le Corre said “Alibaba is a smart company with lots of good lobbyists and advisers in Washington and New York”, but that there were doubts about how many jobs Alibaba could create in the US.

Wang Yiwei, an international relations specialist from Renmin University, said the US president-elect was pragmatic and cared only about domestic economic development.

“Russia can’t help Trump rebuild the American economy,” Wang said. “We [in China] are very practical, too. We can give him what he wants. There are lots of infrastructure projects inside the US that need investment, and we can give them that.”