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The Sanya Initiative

By Brittany Posey, Featured in Business Watch

Many people view the U.S.- China bilateral relationship as the most important bilateral relationship in today’s world.

With 1.3 billion people and an emerging consumer class, the opportunities that exist for North Dakota companies in China are phenomenal. As the Chinese population grows at an alarming rate, the country is becoming increasingly worried about food safety and security. Furthermore, as the middle class grows, consumer tastes are becoming more sophisticated. The market is craving high quality consumer goods and foods, and North Dakota produces some of the finest food products in the world.

A delegation of North Dakota business leaders and officials got a first-hand look at these opportunities during a recent trade mission to China, led by Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, and the North Dakota Trade Office.

“The North Dakota delegation had significant success in China and there are already contracts in the works for a number of companies,” North Dakota Trade Office Executive Director Dean Gorder said. “The Chinese market isn’t a simple one. It requires dedication to make sales, and the relationships with Chinese buyers are of the utmost importance. But, once you form a relationship, it’s one that often lasts a lifetime.”

Trade relations between the U.S. and China are just a piece of a larger relational puzzle. Our nations’ ties are dynamic and — as the two most powerful countries in the world — they require careful attention. Admiral Bill Owens, a Bismarck native, retired admiral from the U.S. Navy and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs who now spends about 25 percent of his year living in China, saw the importance of nurturing this sensitive relationship and created a program called The Sanya Initiative.

The Sanya Initiative is a US-China, military-to-military exchange between retired Generals and Admirals. The goal is to foster discussion on many sensitive subjects between our countries, to create dialogue, understanding and friendship and to build more trust between our governments and countries.

“I started Sanya six years ago with the belief that the Chinese-U.S. relationship was the most important in the world and that if we learned anything from the Cold War it was that we needed to foster the very best Military to Military Relationships — something we didn’t do in the Cold War,” Admiral Owens said. “I thought that if we got the most senior retired officers together we could foster a warm, open, trusting relationship which might be of great value to the overall relationship in the future. I believe that it has turned out to be true, but we need much more engagement between our militaries and we need trust between them. I am totally committed to helping to make that happen.”

Launched in 2008, the program is an annual event that typically consists of two days of high-level official meetings followed by two days of official visits in the nation’s capitols.

The U.S. Generals and Admirals that participate are mostly retired Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest ranking military positions in the U.S. The Chinese military sends the counterparts to these positions.

The discussions are substantive on a range of complicated issues. Topics have included sensitive matters such as security in the South China Sea, stability on the Korean Peninsula, partnering to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, and partnering to support non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea.

The Sanya Initiative is considered ‘unofficial dialogue’ yet has strong support from both governments. The program provides a more candid, personal, and less -political platform on which to discuss key issues between the two countries. The program allows dialogue between individuals who care deeply about their countries and believe that a sustained, reliable long-term military-to-military relationship supports their respective country’s well-being, prosperity, and growth.

Participants have strong feelings on the subject matter and points-of-view often differ, but both sides agree there have been misperceptions between the two countries and that both governments should take concrete actions to eliminate misunderstanding through confidence-building measures and open communication.

All discussion points from The Sanya Initiative are taken back to the governments through political attaches who attend meetings. A smaller scale follow-up meeting of the Sanya Initiative is usually scheduled a few months later, and communications are continued throughout the year.

With the success of programs such as The Sanya Initiative, the relationship between the U.S. and China can remain open, despite political tensions. From North Dakota’s perspective, this could mean improved trade opportunities.

Former Ambassador and Congressman Mark Green recently visited North Dakota for the Global Business Connections international business conference and shared his views on the Sanya Initiative. He stressed the importance of information sharing between countries for economic growth and applauded North Dakota’s efforts in the international arena.

“Information sharing and engagement in the world goes a long way towards promoting better understanding and preventing unnecessary conflict. The same is true in the economic arena, and to get our economy moving again, we must be active participants in the global marketplace,” Congressman Green said. “North Dakota is way ahead of the curve and knows this well, as exports increased by more than 33 percent last year from the state and over 300 percent in the last decade.”

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