You may not have noticed, but Gov. Rick Snyder is in China this week, on what his administration is calling his sixth “investment” mission to the world’s newest economic superpower.
This particular trip is designed, the governor’s office says, to help establish Michigan’s global leadership in “autonomous vehicle technology,” which is industry-speak for cars that will drive themselves, at least to some extent.
"We're putting our strengths on display for a global audience to see and learn about," the governor said, in a statement issued by his office. That's not the only purpose of this trip; the governor is also there to promote tourism and agriculture.
His administration has bet heavily on China, something Democrats tried to make an issue in his first campaign, with essentially no effect. One Democrat thinks Snyder’s trip to China is exactly the right thing to do.
“Here is an area where Snyder has truly made a difference,” Tom Watkins told me. “Building economic, cultural and educational bridges with a country that has 1.4 billion people and the largest (emerging) auto market makes all the sense in the world.”
Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, is now the director of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Agency – but China is his passion. He’s a frequent writer on what you might call "Sino-Wolverine" topics, an advisor to the Chinese Business Association of Greater Detroit, and a frequent visitor to the country.
For Watkins, promoting ties to China makes "all the sense in the world. They have an expanding middle class that wants and needs everything we have in Michigan, from manufacturing to great universities and food products."
But what happens when Donald Trump becomes president?
It’s hardly a secret that Trump spent much of the campaign bashing U.S. trade policies in general and China in particular, and hinting at a new round of higher tariffs and protectionism, something that has unnerved both economists and investors.
Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University who specializes in our state, told Crain’s Detroit Business that if Trump does what he said, that would mean huge tariffs against both China and Mexico.
The result could be extremely disruptive to Michigan’s economy, because, as the economist noted, “that would cause a lot of disruptions in the supply chain.”
Initially, messing up our connections with Mexico might be even more damaging; since a lot of products assembled in each country include components – parts – made in the other.
It’s not clear how much President Trump will be able to do to affect trade with Mexico, unless NAFTA is repealed or renegotiated. But China is another story. It’s well known that the reason that Buick survived after Pontiac and Oldsmobile died is the brand’s popularity in China.
Snyder, whose temperament often seems similar to the leader often called “no-drama Obama,” doesn’t want to rush to conclusions, and wants to give the new administration a chance.
But Snyder is unlikely to have much if any clout with Trump; he’s a lame duck and didn’t even endorse his party’s nominee.
There’s usually a difference between campaign rhetoric and what presidents really do, but there’s been very little usual about the incoming president.
It may be trite to refer to the ancient Chinese curse:
“May you live in interesting times.”
But we certainly do.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.