Brief chat with George Chiu: Finding the silver lining
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Tensions in the region are running high, with the U.S. and China in the thick of a raging competition for dominance. The Guam business sector assiduously watches the geopolitical drama that leaves them having to carefully navigate the situation to shield themselves from the economic stress.
“We are called the ‘tip of the spear.’ Not everybody feels it’s a good thing because it makes us a target,” said George Chiu, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “We are also known as ‘America in Asia' and ‘where America’s day begins.”
While helplessly trapped in a burgeoning regional conflict, Chiu said the Guam business sector must insulate itself from geopolitics. “The Chinese Chamber of Commerce is basically a social organization on Guam. It was formed with the goal of putting the Chinese business community together,” said Chiu, president and CEO of TakeCare Insurance. “We are politics-free. We are here to help members conduct their business.”
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce is a borderless organization, comprising members representing companies owned by ethnic groups from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. “We don’t differentiate, whether you’re from mainland China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. But we are different from other ethnic organizations. Our organization is not exclusive to ethnic Chinese,” Chiu said. “We have non-ethic Chinese members, including shipping companies, banks and companies that are doing business with Chinese companies.”
Chiu, whose parents are from Shanghai, was born in Okinawa and grew up on Guam. While holding the top position at TakeCare, he is concurrently the president of S.A. Leisure Group Company, and executive vice president of Luen Thai Enterprises and Tan Holdings. He was the recipient of the Guam Business Magazine Executive of the Year award in 2013.
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce has approximately 100 members. “We conduct our meetings 100 percent in English. Language is a very important unifying factor. It helps eliminate tensions,” Chiu said, noting that the group is involved in several community engagements and charity work.
While Washington has imposed some restrictions on Chinese businesses, Chiu said Guam-based companies are cushioned. “We are doing business on Guam and we are all U.S. citizens. We are all protected under the U.S. law,” he said.
According to the Guam Bureau of Statistics and Plans’ September 2020 report, China ranked fifth among the 20 countries where the territory imports products from. Guam imports food products, furniture, auto parts, electronic items and grooming products from China, accounting for 3.2 percent of the island’s total import volume. A 2022 BSP report indicated that China accounts for 4.24 percent of Guam’s total exports.
Chiu said doing business with China is inevitable. “The chamber does not get involved in politics,” he said. “We do not have an official position related to geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China.”
Chiu traverses the issue with a programmatic approach. If anything, he said, the situation is bringing a windfall that Guam can take advantage of, such as the Department of Defense's $15 billion military buildup.
“The military buildup on Guam is happening because of the tensions. There are so many business opportunities and so much money coming into Guam. So Guam is benefiting to a certain extent,” he said.
“I’m not saying that tension is good. Tension is never good. But let’s look at the positive side. Not everybody feels the same way but I always look at the positive side of a bad thing. Every cloud has a silver lining,” he said.
The “positive side” of the growing tensions between the U.S. and China also flows over to Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, Chiu said, noting the large streams of U.S. investments being poured into the Pacific nations. “The U.S. is paying more attention to these countries that otherwise it wouldn’t have if not for China,” he said.
The U.S. has been splashing economic assistance to the Pacific islands in a bid to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative while building up defense resources in the region to outrace the People’s Liberation Army.
But the bipolar nature of the U.S.-China relations presents a complex predicament. The United States is working with allies to bar China’s access to advanced semiconductors while Beijing is blocking shipments from Micron Technology, a prominent U.S. chip manufacturer. At the same time, however, Washington is seeking to boost trade ties with Beijing.
During the last week of August, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo embarked on a four-day trip to Beijing, where she trumpeted Washington’s security trade policies off-limits for wrangling. "If you wanted to put a tagline to the trip and the mission, it’s to protect what we must and promote where we can," Reuter quoted Raimondo as saying.
On Aug. 10, China lifted restrictions on group travel to the United States. In a statement, Raimondo described such a move as “an important step forward to promote the type of people-to-people exchange that is crucial for our bilateral relationship.”
And finding another silver lining, Chiu said the weakening of China’s currency is advantageous to Guam. According to the South China Morning Post, the yuan is around 6.9 percent weaker against the U.S. dollar than it was a year ago.
“Did the tensions cause the yuan to devaluate? I don’t know. I am not a finance expert. But we are still importing from China and products coming from China are becoming cheaper,” Chiu said. “So why focus on the negative? Let’s look at the positive side of the situation.”