Leaders of major American companies are urging US President Barack Obama to make a US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) a top priority when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping next month.

The US-China Business Council (USCBC) on Wednesday released a letter signed by 51 corporate chiefs that was sent to Obama. The two presidents will meet informally after Obama attends the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Beijing on Nov 10-11.

USCBC President John Frisbie said the letter is “a strong message” to the White House from America’s business leaders in support of the treaty.

“Completing a high-standard US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty will have a significant and lasting impact on the trajectory of the US-China commercial relationship and a more equitable commercial framework to guide the relationship forward,” Frisbie said in a statement.

The letter was signed by 51 CEOs, including Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc, Mark Fields, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co, and James P. Gorman, chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley.

At least one observer said that despite a world scene that changes dramatically from Ebola to ISIS and to other critical issues, an investment treaty with China can be a top priority for Obama and XI.

“When the president of the United States and the president of China meet they will almost surely discuss national security and economic matters,” David Dollar, senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution told China Daily. “This is a really important issue. China remains closed to a lot of foreign investment. By having a treaty this would give our companies in the US an opportunity to expand their products and services to this market.”

However, Christian T. Lundblad, finance professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, believes that other world events will take precedence.

“Honestly, I think such an effort is likely going to be second order to the other geopolitical developments.  While I share the business community’s desire for greater transparency and predictability with regards the Chinese investment environment, it just seems like right now (as important as this is) Washington may feel like we have bigger fish to fry,” he said in an email interview to China Daily.

Dollar said an investment treaty is important for the US because it will open up sectors of the American economy that haven’t been able to gain a foothold in China.

“China is the second biggest market in the world and yet its energy, mining and services sectors remain largely closed to foreign and US investment,” he said. “These sectors are extremely important to the US economy and allowing American firms to compete for business in China will hand them an enormous expansion opportunity.”

“This is actually really important for US firms.  BITs can help foster access and promote predictability to the cross-border investment environment, as well as provide potential avenues for recourse in the case a party feels unfairly taken advantage of,” said Lundblad.

China significantly benefits from this if high-quality investments find their way there as opposed to other emerging markets around the globe, Lundblad said.

Would a treaty substantially increase Chinese investment in the US?

“Right now China’s investments in the US are increasing rapidly,” he said. “Without a treaty I doubt that it could keep increasing at this pace.”

According to the Rhodium Group, a New York consulting firm, Chinese investment in the US doubled in 2013 to nearly $14 billion, driven by large-scale acquisitions in food, energy and real estate.

“I’m not sure this is a first order effect in such a BIT – it does, of course, cut both ways, so to the extent that this promotes access or recourse for a Chinese investment here, that’s a help,” Lundblad added.

He said, to him the larger benefit is China’s ability to attract capital from the outside.  As China continues to slow economically and necessarily reallocate their own resources, they will increasingly find benefits from deeper relationships with the outside world, Lundblad said.

Bilateral investment treaties are designed to protect investments made by individuals and companies in the countries signing the agreement. An investment treaty provides investors with a more transparent environment.

China has signed more than 120 investment treaties with countries like Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The US has more than 40 signed bilateral investment treaties with countries like Argentina, Egypt and Turkey.

A bilateral investment treaty would not address all the issues affecting US-China trade. American companies in China have complained about the challenges they face in guarding and enforcing laws on their intellectual property rights.

While a treaty wouldn’t resolve those issues directly, it would provide a platform for further discussions between the two countries on safeguarding intellectual property rights.

By PAUL WELITZKIN October 16, 2014 in China Daily