BHP Billiton CEO: 'No Nation Was Ever Ruined By Trade'

BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie (L) discusses the virtues of free trade with journalist Richard Lui (R). (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

In a year characterized by intense anti-globalization sentiment across the developed world, the head of the world's largest mining company issued a full-throated defense of free trade on Monday in front of a full house at Asia Society in New York. In remarks delivered before a question-and-answer session conducted by journalist and news anchor, BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie responded to protectionist critics with a quote from American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin: "No nation was ever ruined by trade."

Mackenzie urged the United States Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation agreement that aims to deepen the economic relationship between the U.S. and several key Asian economies. Although President Barack Obama has publicly supported passage of the TPP, both of his would-be successors — likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her putative Republican opponent, Donald Trump — have come out against it. Despite this opposition, however, Mackenzie was sanguine about the eventual prospects of the deal.

"Most politicians, when you find yourself thinking about more weighty matters of the world, will rediscover the beauties of free trade," he said.

Much of Mackenzie's prepared remarks concerned China, whose slowdown has raised concern among economists worldwide. In contrast to more bearish observers, however, Mackenzie praised China's economic resilience and predicted that the country would grow at a "pace that would make the rest of the world envious." In particular, Mackenzie cited China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative — referring to China's infrastructure investment in countries along its periphery — as emblematic of its economic engagement with the world.

Nevertheless, Mackenzie rejected the narrative that China would dominate the 21st century as the United States did the 20th. Instead, he argued, the Asian country and the United States have the potential for a healthy, symbiotic relationship, one in which the U.S. services market would cater to the continent's burgeoning middle class — one that will exceed 3 billion people by 2050. Rather than disengage from TPP, Mackenzie said, the U.S. should instead encourage China to join the pact.

"If both the U.S. and China are connected through this partnership, the world will be drawn together and stabilized," he said.

"Now is the time for the U.S. to lean into Asia, not the other way around."

Watch the complete video of Andrew Mackenzie's appearance at Asia Society:

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.