Geopolitical Damnation #31: China and the New Silk Road

China is arguably, and simultaneously, the world’s oldest culture and the world’s newest mega-economy and super-power. Not only does China have the 2nd largest GDP in the world, but it is one of only 4 countries that are net international creditors (the other three being Norway, Luxumbourg, and Switzerland). In comparison, the US, with the largest GDP (of slightly less than 18 Trillion), has an external debt that is roughly 18 Trillion. (In other words, it’s debt now exceeds its annual GDP!)

It’s also the world’s most populous country with 1.35 Billion people and the second largest country by land area. It has the world’s third longest river, 14,500 kilometers (or 9,000 miles) of coast lines, approximately 130 ports open to foreign ships, over 11,000 kilometers (or 6,800 miles) of rail, and over 180 commercial airports. It’s rail network and ships transport a significant percentage of the world’s global trade and traffic is still increasing annually.

China is no longer the emerging economy of the 80s and 90s that you outsourced to and imported from — now it is the emergent economy that is outsourcing to Brazil (to serve the North American Market, consider Foxconn) and Africa (to serve the European market). And, for most multi-nationals, it’s their newest, and most promising (and potentially most profitable) market. China already has over 220 billionaires, and this number increases annually. (The US has 442.)

And as a result, China is turning the traditional sourcing world topsy-turvy — especially now that the New Silk Road (China’s Grand Strategy has been operational for eight weeks. (Source: UNZ) As described in the UNZ article, and on SI last fall (in What Impact Will The New Silk Road Have on Global Trade?, for e.g.), this 13,000 km railroad that crosses China from East to West and then Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, France, and finally Spain enables trade across most of Eurasia. And when the high-speed rail is complete, transport from China to Europe will take even less time than it does now. And China, which is home to 7 of the world’s top 10 container ports and which serves up air cargo that represents more than one-third of global trade value (even though only 1% by weight), will control even more of global trade then it does now! While also being your biggest customer.

You can’t deal with China in the old way anymore. Gone are the days when they were the low cost provider that needed your business. Gone are the days when you could fall back on Mexico. And gone are the days when you never needed to worry about the China market. Now they are a lower cost provider, due to their increases in efficiency (just like Japan increased in efficiency after WWII), but they don’t need your business. They have money and they have the world to sell you. Because Mexico was almost abandoned for China, there are few factories left that can produce modern electronics and none that can produce the volume to equal a Foxconn. And with most markets stagnant, China is one of your few opportunities for growth. Moreover, the supplier you are negotiating with to produce your cell phones for Engineering might be the same supplier your sales team is negotiating with to buy IT’s new mobile factory management software suite.

In other words, when China is across the table, they are not a vendor or supplier that can be beaten down with old-school hard-ball negotiation (even if they historically put melamine in the milk, lead in the paint, and who knows what in the pet food) — they are a partner, and equal, and must be approached as such. Even if you never sell to them, you might sell to one of their partners, and they talk just like we do. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be determined in your negotiations — as you should always fight for the best deal — but be fair, realistic, and base your demands on fact and should-cost models, not empty threats or baseless demands for unreasonable cost reductions.

China is about to become your upstream as well as your downstream supply chain. You have to abandon your old view of the world, accept this reality, and start preparing for it. It doesn’t have to be the damnation that causes your undoing. It can be your salvation. Your choice.