20 Sep 2016
One Belt – One Road: China’s Re-Engineering of the Global Business Environment
By Jean-Pierre Lehmann, IMD – International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne
Perceptions about OBOR
The international community is still struggling to understand the gist and impact of OBOR since China has difficulty in explaining its intentions. Initially, OBOR was referred to as “China’s Marshall Plan” by some Western media and more recently it has been seen as a countermeasure to the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and pivot to Asia….
The first opportunity OBOR presents for China is that it will open new markets, which will help to resolve issues of domestic overcapacity. Moreover, the infrastructure thrust will reduce trade costs through central Asia and shift competitiveness inland. As the land corridors are set to run along the major Eurasian countries, through China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central and West Asia, China-Indochina Peninsula, China-Pakistan, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar, it will also enable the integration of inland and coastal China, bringing growth and stability to the region. An example upheld as a symbol of success for OBOR, the Trans-Eurasia Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe international railway route, which starts in Chongqing and ends 11,179 km later (following 16 days of travel) in Duisburg, Germany, is currently being used by companies like BMW and HP.
China needs more such infrastructure projects to sustain its economic growth and to support important domestic industries. In fact, Marc Laperrouza [a guest contributor to this article] senses a kind of desperation among Chinese businesses and government agencies to find new projects/acquisitions on technology and infrastructure. He feels that the country is currently obsessed with innovation. In fact, in southern China large-scale low-cost manufacturing is transforming into design houses in an effort to move up the value chain. China wants to move beyond its traditional role of exchanging infrastructure against natural resources, as in the case of its investments in Africa. By progressing with OBOR, it will take projects coupled with financing mechanisms to countries lacking in infrastructure, such as Indonesia or the Philippines. This will, in turn, allow China to offer its products and services to these countries in the longer term. Beyond hard infrastructure, Marc sees the potential for China to export standards for the very first time. China has been intensifying its efforts to set indigenous standards for homegrown ultrahigh voltage (UHV) transmission technology and aims to contribute to UHV standards internationally. Two factors are creating a window of opportunity for Chinese UHV technologies to gain acceptance as the de facto global standard: (1) It is the only country currently deploying UHV technology on a large scale and (2) No international UHV standard has yet prevailed.
While OBOR signals a new phase in China’s globalization process, what about soft infrastructure? Despite all its success, China lacks attractiveness and battles inferior quality perceptions. According to Marc, out of 7 million annual university graduates, there are 700,000 engineers but only a fraction of them are world-class. This situation could give rise to fundamental questions about quality and security for key strategic assets, for example as the UK’s next generation of nuclear power plants will be built in collaboration with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group. Marc wonders if China’s infrastructure-driven hard power can translate into winning soft power. “Exporting the local advantage sounds good on paper but what about the ground reality of the specific OBOR countries? It was an African honeymoon for China until a few years ago but now the situation is growing tense.”
Ultimately, China wants better return on investment. While it is the biggest holder of US debt, it is also looking to invest elsewhere to not only enhance its returns but also to win friends in the process. Evidently, with OBOR the investment preference (e.g. M&A, EPC projects) will shift toward developing countries where priorities are power, transport infrastructure, telecommunication and water. The next open question is whether there is an actual business case for OBOR investments and whether it can bring sufficient returns….
© 2016 IMD- International Institute for Management Development
Please click here to view the full article on the IMD website.