Negotiating Chinese Partnerships – Are you a long term partner or a short term resource?

Western companies in China feel that the deck is stacked against them. Between rising labor costs, indigenous innovation requirements and slowing global demand, it has never been harder to make profit on the Mainland. Even the deep-pocketed China-fans like GE and Siemens are publicly complaining about the operating environment. The stock answer to China’s business challenges used to be finding a local partner who could open doors and bring a little local love. Unfortunately for newcomers and old-hands alike, Western partners in China JVs & tie-ups are reporting their own tales of woe – from pinched technology to crimped sales. More and more Chinese firms are telling their Western partners that the marriage is over.

Aren’t Chinese businesses supposed to be long term planners?

Yes, and that’s the problem. As many Western deal-makers are finding out, Chinese negotiators often see the foreign partnership as a short-term tactic on the way to the real long-term goal of independent global competitiveness.

Chinese firms are pragmatic. They acknowledge the need for Western technology and methodology, but that no longer means a permanent marriage. Since the financial crisis of 2007, Western firms have lost the brass ring that used to keep the Chinese side of the partnership in line – access to US and European markets. The cold hard fact is that Western firms are entering partnership negotiations with a hand that is not strong and growing weaker. The Chinese market is becoming the new El Dorado (though it may end up being just as mythical) and the technology gap is definitely growing narrower.

Chinese firms are increasingly viewing Western firms as a short-term partner, a medium-term customer or client and a long-term competitor. Operating a JV in China was tough enough before the crash in the US & Europe and China’s new ‘indigenous innovation’ policy came into force – but many international managers in China now see a bleak future.
Here are a few useful tactics for negotiating a long term relationship in China:

    1. Plan first, negotiate after.
    Don’t shy away from asking yourself hard questions about your basic plans for China. Do you really need a long term partner in China? Why? What’s the relative balance of power going to be through the life of your partnership? Are you looking for a perpetual subordinate – because your Chinese counter-party might not be interested in a permanent secondary role. As you and he both learn more about the business what’s the natural competitive environment going to evolve into? Not only do you have to plan for 2015 – you have to discuss those plans with the Chinese side. If you plan on calling the shots in China ad infinitum, then you would be wise to make that clear BEFORE you share your IP and trade secrets.

    2. Structure is everything in China.
    Forget about NDAs and contracts. The deal that makes sense is the deal you’ll end up with. If you plan on having a long term relationship, structure accordingly. If you are providing design and capital and he is providing market entry advice and distribution then you have to plan for a point 18 months from now when he has your designs and you have access to distribution channels. What are you basing JV 2.0 on? A Chinese partner who thinks he can do better without you is going to find a way out of the relationship, even if it means scuttling the business and starting over on his own after you have gone back home. If the only thing you have in your corner is a signed contract, then you are embarking on a lose-lose relationship.

    3. Consider a sunset clause.
    Your best relationship may be a short one with an option for some type of longer-term arrangement. Teenagers think that passion leads to happy-ever-after, but adults are supposed to know that compatibility is based on other things. Still – there’s nothing wrong with a quick hook-up if everyone knows that’s all there is. But don’t propose if all you want is dinner and a movie. No matter what your plan, always have a viable exit strategy.

    4. Don’t pay today for what may or may not come tomorrow.
    Cynical Chinese negotiators learned long ago that naïve Americans believe in the fantasy of ‘long-term guanxi’ and are more than happy to let you pay up-front for the relationship of your dreams. Their dream is being the sole patriarch of a family dynasty. You aren’t in their dream.

    5. Use your words.
    If you have thought it through and decided that a long-term relationship is what you want, then make that part of your negotiation from the beginning. Be explicit and open. This is exactly the kind of thing you should be talking about during those relationship-building activities & banquets. Don’t just stop with the easy platitudes about harmony and working together. Likewise, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Chinese side to come up with a comprehensive game plan. It’s up to you to come up with specifics that include benchmarks and a structure that keeps both sides satisfied.

Partnership hint: Long-term JVs in China are more threatened by success than failure. It’s relatively easy to pull together when disaster is at hand and everyone needs one another. It’s when the Chinese side comes to believe (rightly or wrongly) that you have outlived your usefulness that partnerships fall apart. Plan for the good times as well as the bad.

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