Having chalked up 40 years in China, global consultant engineering group Arup is well versed in the often nuanced approach to carrying out business in the country.
Now that China's Belt and Road initiative – a vast strategic programme of development linking economic and infrastructural ambitions across China, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe – is becoming a reality, there is a greater push than ever among businesses to consolidate ties with the world's biggest market.
Michael Kwok, Arup's Region Leader for China, stresses that though the initiative is still in its early days the step-change in opportunities arising from it is clear.
"Because we have been here 40 years, we have a very deep understanding of our Chinese clients' thinking and aspirations, and we are well positioned to be a trusted partner on many of these projects", Michael says.
The difference with Belt-and-Road
"The scale and influence of this initiative is very different from other more conventional one-off projects," he adds. "It involves many long-term projects and programmes, ones with big ambitions."
And beyond the infrastructural impact, the strengthening strategic ties will have a positive influence on social, cultural and economic links, he says.
For investors, his advice is to seek out the opportunities beyond the one-off infrastructure projects as the sheer scale of development will impact countries way beyond the periphery of China.
Chinese business versus business in China
It's not just the scale of development that is reaching a new level, according to Michael. There is a fundamental change that he feels "will influence the way business is done in this part of the world for years to come".
"Arup aspires to connect China to the rest of the world like a bridge. Belt and Road means that in the future we will be doing a lot of Chinese business [beyond borders] rather than just doing business in China."
For many, this will mean a redefining of the balance between China and the rest of the world as higher-value expertise and IP is more noticeably exported globally – giving businesses the chance to work for Chinese clients as they operate outside of China.
Arup aspires to connect China to the rest of the world like a bridge. Belt and Road means that in the future we will be doing a lot of Chinese business [beyond borders] rather than just doing business in China.Michael Kwok
RMB is the new norm
Arup's long experience working in China means that operating in Renminbi is already second nature. Working with HSBC allows them to hedge efficiently against fluctuation as with any other liberalised currency, and there is no longer any sense of it being a new or novel quirk of working in China.
Play the long game
The overall message of Belt and Road is that it will take time to come together – but that’s the ideal set of circumstances for any business looking to establish itself in China, says Michael.
"You have to put time and effort into growing a local team on the ground. Being close to the client allows you to understand their risks and assure them that you're making a real contribution – not just being a ‘hunter’ looking for quick gains."
Trust and respect, he adds, are gained through this long-term presence, as it breeds new opportunities.
"Be a farmer, not a hunter."
You have to put time and effort into growing a local team on the ground. Being close to the client allows you to understand their risks and assure them that you’re making a real contribution – not just being a ‘hunter’ looking for quick gains.Michael Kwok