Business Experts Unpack the Myths and Realities of Decoupling with China
In the second installment of a series recognizing the 40th anniversary of Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, the China Program gathered cross-sector executives currently engaged in reshaping their China businesses to shine a light on what U.S.-China tensions and potential decoupling between the two powers look like on the ground.
Amid escalating tensions between the United States and China and as the U.S. government is exploring how to further limit China's access to U.S. technology, discussions about the possibility of decoupling between the two countries have intensified. As businesses operating in China grapple with the potential consequences of decoupling, APARC’s China Program hosted a panel of executives across industries from tech, retail, and finance currently engaged in reshaping their China businesses to provide a view from the ground and consider the future of decoupling with China.
The event was the second installment in a special series celebrating APARC’s 40th anniversary. Titled Asia in 2030, APARC@40, the series highlights core areas of the center’s expertise, examines Asia’s transformation over the past four decades, and considers the drivers and shapers of the region’s future.
The panel featured Dan Brody, the managing director of Tencent Investments, who is responsible for the company’s overseas investments; Frits Van Paasschen, a change management expert, former CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and former president of EMEA at Nike; and Stuart Schonberger, a founding partner of CDH Investments, one of the leading China-focused alternative asset managers. China Program Director Jean Oi chaired the panel.
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Risks and Opportunities
Van Paasschen described his extensive experience developing strategies for expanding licensing and retail in China, which involved navigating the country's infrastructure and legal framework and, as CEO of Starwood Hotels, overseeing the construction of over 100 hotels. He ascribed his success in the country to his recognition of China’s strengths and weaknesses and his finding ways to interact positively with Chinese stakeholders.
The term decoupling is an oversimplification of the relationship between the complex Chinese and U.S. economies, said Van Paasschen. He noted that retailers in many cases are looking to sources from alternative markets to China, but that he believes there are still opportunities for investment in and co-development with China that remain unaffected by current frictions. He highlighted in this context the interplay between the U.S. and Chinese travel and tourism industries before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schonberger, who also challenged the notion of decoupling as a misleading shorthand, emphasized the need for cognitive empathy between the world’s two great powers and understanding the motivation behind China's actions. He noted that the challenges facing China today are complex, including debt problems, real estate slowdown, and productivity stagnation, but said these are "known knowns" that the Chinese government is actively working to correct.
Schonberger sees two distinct issues facing institutional equity investors worried about China: government policies that negatively affect growth and corporate prospects, and longer-term risks arising from China's geopolitical position. For private investors who are focused on total return and can tolerate overt political pressures, China remains investable, as Chinese stocks have been some of the best performers on the public markets recently, said Schonberger. The challenges are greater, however, for public entities and bond investors who are more affected by political risk in their decisions. While the risks are higher, Schonberger's firm continues to invest in Chinese companies in multiple sectors.
Brody said that China remains a key player in the global economy. As a personal anecdote, he noted that, while he makes fewer trips to the United States, he is traveling more frequently to Europe, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia. According to Brody, the extent to which the Chinese economy would be affected by international fluctuations is unclear, but he expects the country to continue its economic growth and attract foreign investors. He stated that a huge amount of value in the tech sector is still being created in America, so economically driven foreign investors in the tech sector still pay close attention to developments in Silicon Valley.
Van Paasschen, by contrast, pointed out that by decoupling with China, the United States would miss out on a generational opportunity for development and could potentially lose out to other countries. China still presents an enormous opportunity for businesses, he said, particularly in the hotel industry, given the country’s rate of urbanization. He reminded the audience that every country and region presents its own set of challenges and risks for investors. The imperative is to ensure Beijing and Washington maintain a dialogue and businesses are willing to take risks to invest in China.
Van Paasschen went on to describe how the U.S.-China political tensions are affecting business operations in various sectors. For instance, in the biotechnology sector, companies might consider protecting intellectual property and ensuring sustainability in their supply chain. In the apparel business, there is a growing concern about human rights and the opacity of the cotton supply chain. Overall, Van Paasschen sees a transition underway from a bilateral and straightforward approach to trade to a much more nuanced and complicated approach.
When asked if political tensions would affect some sectors more than others, Van Paasschen responded affirmatively. He gave the example of a sovereign wealth fund that refused to support investments in Chinese hotels because of the uncertainty zero-COVID policies had created. He also said that further uncertainty could arise from countries' reactions to China’s foreign policy stance, such as China's support of Russia in Ukraine.
What advice would the three business experts give Washington?
Van Paasschen expressed his hope the United States finds ways to avoid being reactive. Schonberger, urging policymakers to keep working towards peaceful coexistence, emphasized it would be counter-productive to frame China as an enemy. He also highlighted the importance of redundancy and efficiency in trade relationships and cautioned against overlooking the cost of decoupling, reminding the audience that engagement with China has boosted global trade, lifted millions out of poverty, and created a vibrant society.
From Brody’s perspective, predictability is crucial for business, regardless of the country one is conducting business in. He also stressed that, from a personal perspective and regardless of one’s political stance on China, the reduction in people-to-people ties between China and the United States due to recent travel restrictions is unfortunate. Ultimately, these ties have always been a net positive, and it is important to recognize their value even in the midst of tensions between the two nations. While political leaders may grapple with complex geopolitical issues, the connections between ordinary citizens remain a vital foundation for maintaining a constructive relationship. By fostering personal exchanges, the United States and China can build bridges and promote mutual understanding, even in the face of challenging circumstances.