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China’s Belt and Road Initiative – the Largest Kitchen in the World

To help Swiss SMEs and government institutions to understand the enormous potential of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Center for Asia Business and the MBA Center of Shanghai University have jointly set up a promising new opportunity for training and development, the Belt and Road Academy.

When, at the age of 17, Marco Polo started out on his journey to China in 1271, he could not have realized that many centuries later the now well-known “Silk Road” would be hitting the international headlines again.

During a state visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the revival of the Silk Road, an ancient grid of trade routes between China and the West, in a concept referred to as the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) or, more recently, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to an official Chinese press release, “the Belt and Road Initiative is a way for win-win cooperation that promotes common development and prosperity and a road towards peace and friendship by enhancing mutual understanding and trust and strengthening all-round exchanges” as well as being “an ambitious economic vision of the opening-up of and cooperation among the countries along the Belt and Road.”

Not surprisingly, this all-encompassing description of the BRI led to many interpretations both at political and scientific levels. Since 2013, more than 20,000 academic articles have been written about the possible goals and directions achievable under President Xi’s BRI vision. In this respect, he has managed to establish the largest global think tank for creating ideas about a shared future for the world. However, when talking to Chinese officials, academics, or business people, there is a widespread feeling that the rest of the world, and Europeans in particular, have not yet fully grasped what China envisages with the BRI.

It is true that in Europe the BRI has generally received a bad press, its critics arguing that the BRI is a one-way highway for exporting Chinese overcapacity and flooding European markets with cheap products. At the same time, when addressing Western companies, Chinese executives express a lot of uncertainty about the possibilities for capitalizing on the real opportunities presented by the BRI. While the Chinese appear to be keeping the range of options as general, high-level, and non-specific as possible, Western companies need specific projects and procedures in place in order to pursue business within the BRI framework.

A metaphor recently used to describe the BRI is that of a kitchen. China is offering a kitchen where any group is invited to bring along its own food and equipment to co-create a tasty “win-win” meal. But, for this metaphor to be of any use, we need first to clarify what food is available, how to prepare it, and who is in charge. From a Chinese perspective, the food includes a large range of “BRI dishes,” with the construction of roads, bridges, rail tracks, and harbors as the “starter” for the economic development of the countries situated along the land and maritime routes. Once the starters have been enjoyed, the main courses and desserts will follow. What is still currently needed by China and its potential BRI partners is an accord covering the variety of dishes to be included in the BRI framework.

When applied to Switzerland, this means that while the Chinese are offering an extensive menu, this translates to a demand for “Züri-Geschnetzeltes” (veal) with “Rösti” (hash-browns), “raclette or cheese fondue with potatoes and pickles,” or “polenta with Luganighe sausage” - all cornerstones of Swiss cuisine.

Whether we choose to call it variety vs. focus, high context vs. low context, or conceptual vs. project-based approach, a Sino-Swiss jointly prepared BRI meal requires matching ingredients and appropriate cooking methods. When it comes to defining those ingredients and cooking procedures, it is apparent that China is going to be “head chef,” with its large SOEs and MNEs leading the anticipated BRI projects. In a Chinese-led kitchen brigade, Swiss companies wishing to participate in the BRI can try to occupy the “sous chef,” “line chef,” or “commis chef” roles by being on the second, third, or fourth supplier level of a Chinese SOE or MNE.

Once the BRI kitchen is set up and ready, Swiss companies can start cooking. To facilitate entry into the “kitchen,” the Center for Asia Business at the ZHAW School of Management and Law and the MBA Center of Shanghai University have recently launched the “Belt and Road Academy.” This aims to consolidate the ideas and motivations behind the BRI for Swiss SMEs and government institutions, together with services and training on how to capitalize on such opportunities (e.g., on-site courses, webinars, investment matchmaking, business partnering, intercultural bridging between business/government partners, and conferences). In this way, the BRI Academy enables and assists innovation-related business ventures by Swiss SMEs embarking on BRI projects. Furthermore, it enhances the visibility of Swiss science and technology along BRI routes, facilitates reverse innovation for Swiss companies in BRI business ecosystems, and provides support to Swiss government institutions in realizing the previously agreed strategic BRI partnership, MoUs.

When Marco Polo finally reached China after four years on the road, the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan welcomed him warmly to his summer palace, Xanadu. Legend has it that one of Marco Polo’s favorite dishes at the emperor’s court was noodles, which – again according to legend – he introduced to Europe as pasta on his return. Whether true or not, since food has the power to bring people together, the BRI can be a recipe for uniting nations and co-building a common future - that is if the “win-win” meals have compatible ingredients and well-defined cooking methods, thereby ensuring the many cooks don’t spoil the broth.