Promoting sustainable global trade through digital engagement

Container ship passing under Golden Gate Bridge

International trade is one of those things few of us think about on a daily basis (headlines excepted), but now and again we’re reminded of its colossal scale. I remember crossing Belcher Bay in Hong Kong once and seeing a mammoth container ship nonchalantly pass by, like a floating skyscraper.  God knows what it was carrying. Ancient mummies? Japanese toilets?

Fact is, the importance of trade to the world is enormous., and any wobble is going to be felt. There’s the trade dispute between China and the US , for instance, and closer to home, the Brexit shenanigans. The impact of these events will affect us all to a greater degree than almost anything else.

So it’s exciting to be providing digital support to a philanthropic organisation that is influencing the international trade debate. The Hinrich Foundation was founded in 2012 by an entrepreneur with an incredible career in international trade of six decades – and counting – and a solid vision. The founder’s mission: to encourage peace between nations through promoting sustainable trade.

The organisation does this through education and trade research. Take for instance the Digital Trade Project, which sizes the value of the digital trade opportunity for economies in Asia, including Malaysia recently (yes, I need to rethink my hair, among other things):

The Digital Trade Project has shown that digitally enabled services in Indonesia, for example, could grow by 13 percent by 2030, driven by online video advertising, among other exports. In even more relatable terms, demand for Indonesian content is growing. Perhaps you have heard of YouTube personality Raditya Dika – the standup comic is hugely popular outside his home country. 

I’m confident that Hinrich Foundation content will also grow in appeal among relevant audiences. I’m less certain about other predictions – don’t ask me about how the trade war between the US and China will pan out, or even Brexit’s prospects…

UK and Japan, sorry, China, commit to tech during Strategic Dialogue

Jeremy Hunt did well to think of flowers and chocolate for his wife (‘Mrs H’) this week.

As many of us know, the new Foreign Secretary made an unfortunate slip of the tongue when meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing. We’ve all been there…though perhaps not before powerful statespeople.

More relevant, though not quite so fun, was the meatier stuff discussed during the 9th China-UK Strategic Dialogue. The two sides agreed to expand cooperation in new industries and new business ‘forms’ including artificial intelligence, green energy and the digital economy.

There’s been strong interest recently in the Fourth Industrial Revolution – an umbrella term that means all sorts of things that will likely change our lives, as had the smartphone and internet era previously. Both the UK and China, among other nations, are leading the way in this new wave of innovations and have complementary abilities.

So the message is increasingly clear: if you specialise in high-end stuff like AI, robotics and renewables, now’s your time – as demonstrated by February’s mega-deals between British and Chinese companies.

One of this year’s deals was with the world’s second biggest smartphone manufacturer, Huawei – a whopping £3 billion agreement. This week the Shenzhen-based manufacturer saw the arrival of 50 participants from the UK in its Seeds for the Future training programme.

The global programme, now in its third year, includes the involvement of STEM students from the UK’s leading universities, who will be in China for one month to gain work experience.

 

Belt and Road promises to open up Asia like never before

Bus in Myanmar

Other than the takeover of Reading FC by the Dai siblings, the big announcement coming out of China this month that will change the world as we know it was the 900 billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” project.

Sounding like a line from a syrupy U2 song, One Belt, One Road refers to a Chinese initiative of unprecedented scale that will see more than 60 countries connected through high-speed rail, bridges, harbours, tunnels, airports and goodness knows what else in the next 5 years…hyperloops and spaceports maybe. Hence “Belt” and “Road” (though confusingly the “Road” is the sea – the so-called Maritime Silk Road). As the professional world loves acronyms, One Belt, One Road is also known as OBOR, not to be mistaken for something cobbled together by the banking sector.

While the name doesn’t translate well into English, OBOR has a clear enough vision and even a template from the past: the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe, when bearded traders slugged over mountains with camels and spices, and told fantastic tales.

Marco Polo was a long time ago, of course, and today’s Central Asian countries, the “stans” from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, are relatively unknown to travellers even through they account for a huge chunk of the globe.

Gleaming new highways built with OBOR money might change that, in time helping to make those flyover states between East and West even more appealing destinations. If anything, that midlife London-Kathmandu bike trip should be a less arduous experience.

Railways are shrinking the map further. Earlier this year, the first ever direct train service from China to the UK arrived in Barking after 17 days, passing through 10 countries on a 7,456 mile trip. This was just a freight service., however, and there’s no sign of a commercial service any time soon, which is perhaps just as well: just imagine trying to buy a ticket to China from a train station machine (it’s hard enough finding the right fare from Reading to Oxford).

Commercial bullet train services will, however, string together countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the ubiquity of today’s low-cost airlines, Southeast Asia is not an easy region to navigate.

OBOR will connect Jakarta to Bandung, Indonesia’s third biggest city and creative capital, through a high-speed rail project opening in 2019. More spectacular still, a high-speed line will connect Singapore with Kunming in southern China (Singapore Kunming Rail Link, “SKRL”), through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The 3,000km project will include sections such as Singapore – Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok. SKRL will, in a sense, “unlock” cities along its route – like the Laotian capital Vientiane – making them more accessible and propelling them into the future. Backpacking through Mekong countries will never be the same again.

Of course, a lot of this might not happen. The world is complicated enough and fraught with uncertainty. But if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s optimism. And OBOR optimism doesn’t get bouncier than this: