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Friends or Foes: Who Do You Lead With?

The Chinese Consul General's remark about children returning to China without making an Australian friend underscored a deeper issue of missed opportunities for cultural integration and mutual understanding.

Sophie Krantz
Sophie Krantz

“What keeps you awake at night?”

“The number of children that go back to China without an Australian friend.”

This was the punch of an answer that came from the Chinese Consul General, in a brief exchange at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade end of year drinks, an event bringing together the diplomatic and international business community in Melbourne. Before the pandemic and Trump’s trade war, Australia and China were the best of friends. Political and business leaders went to great lengths to solidify the trade, investment, and friendship ties between the two countries.

The Chinese Consul General acts as the official representative of the Chinese government in the host country. They ensure the welfare and legal rights of Chinese nationals within the consular district. Additionally, they facilitate and promote economic, trade, and investment relations between China and the host country.

Unexpected Response

At the time, I was working for Australia’s largest investor in China and led the negotiations for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. I was familiar with the China-Australia relationship. I expected the answer to my question, “What keeps you awake at night?” to be related to trade, tourism, or investment.

The response floored me.

Children of primary age come to study in Australia, including those without family in Australia, and they return without a local Aussie friend.

I apologized. I felt shame. I felt disappointed.

Most of all, I felt regret for the lost opportunity. The lost opportunity of friendship and connection at school, be it primary, secondary, or even university, to carry on into later life. The lost understanding. The lost chance to build bridges for walking upon in the future.

Given the current state of the world, I can’t help but wonder:

Do friendships that go unformed set a foundation for foes later in life?

Big Guns. Big Shots

This week, US President Joe Biden has to impose tariffs of 100% on electric vehicles (EVs) made in China. The consensus needed to support an open trading system is falling apart, accelerated by China's questionable practices and the rise of Donald Trump’s America-first vision.

Politicians in America from both parties advocate for higher tariffs on a wide range of goods. China provides substantial subsidies to its manufacturers, giving them a competitive edge in global markets. Additionally, they argue that the security risk posed by allowing Chinese EVs to be easily tracked and monitored is too significant.

The Economist, reporting on this event, states: "Bad policy, worse leadership”. Further, “Mr Biden’s tariffs are a blunt tool for dealing with them and will bring underappreciated economic harms to America and the world.”

Progress Denied

We are living in lose-lose times. There are no winners. The world is experiencing great leaps in progress, led by exponential technology. Innovations in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and renewable energy have the potential to solve some of our most pressing global challenges. Yet, the potential benefits of these advancements are hamstrung by leaders who prioritize national interests over global collaboration.

Instead of fostering an environment of cooperation and shared progress, many leaders adopt policies that create divisions and fuel distrust. Protectionist trade measures, like the tariffs on Chinese EVs, are just one example of how short-term, nation-centric strategies can undermine long-term global prosperity.

This inward focus prevents the kind of international cooperation needed to address issues that transcend borders, such as climate change, global health crises, and economic inequality. By prioritizing national interests, leaders miss opportunities to leverage global talent, share technological breakthroughs, and build a more interconnected and resilient world economy.

As a result, we all lose. The promise of a better future, driven by technological and scientific advancements, remains unfulfilled. It is a reminder that our collective success hinges on our ability to think and act beyond the confines of national borders.

Let’s Meet for Coffee

Shortly after my exchange with the Chinese Consul General, I was lecturing international finance and economics at Liaoning University in Shenyang, China. My undergraduate-level Mandarin meant all lectures were delivered in English. The students were engaged and present and challenged me with technical questions. Before and after class, as well as during breaks, they had questions about studying in Australia.

I knew Australian universities, and those in other high-income nations, rolled out the red carpet for Chinese students as an important market in the international education sector.

My advice to the students is to make Australian friends. In Melbourne, where I am from, we take the bold claim of the world’s best coffee outside of Italy. I suggested they ask one new person a week to meet for coffee. Build a network across business, organisations of interest, and especially with classmates who are from Australia or elsewhere.

Fellow students will be future competitors in the global economy. They may become friends, colleagues, or even co-founders. Or, they could be foes at the global leadership level.

I told them what I know is true: we shape the world through our interactions. As leaders, the success we create is influenced by the people we surround ourselves with. The greater the global network, the stronger the global results.

The Global-View, Over Tea

With no end in sight to geopolitical tensions, wars, and rising nationalism, leaders who think and act in global interests are largely absent on the world stage. It seems as though relatively few leaders are meeting for coffee or tea.

In China, relationships are built by sharing cups of tea. It’s not about forced friendship. It is about shared understanding and forging long-term business relationships that outlive political cycles. Friendships can even happen and positively shape future business success.

As a leader, considering the complex world we live in: 

  • How do you move beyond the news headlines and dominant narrative to gain deeper insights into global opportunities, trends, technologies, and threats?
  • What strategies do you use to build meaningful connections with international business leaders and entrepreneurs, even those based in nations where political tensions exist?
  • What could shifting away from foe-informed leadership do to enhance strategic understanding of the world and secure future business success?

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Sophie Krantz Twitter

Sophie is a global strategist who writes on global leadership in the digital age. She works with leaders worldwide to amplify their ambition and accelerate their agency to drive global goals.