Negotiating in China and the Philippines



I lived and worked in Beijing for about 7 years after I first left the Philippines in 1995. I really enjoyed my work in China, negotiating for oil and gas concessions, joint ventures and other related big investments, some dealings of which also included the Russians, all in order to grow the company’s business. It was fun and it was successful. When I arrived there were 6 expatriate staff and when I left there were over a 100, and Beijing is not a cheap place to keep expatriates. Prior to that and subsequent to that I’ve been involved in energy negotiations in the Philippines.

There are very many books about negotiating with the Chinese. A common theme is the need to develop relationships with the “Chinese side”. Such necessary relationships, the books say, are made through having banquets together. The banquets invariably involve such appetizing morsels as jellied camel’s feet, fish lips, boiled tortoise and other slimy things, which it is nigh impossible for the novice to pick up with chopsticks. In addition to the food there is also an emphasis on alcohol, downing endless shots of the ubiquitous Mao Tai, which tastes a bit like the sort of stuff used for cleaning laboratory instruments. I am unconvinced that such events are as essential to a successful negotiation as they are made out to be.

The Chinese I found, are good to negotiate with, and they are good at it, they are logical. My old “adversaries”; Dr Sun last heard of looking after things in the Sudan, Mr Zheng long since retired I guess, Mr Shi who had an office as big as a football field who we used to say would hold you upside down by the ankles and shake all the money out of your pocket, Mr Fu a very senior man, Mr Cao the general counsel, Mr Yang with whom I negotiated a strategic alliance and Mr Luo who gave me some prized Mao badges that he had made himself during the cultural revolution. I remember my dealings with these guys and many others quite fondly. We were struggling to make deals, and in most cases we did with both sides feeling that they had gained something.

None of these relationships needed banquets, they were personal. Of course the Chinese would be pursuing their own interest in these negotiations, as was I on behalf of my company, but all was carried out in a civilised and rational manner. There was little space for emotion. In the end, once you had the concurrence of whoever the “Mr Big” was on the Chinese side, absolutely nothing would change and the deal would be finalised.

Whilst negotiation Philippines style bears some similarities to the Chinese experience, there are two critical and notable exceptions; 1] Logic and rationale are frequently overcome by subjective issues and emotion, and 2] you can never be sure whether any agreement that you think you may have reached is in fact going to be sustained; there are so many uncertainties and unknowns. Of course in the Philippines you are not expected to make a fool of yourself trying to pick up slithery things with chop sticks, nor quaff endless glasses of laboratory instrument cleaning fluid!

In my experience Philippines and Chinese negotiating styles are not hugely compatible. I may yet be proven wrong of course. The Chinese logical approach, their ability to be flexible on some points, their ability to negotiate on a one-on-one basis, and their commitment to important agreements made, all need to be matched for successful outcomes by the “Philippines side.” Rational debate, flexibility and credibility are all. “Mr Big” from the Philippines side must be 100% certain that he can deliver on whatever it is that is agreed, and in an [over]democratised Philippines socio- politico-legal context that may not always be easy. And, dare I say, a bit of autocracy may be necessary both in and after the forthcoming engagement.

I have to say, based on my own experiences negotiation in the Philippines is considerably more difficult than negotiating with the Chinese who are very sophisticated negotiators. Good luck!

Dr Bart Duff

I have to add a few words here to mark the death last week of Dr Bart Duff. Bart was a personal friend, a retired agricultural economist ex of IRRI, the World Bank’s International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos. Bart was an American and was a tireless advocate for the interests of his adopted home province of Palawan, for its people and by extension for all Filipinos. Bart’s knowledgeable advice and counsel was freely available to all who sought it in the interest of Palawan. I will miss him greatly as a friend and colleague, and whether they are aware of it or not the people of Palawan have lost a fine man and a great supporter. Condolences to Bart’s wife and family. Rest in peace Bart.

Mike can be contacted at


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