Client v Partner


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I think we all understand the terms “Client” and “Partner” in relation to business relationships but how do they relate to countries and trade? Here are some thoughts.

A Client relationship is transactional. One party buys from the other based on a contract, agreement or understanding. As long as both parties deliver on the promises they make, the trading relationship can last for a long time. Whilst it helps if both parties like eachother, share common values and/or work on the relationship to build trust between them, it’s not essential. As long as both sides deliver on their promises, and there are mutual benefits, the relationship should continue to prosper. You certainly wouldn’t ever criticise or berate a Client for fear of jeopardising the relationship.

A Partner relationship is a lot deeper, more complex and mainly relationship-driven. Without common values, trust, mutual respect and a long term commitment, a partnership is unlikely to thrive. Like a marriage, a partnership requires each side to be willing and able to accept eachother’s differences, debate areas of disagreement, make changes and accept that the bond is stronger than the issues that divide them. A successful partnership often requires both parties to sacrifice short term gains for the rewards of a longer term relationship. Anyone who has been married.

In years gone by, as China started opening up, China viewed other countries as potential “Partners” and sought a long term trading relationship with them based on trust, mutual respect and common interests. They accepted that areas of difference would have to be discussed, debated, tolerated and/or managed as you would in any marriage.

Enjoying the fruits of the relationship, some of these potential Partners have allowed the arrangement to become ‘transactional’ and more like a Client-Supplier relationship. China was willing to accept this situation until they faced public criticism for areas which might have been better addressed behind closed doors, causing a loss of face and a breakdown in trust.

Once you’ve enjoyed the benefits of a “Client” relationship, and broken the trust, it’s hard to go back to being a “Partner”. This is how Australia finds itself in its relationship with China. Other countries should take note.


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