I’ve been hearing alot of “So.. um, what do you think of China?” lately, for obvious reasons. I don’t mind at all, but what strikes me is how much misinformation and emotional baggage there is out there. There’s the panda huggers, many of which are ethnic Chinese who understandably feel like they are being chastised for who they are when they hear critical analysis of Beijing’s policies. Then there’s the panda haters who understanably are concerned about suppression of freedom of speech and human rights and become frustrated with what they perceive to be an apathetic world. It’s virtually impossible to have a logical discussion about their place in the world and their relationship to the U.S.
Screw it, I’m going to try anyway.
One guy who gets the big picture is Thomas P.M. Barnett, a smart fellow who wrote The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action. Having been both inside the Pentagon and leap years outside it in terms of his thinking, he has a rather rare perspective. He’s put together a list of 10 why China matters which should help readers dispel the misinformation out there. But having experienced “the panda” firsthand (and having it become part of my family), I think I’ve begun to understand their motivations. In short, China is NOT a mortal enemy. China is likewise NOT a cuddly friend nor America’s buddy.
China is an Economic Competitor.
This is actually a good thing, folks. If they’re competing to build economic wealth, why to burn up their windfall into a prolonged military conflict with the west? That means these war game scenarios the Pentagon is dreaming up against an unnamed large asian nation with an unhealthy interest in a small pacific island are overplayed. It also means the old timers in the PLA who want to build up a stockpile to hedge American influence are also way off. That doesn’t mean we should take our eye off the ball (as in, say, Africa). What this means is we need to be aware that China’s goal is to expand its influence and economic power, and that means competing with the existing U.S. Hegemony. Let me put it another way – they don’t despise us any more than the other 27 NFL Teams despite the Superbowl champions. We’ve been the economic, political, and military rock star of the 20th century, so we’re the guys to beat.
The New Cold War?
They don’t have any choice in the matter. They’re tasted the good life and want to continue doing so, despite rapidly aging as a nation-state. When the United States median age began creeping up, business and government policy shifted to scaling global economic systems and outsourcing some labor to compensate. It’s the same with the Chinese. To keep living standards afloat, they will have to scale the global production production chain faster than any country has in the past. Fortunately they have a legion of educated, entrepreneurially minded people scouring the globe for growth opportunities. We’re seeing the result dynamic expansion in the news as China trades industrial goods and infrastructure builds with Sudan for oil, signs a deal with Zimbabwe, receiving chrome in exchange for food and transport infrastructure, and trades debt relief and other diplomatic pleasantries in exchange for Eritrean granted gold exploration licences. Panic ensues as the news stories of China’s expanding activities provoke some folks call this another cold war. What follows next is obvious enough. The Pentagon starts funding AFRICOM in response out of an inscrutable sense that America might be missing out on an opportunity yet to be uncovered.
We’ve seen this game play out before. This is exactly what Europe did to America 300 years ago, and in turn is what America did to the asian tigers last century. Europe kept the bespoke tailors and farmed out the cotton production to the U.S. The U.S. spent the better part of two decades outsourcing low margin production to China while trying to keep technology and high margin services within our own borders. Now China is predictably outsourcing their low margin production activity and resource mining to Africa while building their own knowledge economy. This is history repeating itself, but hardly feels like a replay of Kennedy versus Khrushchev.
A New Operating Environment
The shared interest in a stable economic environment means we won’t see any military escalations with the PLA anytime soon, but will see trade wars from time to time. It means the U.S. will have the Chinese subsidize and support peacekeeping missions, because as much as three-fourths of China’s natural resources will have to come from politically unstable areas, funneling money towards security services. The overtures have already begun. It also means that the days of China only providing “white boxed” labor are gone, where China is now a source of local labor as well as local competitors of formidable caliber.
I also figure we’ll see bigger rise in nationalism in both China and the United States. Some of the nationalism will be unfocused and frankly ignorant, and as such it’ll be a source of friction. But looking at it on a different level, there’s likely some unease about the advance of globalization steamrolling local and national cultures. Intelligent (s opposed to brainwashed or ignorant) nationalistic feelings will probably stem from a rational fear of the loss of cultural identity. As a result, new product offerings need to be more, not less differentiated between different cultural markets. That’s not to say that entrants into their markets should be copycats – msn messenger I’m finding is considered far more “hip” by teens than the local instant messenger QQ. But cultural differentiation will almost surely become more important.
Hopefully this sparks discussion and thought around their motivations. The good news is despite human right issues and environmental concerns (which are important), there is a shared interest in making the world safe for economic growth. If we fail to manage the new operating environment to everyone’s benefit, China’s strategy will likely become to bog us down diplomatic debate while pursuing their own agenda. On the other hand, if we manage to create strategies which co-opt their own moves to support our own strategies, we’ll cooperate diplomatically and compete economically. The latter is what the British did with America, and it worked out pretty well for us both.