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Resource Wars: How Afraid Should We Be of China?

Xi Jinping of China
Xi Jinping, president of China, toasting with Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, in Pretoria at a BRICS summit meeting in March 2013.

The United States and Japanese military held joint war games in California in February, practicing how to invade and take back an island seized by hostile forces. While they didn’t say whose forces they were worried about, the drill was one more sign of growing global fears that China’s People’s Liberation Army may soon grab a few disputed rock piles in the South or East China Sea.

The media love to have fun with stories about great powers going to war over tiny uninhabited islands in the middle of nowhere. Yet the stakes are no joke in the case of the dozens of small islands claimed by Beijing in the waters off China but whose ownership is disputed.

It is not just the piles of rocks, of course, but the nearby sea lanes, oil and gas reserves and mineral-rich seabed that surround them. (Disclosure: This writer worked as a media consultant for the advocacy group Human Rights in China during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

China’s numerous claims of sovereignty over the many bits of land dotting these waters clash with those of several other countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. While not that long ago, China was an impoverished developing nation with a military to match; these days, it is the world’s second-largest economy and has the biggest population. Its rapid growth generates a near-insatiable demand for energy, food, land and raw materials.

How China will satisfy its needs, and how that will affect the rest of the world, is the subject of a new book by Elizabeth C. Economy and Michael A. Levi, “By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest Is Changing the World.” Economy is the director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Levi directs the council’s program on energy security and climate change.

Will China’s huge needs leave the rest of the world in shambles? Many around the world see the country as a bad actor whose determined and unapologetic efforts to lock up global resources will steadily stir up international crises and possibly major wars in the years to come. They point to China’s internal governance and corruption, its apparent contempt for internationally established human rights and environmental goals, its current military buildup and its self-centered foreign policy.

Others theorize that China, while now a rather troubling world figure, will over time learn to play by the rules and respect others, eventually becoming a responsible and considerate international partner.

Economy and Levi take a middle path, concluding that circumstances could go either way. But on the way to that conclusion, they promote the idea that China will soon be cleaning up its act, even as the evidence they lay out argues strongly that the country is an increasingly well-armed ball of nerves.

Their book, about 200 pages (plus notes and a glossary), is mostly a dense account of China’s international economic behavior to date. It dissects decades of oil and land deals, development projects and mining company investments in search of hints about Beijing’s future behavior. While Beijing is often naughty, it has not been deeply involved in global business matters for that long and is already showing signs of improvement in its conduct, the authors point out.

But on the minus side of the ledger, the authors duly note that China is itself horribly polluted and does little to avoid additional environmental damage elsewhere in its quest for resources. It often abuses foreign laborers and leans heavily on bribery and other corrupt practices to win contracts and participate in shared projects. It constantly has its eye out for land and food deals and diverts water from rivers that its neighbors also rely on — while refusing to discuss the problems.


 

 

Put off by Washington’s role as self-appointed guardian of the world’s navigable sea lanes, China is building up its navy in hopes of taking over some of that responsibility. It is bolstering its armed forces to better project force, both in its own neighborhood and in other arenas around the world. And it comes under fire from the West for its frequent narrow pursuit of its own interests rather than a desire for a  more just and more peaceful international order. When Western firms pulled out of Sudan’s oilfields over Khartoum’s deeply flawed human-rights record, Chinese interests raced in to replace them.

Yet — the scary title of the book notwithstanding — the authors have a rather Pollyanna-ish take on China. Despite its aggressive approach to overseas resource development, for instance, “China pays a reputational cost when its firms don’t adhere to host country laws. Its companies are increasingly learning from the ‘outside in’; over time, the presence of other multinational firms alongside Chinese ones is likely to lift performance by all,” they argue.

And despite China’s sometimes aggressive grabs for natural resources in distant poor nations, resource wars “are far down the worry list,” the authors write. If there is military conflict, it is most likely to occur in China’s own backyard rather than in the Middle East and Africa, they add. While China is both militarily superior and cool to — not to mention upstream of — the several Asian neighbors with whom it shares several big rivers, “new modes of cooperation could still emerge to shape behavior and forestall conflict.”

Perhaps the authors put too much stock in the power of diplomacy, presuming that international pressure will keep China on the straight and narrow. But the evidence for this is quite mixed if not thin.

The authors are quite cautious on one crucial matter, warning Washington to not back off from its efforts to protect free access and trade along the world’s sea lanes. “It may be tempting for the United States to invest less in protecting them and attempt to shift responsibility to China,” they write, adding quickly: “This would be unwise.”

“In the longer run, as Chinese naval capabilities grow, the United States should still seek to maintain a dominant role in sea-lane security,” but it should also be trying to work more closely with China’s military, in general, they say. So they should no doubt be pleased by the late-February announcement by leaders of the US military and China’s People’s Liberation Army that they intend to increase their cooperation and initiate a program of high-level exchanges by the end of the year.

“By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World,” by Elizabeth C. Economy and Michael Levi; 978-0-19-992178-2

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