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The Rise of China

Is China dangerous? A TNR debate, Day 1

Editor's Note: In his new book, Charm Offensive, TNR Special Correspondent Joshua Kurlantzick examines how China has used soft power over the last decade to influence world affairs. Today, Peter Navarro, a professor of business at the University of California-Irvine and author of The Coming China Wars, argues that China's rise may not be as benign as Kurlantzick suggests. The four-part debate continues tomorrow with Kurlantzick's response.

Monday, May 28

Dear Joshua,

You and I have sharply divergent views on the causes of the rise of China, but we do share this: Both of us first became aware of China's importance while living in Thailand. As you relate in your new book, Charm Offensive, your experiences as a reporter in Bangkok beginning in the late '90s gave you a front row seat to China's emergence onto the world stage.

My own Chinese epiphany came almost 30 years before, in the early '70s, when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. Over the course of that three-year experience, I traveled throughout much of Southeast Asia. And what repeatedly struck me was just how much control Chinese expatriates had managed to gain of the business and commerce in the countries of that region.

Today, China--with no small continued help from the greater Chinese Diaspora--is now spreading its influence not just throughout Asia but through Africa and Latin America and much of the rest of the world. But, where you see a country engaged in a largely benign and peaceful twenty-first-century charm offensive, I see something truly offensive--a highly provocative nineteenth-century imperialism with a very dangerous twenty-first-century twist.

This much is crystal clear. In choosing to be the "factory floor" of the world, China has hitched its star to a heavy manufacturing model that, in less than three short decades, has transformed the country from a quiet agricultural backwater into one of the world's largest consumers of metals, minerals, lumber, and other raw materials--from aluminum, copper, and steel to cobalt, nickel, timber, and virtually everything in between.

China's strategy for securing these resources is to gain as tight a physical control of them as possible. The way China is effectively seizing these resources is by first ingratiating itself to foreign governments and then encircling their economies with nearly every strategy described by Vladimir Lenin in the "imperialist playbook"--while adding several unconscionable tactics of its own.

China's imperialist relationship with a developing country typically begins with the dangling of lavish, low-interest loans as bait. China then uses its huge army of engineers and laborers to help the country build up its infrastructure--from roads and dams to hotels and stadiums, and from parliament buildings and palaces to satellite capabilities and telecommunications networks. This infrastructure literally paves the way for natural-resource extraction. Moreover, one of the useful byproducts of this phase is considerable employment opportunities for Chinese workers. In this way, China's weapons of mass construction also act as a political safety valve.

The second phase of China's imperialist relationship includes the signing of bilateral "free trade" agreements which allow China to flood the country's markets with cheap goods. In this way, China is using foreign aid and the promise of capital investment to leverage one-sided "joint ventures" for massive resource-extraction operations. In the process, it systematically strips nations of their raw materials and natural resources while recovering the costs of these resources and materials by dumping cheap finished goods into these same countries--often driving out the local indigenous labor and driving up the local unemployment rate.

This is not the only ugly face of Chinese imperialism. In some cases, China is also selling sophisticated weaponry to targeted countries as a means of ensuring continued political control by the ruling elites it courts. The poster child for this tactic is Zimbabwe, where China has provided the military cover for the dictator, Robert Mugabe, to live in a heavily guarded palace while driving his country into the ground.

China also often woos a developing country's ruling elites through lucrative bribes. Exhibit A on this count is Angola, where a small group of corrupt government officials annually drains off hundreds of millions of dollars into offshore bank accounts with the help of the Chinese. While China plumbs Angola's vast mineral wealth, the Angolan people remain some of the poorest and most disease-ridden in the world.

These imperialistic tactics notwithstanding, nothing is more despicable than China's willingness to trade--and debase--its U.N. veto in exchange for energy and natural resources. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has such a veto right.

In two of the highest-profile examples of this despicable practice, China has shielded Sudan from the U.N. sanctions that could hinder its campaign of genocide in Darfur in exchange for Sudanese oil; it has also shielded Tehran from sanctions halting its nuclear program in exchange for access to that country's huge natural gas and oil reserves. This is a highly destabilizing event with the potential to trigger a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran or, equally dangerous, a nuclear arms race between Iran and Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

There is nothing "soft" about this projection of hard-nosed, amoral Chinese imperialistic power. Indeed, Joshua, what you underestimate the most in your book is a growing groundswell of opposition and resentment to this new Chinese imperialism that is sweeping across Africa and Latin America. Nor have China's imperialistic adventures gone unnoticed in the salons of Europe or the halls of Congress. What is particularly irksome to the United States and Europe is the crass Chinese willingness to undermine international pressure on any rogue states by providing ready aid in exchange for resource deals.

There are at least three other aspects of your book that deserve attention. It is almost laughable for you to laud China for its efforts to control the drug trade. China is not just the factory floor for the world's manufactured goods. It is also the factory floor for the so-called precursor chemicals that are needed to produce the world's four major hard drugs--cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and speed. Without Chinese entrepreneurs and gangs exporting these precursor chemicals--literally by the ton--to the world's drug cartels, much of the world's drug trade would be crippled.

A second aspect you don't give appropriate attention to is the profound environmental effect that the country's heavy manufacturing model is having both on China itself and the rest of the world. China now boasts 16 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. China's major river systems are cancer factories sparking an epidemic among the peasantry. And, if China continues along its present path, it's carbon dioxide emissions will dwarf those of all other countries combined.

Finally, I believe you give Chinese militarization short shrift. As every day passes, your claim that "America remains the world's unchallenged military power" rings more and more hollow. While China's economy is growing at the white-hot pace of 10 percent a year, its military budget is growing at almost twice that rate.

China has the largest standing army in the world. It is adding sophisticated nuclear subs that will be capable of striking the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles. Its Air Force is studded with high-tech Russian weaponry. Most alarming, while America's NASA sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of budget cuts and bureaucratic inefficiency, China is moving forward with all due speed on one of the most ambitious space programs on this side of science fiction. If it does indeed seize the ultimate strategic high ground of deep space, America's so-called military advantage will swiftly evaporate.

The ultimate puzzle that I faced reading your book is that you are clearly aware of most of these trends. But, rather than put them front and center where they belong, your concerns are buried, for the most part, in the back of your book.


By Joshua Kurlantzick