Too Big to Fail

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

Many Americans look across the Pacific at China and see nothing but a vast digestive tract. A billion-plus people are developing quite an appetite: for oil to run their factories, for sheet glass to sheathe their skyscrapers, for grain to feed themselves and their livestock.

Behind every recent resource depletion, it seems, lurks a growing Chinese market. Officials in Maryland have scrambled recently to stop the commercial harvest of diamondback turtles because the Chinese market for expensive turtle soup has endangered the population in the Chesapeake Bay. When manhole covers started disappearing from such far-flung places as Chicago and Edinburgh, journalist James Kynge writes in his book China Shakes the World, rocketing Chinese demand for metal turned out be the culprit.

And Africa, as FPIF contributors write in the last group of essays in our China Focus, has become a veritable Home Depot of raw materials for Chinese business.

As FPIF columnist Walden Bello explains in China Provokes Debate in Africa, “If not yet the biggest external player in Africa, China is certainly the most dynamic. It now accounts for 60% of oil exports from Sudan and 35% of those from Angola. Chinese firms mine copper in Zambia and Congo-Brazzaville, cobalt in the Congo, gold in South Africa, and uranium in Zimbabwe. Its ecological footprint is large, says Michelle Chan-Fishel of Friends of the Earth International, consuming as it does 46% of Gabon’s forest exports, 60% of timber exported from Equatorial Guinea, and 11% of timber exports from Cameroon.”

It might look like the Age of Colonialism Part II, but this time around African governments are at the table cutting the deals. Still, African citizens might be getting a raw deal. “To maximize the benefits of the Chinese windfall,” Akwe Amosu writes in It’s (Still) the Governance, Stupid, “Africa needs to deepen its commitment to better governance and cut a more advantageous deal with Beijing. But there is a third major shift in attitude that is critical for Africa’s future. Non-governmental stakeholders need to be empowered and encouraged to hold both the Chinese and their own governments to account.” (You can read the 60-Second Expert version of her essay here).

The involvement of civil society in the primarily governmental relationship between China and Africa is critical not just for transparency, argues Ian Taylor. By supporting only elites that don’t spread the benefits of Chinese investment to the country’s population at large, Beijing’s diplomacy may both undercut development and China’s own stated commitment to furthering social and economic rights. “According to China’s non-interference policy, sovereignty trumps everything,” Taylor writes in The Real Barriers to Win-Win, “and so it is up to each country to decide what to do with Beijing’s assistance. But if sovereignty is the guarantor of human rights and that sovereignty is being used to effectively undermine developmentalism, then there is a profound contradiction at the heart of China’s discourse on human rights.”

China is not alone in its rather crass approach to Africa. Check out Conn Hallinan’s piece for Right Web on the key Bush administration movers and shakers on Africa policy. “Given the actors and the script,” he concludes, “it is hard not to conclude that the Bush administration’s strategy for Africa is less about freedom and God than about oil and earthly power.”

Beyond Africa

At the other end of the digestive tract, China is befouling itself with air, water, and soil pollution. Compressing 150 years of Industrial Revolution into mere decades is having an industrial-strength effect on the environment—and not just in China itself. China’s air pollution shows up on the U.S. West Coast, Chinese loggers are leveling hardwood forests in Southeast Asia, and China will shortly surpass the United States as the world’s leading greenhouse gas producer (as Jennifer Turner and Juli Kim described in a previous essay in our China Focus).

Americans, of course, can’t speak from any high moral ground. It takes one to know one. As a longtime consumer of a disproportionate amount of the world resources, the United States is a charter member of the Big Gulp Club. This elite group is as exclusive as the nuclear club, and the planet can’t really handle any new members.

As FPIF contributor Emanuel Pastreich argues in The Frankenstein Alliance, “China’s unsustainable growth and America’s unsustainable consumption have created an alliance that is, as once was said of Chrysler, ‘too big to fail.’ The world financial system could not sustain the collapse of either country’s economy much less the combination of the two. And yet, the Frankenstein monster will inevitably come apart at the seams. In both China and the United States, a commitment to growth without concern for the environment, rampant consumerism, and widening disparities of wealth may well herald the dawn of a nightmare era of mutually assured ecological destruction.”

In geopolitics, size still matters. As I write in the concluding essay of the China Focus, China the Indispensable?, “Everyone wants China to be big: the foreign investors that dream of huge profits, the Chinese banks that loan only to expanding firms, the Chinese enterprises that increasingly compete internationally, the Chinese leaders who know that only constant growth can sustain their political legitimacy, the American consumers that want more and more, the American government that has to find someone to underwrite its debt. Aside from the acolytes of E. F. Schumacher, the world is the enabler of China’s gigantism.”

Iraq Up Next

March 19 will mark the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Our next Strategic Focus will look at the war and occupation from many different angles: refugees, veterans, the anti-war movement, media coverage, Iraqi women, the debate in Congress. As we approach the anniversary, FPIF will be publishing one or two essays a day regarding the war on our site.

To start things off, Farideh Farhi looks at the potential for Iraq, the Sequel: the current U.S. efforts to squeeze Iran in Keeping All the Options on the Table. This U.S. strategy has led to “financial restrictions by the United States as well as several Europeans banks, threats against Tehran’s alleged meddling in Iraq, incarceration of Iranian officials in Iraq, dispatching of two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, public calling of a strengthened U.S.-Arab coalition against Iran, all in the hope of keeping the Iranian regime off balance and guessing about U.S. intentions and capabilities.”

At the same time, though, Washington has attended regional talks with Iran and broached the possibility of bilateral talks. “While this multi-faceted offensive looks quite clever, it is more a reflection of competing views that exists within the Bush administration—between those who want to push for regime change and those who consider the more incremental, evolutionary process of behavioral change as more realistic and less dangerous,” Farhi writes.

And finally, in a commentary on the Walter Reed hospital scandal, FPIF military affairs analyst Dan Smith points to a deeper crisis in veterans’ affairs. “This is not a question of malice aforethought, either by the government or the hospital. The sins of Walter Reed were those of omission, not commission. But sins they remain, and the U.S. government must do more than just fire a few people and rehab a few buildings,” Smith explains.

FPIF, March 12, 2007

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