Nov 18, 2006 

The mirror of Western inadequacies
The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro

Reviewed by Benjamin A Shobert 

As Peter Navarro states in his new book The Coming China Wars: Where They Will 
Be Fought, How They Can Be Won, exploring the questions and ramifications of 
China's aggressive geopolitical and economic development can be nearly 
impossible to do with any degree of meaningful nuance. 

Navarro's stated objective is to give voice to what he calls the "silent 
majority" (p 211) of Chinese scholars and policy followers who desire to find 
middle ground between apoplectic horror at the potential global destabilization 
of China's ascendancy versus those who can only see the country's upside 
potential waiting to be discovered. 

That Navarro writes of this desire in the last chapter, only six pages before 
the book ends, suggests the  primary weakness in his book: while we appreciate 
the "canary in the mine" warning that his analysis rightfully highlights, the 
book ends without a sense that another model of economic and political 
development has been proposed that would alleviate these concerns. 

The very title itself suggests that someone must win, and someone must lose, in 
what Navarro sees as a series of what today are only skirmishes, but promise 
tomorrow to be full-on wars. That this might be a false choice indicative of 
deeper problems within US domestic and foreign policy is only lightly touched 
on, and then much too late for proper development. 

Appropriately, Navarro comments that the inability of those who see China's 
downside risk to work alongside those who see only its upside potential has 
resulted in "the abdication of any policy analytic responsibility by the silent 
majority ... generat[ing] far more heat than light and far too little real 
policy movement" (p 211). Having finished this book, many readers will see in 
hauntingly clear terms the problems and only in a much vaguer sense have an 
idea about how to address solutions to Navarro's analysis. 

Navarro's concerns fall along eight policy areas he terms "China wars". 
Respectively, these are piracy, drugs, pollution, oil, Chinese imperialism, 
water supply, social unrest, and demographics. On none of these would any 
right-minded reviewer take Navarro to task concerning his command of the facts, 
which is not to say that at times the contextual presentation of these facts 
could use some comparative historical analysis. To the extent his writing is 
alarmist, it is in many cases rightfully so. The question of China's 
environmental problems is one such example. 

As Elizabeth Economy has also written about in exquisite detail in her book The 
River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, [1] the 
combination of lax environmental laws, coupled with fines that are 
insufficiently punitive, and China's conscious choice to pursue economic 
development regardless of environmental impact is very poorly matched to the 
industrial age where technology's precursors, enablers and derivatives 
cumulatively impact the individual, the community and our ecology in 
unprecedented ways. This is Navarro at his best: elucidating data and providing 
anecdotal insights into how China's manufacturing infrastructure is operating 
in ways that are impacting our shared futures. 

For those unacquainted with the various aspects of China's current-day 
situation covered by Navarro, these insights are startling. But the book is not 
wholly satisfying in presenting solutions, and in this the reader gets the 
sense that Navarro's work touches on a body of work whose need is perhaps more 
critical today than ever before; namely, if we are to deny China its current 
development path, what other one are we to propose? 

And if we could agree on such a path, how might we go about bridging the gap 
between respecting a nation's right to develop according to its own needs and 
requiring (even enforcing) that, in doing so, it not cross pre-ordained 
ecological, economic, legal or political boundaries? 

Navarro's analysis has a certain summation character to it, yet the quality of 
his narration at times begs an answer to the question: If so, what now? The 
question of China's faltering intellectual-property protection is an often-used 
example of the country's development woes that Navarro himself discusses at 
some length, and no one should excuse, justify or overlook this troubling 
aspect of China's economy. 

But it seems that if we are to understand why the chasm between putting 
regulations in place and enforcing such regulation remains so vast, we have to 
go beyond yet another recitation of the problem itself. Context, culture and 
history need to be brought to bear to illuminate why it is that so much energy 
has been poured into China's intellectual-property dalliances, with such 
inadequate results. 

Totalitarian systems do many things extremely well. Unfortunately, where they 
perform best includes things such as identifying dissenting voices, ostracizing 
them and creating a culture where complicity with falsification is encouraged 
to achieve a goal. 

During the 1960s, the Western media's receipt of pictures of wheat-filled 
Chinese farmland and their correlative stories had no way of knowing that the 
pictures were a sort of Chinese equivalent to the Soviet Potemkin village, or 
that millions of Chinese were starving while the very pictures were taken. 
Other fields would be ransacked to find plants that could be pulled up and 
replanted in the field where the picture would be taken. 

The greater point is that culturally, China has been used to cutting corners, 
if only to have the outward vestiges of success: what mattered were 
appearances, not actuality. Small wonder now that so much difficulty exists in 
getting the Chinese people to adapt to ideas and expectations whose legitimacy 
derives from a source that previously had been immaterial. 

It seems strangely inadequate, on one hand, to praise China for its rejection 
of totalitarianism and, at the same time, expect that it will have a seamless 
transition into the form of laws and regulations that have taken the West 
hundreds of years to develop. Real insight would accommodate these historical 
lessons, and would allow us to do more than just observe problems; such 
understanding would bridge the gap between our needs and the reality of China's 

While Navarro's analysis provides frustratingly few tangible options for 
solving the problems within China that he adequately illuminates, more 
troubling is the approach he takes while wrestling with China's efforts to 
acquire natural resources. It should be said in fairness to any respectable 
author looking to address this question that doing so entails jamming one's 
hand deeply into a hornets' nest of problems that the US has its own mistakes 
to apologize for; objectivity is fleeting for many when comparing America's own 
energy policies with those of other countries. 

Among the more troubling arguments Navarro makes is that an inevitable pinch 
point is developing among the US, Western Europe and China relative to energy 
supplies. At worst, this seems to be unfairly one-sided - that China's gain 
must be the United States' loss and vice versa. Inadequately developed in the 
analysis and narrative is any idea that China and the US could work to find 
cooperative rather than competitive solutions in this area. 

Strangely missing is the idea that the market will allocate resources between 
China and the US based on the market's own logic and needs. Navarro's entire 
thesis seems to revolve around the idea that the world's chessboard will not 
support a draw between China and the United States; if China develops its 
political influence to levels of the US, this can only mean conflict with the 

His chapter on oil specifically seems to argue for the inevitability of global 
resource wars among the previously mentioned actors. But in making his case, do 
we not set the stage for precisely the political-military calculus that evolved 
in Germany in 1913-14 and Japan in 1941, when each country's expansionist plans 
forced the false choice between economic malaise and acquisition of new 
resources through force? 

This is a difficult criticism to make, as Navarro's analysis asks good and 
probative questions that need to be asked regarding the matter of China's oil 
pursuits. That they have been asked before suggests that at this point in our 
discourse regarding China, it would be to everyone's advantage for the 
discussion to transfer toward more pragmatic and cooperative planning rather 
than recession to classic models of competitive behavior. 

On the question of oil, are we presenting China with other options? If we wish 
to encourage the Chinese not to cut deals with African dictators for the sake 
of accessing oil, might a moment of self-reflection as to our own mixed motives 
and scurrilous political relationships on the question of oil need to be 
likewise evaluated and changed? 

But even such a question begs the more difficult, complex and dangerous issue 
that should be wrestled with: if the only successful model the world has for 
advancing the cause of humanity is capitalism, its emphasis on 
industrialization, and industry's reliance on the almighty hydrocarbon, then 
should we not be honest and state clearly that what we really want from China 
is not prudence, but rather contentment with where it is? 

At times Navarro's commentary seems to suggest that China may not be wise to 
push its economy out of subsistence agrarian farming into the industrial world. 
Is this then the solution? History will not look kindly at one country that 
asked of a potential rival thriftiness, discipline and sacrifice that it was 
unwilling to ask of its own people. 

All of these questions, coupled with Navarro's analysis, raise another: What is 
the trajectory of development we in the West will "allow" China to have? May 
they make the same mistakes we have? If they may not, what other paths would we 
suggest they take? Too many "what if" scenarios have flooded bookstores in 
recent years, making broad arguments about how China is going to challenge 
America's global hegemony, or how China is to today's US economy what Japan was 
in the 1980s. 

Much, if not most, of what Navarro has written about in this book is factually 
correct and serves as an important touchstone for any prudent discussion 
regarding the implications to China's growth. For those unfamiliar with China's 
ecological disaster, natural-resource crisis or aging and soon to be inverted 
demographics, his book is a very good introduction. 

But much of this information has been known for some time and the questions 
remain: How many American business people include environmental requirements in 
their due diligence when evaluating new vendors? Who really believes that his 
or her own country should lead in austerity measures to taper down consumption 
of limited natural resources? 

And most important: If we are to cry "foul" at China's current economic 
development strategy, what should the Chinese do to bring more than a billion 
people out of repression and barely subsistence farming into the modern world? 

One of Navarro's most salient and piercing insights is toward the end of his 
book when, wrestling with precisely the question of what should be done 
differently, he states, "From this discussion, it should be equally obvious 
that the United States will never be able to credibly and effectively challenge 
China until it gets its own house in order" (p 206). 

On this he is wholly correct. Too much of Americans' fear concerning China is 
ultimately a reflection of their own anxiety that their prosperity model may 
not be adapting, changing and growing as quickly as they will need to deal with 
their own demographic, ecological and industrial problems. It is this fear 
Americans see reflected back on themselves, and because it is easier to see 
China's problem than to recognize and deal with one's own, China becomes the 
villain of America's own inadequacies and proclivities. 

This need not happen, but will happen unless we can begin talking about 
solutions and not only problems. Navarro's book sheds light on many problems, 
but it would have been more complete with an expanded emphasis on solutions to 
the issues he introduces. 

1. Elizabeth Economy's book is reviewed in China's waters of life are the 
waters of death, Asia Times Online, July 24, 2004. 

The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won by Peter 
Navarro. Financial Times Prentice Hall; 1st edition (October 19, 2006). ISBN: 
0132281287. Price US$24.99, 288 pages. 

Benjamin Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc (, a 
consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses bring innovative 
technologies into the North American market. 

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us 
about sales, syndication and republishing .)



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