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,  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
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 (www.teleos-inc.com), 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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