Thursday, August 14, 2008

Book Review: The Coming China Wars

BlogCritics, Xujun Eberlein, Published: August 14, 2008

The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro is probably one of the most advertised China-related books this year. For weeks it nailed the small Adsense box on my Inside-out China blog (apparently Google did a good job of matchmaking), and I got so tired of seeing it all day everyday that I deleted Adsense. The book thus made my blog ad-free.

The question is whether it is worth the advertising money or a reader's time.

In all fairness, this book does highlight some extremely difficult problems that are facing not just the United States, but the entire world. Resource, especially energy shortages, environmental degradation, the threat of international conflict and widespread poverty and inequality are very real and very serious issues.

It is strange, though, that Navarro would attribute so much of the cause of these to China, given that all of these issues have been pointed out again and again by many people since the original publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972. Certainly at that time nobody was expecting that China would be what Navarro repeatedly calls "the world’s factory floor."

What is true about China, is that it has been remarkably fast in its track to catch up to the United States. Again, at least since 1972, people have asked the question “what would happen if everyone in the world had the consumption habits of the average American?” Now, with the world’s most populous country about ¼ of the way there, perhaps the answer is clearer, and it is certainly frightening. With India, and other countries in Asia, also getting ready to rocket ahead, stopping China in its tracks, as this book admonishes, even if it were possible, is not a good answer.

The world is faced with some real tough times and some very creative solutions are going to be called for. Telling people in China, or any developing nation, to give up getting rich quickly is much like telling American’s to give up 80% of their wealth. It generates anger and outrage, but doesn't accomplish anything. The book recommends a very serious effort by the United States government to deal with energy and environmental issues. That is laudable advice, but the American centric focus is not productive. The things being talked about above are global in nature and no single country can carve out a solution in isolation. There is a strong need to cooperate and share human and information resources. More importantly, and this will be very difficult indeed, huge investment by developed countries into developing countries may be the only viable solution. Unfortunately, the book does not provide any useful suggestions for progress on these issues.

It has always amazed me that the people who are most critical of China are precisely those that don’t seem to be able to break from the one literary form perfected under Communism. The Coming China Wars, with the exception of the last chapter, reads very much like the official texts I recited as a child during the Cultural Revolution. No tarnish or impurities have been introduced in this Made in America diatribe against the horrors of the red enemy in the east. Chapters open with quotations from, usually, respectable people or publications, then continue on in declarations that are not backed by any evidence. Presumably the quotations were imbedded in writings that did contain evidence, but Navarro dispenses with that.

In keeping with this form, little that is said in The Coming China Wars is explicitly false, it is simply somewhat twisted in its logic. If America does something it is good. If China does something it is bad. It matters little what the thing is, or if it is the same thing. I got a real kick out of the statement: "Whereas the United States focuses on ensuring the security of the international oil market, China has adopted a 'bilateral contracting approach' in which it seeks to lock down the physical supplies of the oil-producing countries." That focus on ensuring security is probably not apparent to most people living outside the United States. And of bilateral agreements, it is best not to forget the Shah of Iran and the response to his ousting that brought Saddam Hussein to the forefront.

If you are going to read the book anyway, you'd be better off skipping the first eleven chapters and going straight to the 12th. After struggling through the text, the last chapter seemed like a breath of fresh air, but it is only in comparison to the rest of the book.

What the last chapter contains is a sequence of policy recommendations that, though rather twisted in their presentation, do have some coherency. To save you a little bit of pain, let me summarize them here:
  • Consumers should shy away from products made in China and let retailers and manufacturers know that they are doing this.
  • People should pressure government officials to get serious about dealing with issues related to China.
  • Businesses should diversify manufacturing away from China and increase quality control on products made in China.
  • As a nation the United States should learn to live within its means which means not running a trade or budget deficit.
  • The federal government should
  1. Push for strict adherence to the principles of free trade.
  2. Pass laws making currency manipulation strictly illegal.
  3. Prosecute to the full extent of the law anyone involved in piracy or counterfeiting and closely monitor internet sales of pharmaceuticals.
  4. Increase the inspection of foods and pass laws to increase accountability for any tainted products.
  5. Undertake a massive program to remove the dependence of the US on foreign energy supplies.
  6. Condemn China for its abuse of veto power on the UN Security Council, then remove China as a permanent member of that body.
  7. Increase spending on programs such as the Voice of America and do more diplomatic work abroad.
  8. Agree to strict carbon controls and impose a corresponding carbon tax on all products regardless of country of origin.
  9. Prohibit US companies from working with Chinese authorities to identify internet users.
  10. Pay more attention to Taiwan and pressure China to decrease its nuclear arsenal.
  11. Increase the budget spent on counter espionage.
  12. Increase NASA’s budget and focus funding on private space ventures.
This was not really put forward as a 12 point plan, but all that expanded spending does seem appropriate for a campaign year.
I have, of course, saved the best policy recommendation for last. This actually falls under the heading of what voters should do and it is:
  • "Help spread the word! Give your copy of The Coming China Wars to a friend, or donate your copy to your local library."
And such self-promotion is not out of character with the rest of the book.


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Robert Burnham said...

Strikes me, it's in everybody's interest that China (and India and similar countries) become fully engaged in the world economy. Shutting them out, even partially, seems to be both ineffective and against our own interests.

Commerce is highly corrosive of regimented systems and controlled economies. And because the U.S. is a commercial civlization, the freer world commerce is, the more we benefit. We should keep pressure on China and Europe and other countries to lower tariffs and protective barriers. And we should be doing the same with our own market protection.

The drawback is that the "corrosion" achieved by commerce doesn't happen overnight. It's reasonable to expect the process to take a handful of generations (50 to 100 years) to come about.

That's frustratingly long on human timescales, but it's lightning fast on historical scales.

On a second matter, I don't know how far into this Navarro goes in the book, but clearly the world's advanced economies need additional energy sources.

We should be pursuing every available option, with the greatest efforts being directed to technologies such as nuclear, which can provide very large quantities of power with only a small greenhouse gas output.

Anonymous said...

Mr Navaro is so obviously biased against China, the book should have been titled, "If You Hate China, Buy My Book Please".

Xujun said...

Robert, thanks for the note. Apparently the book's author is not as thoughtful as you are.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Xujun. Here is a timeline that I found interesting:

1. On April 11th, I received an email from Safari Online, a book site that I subscribe to, where I can have access to IT technical books. This email newsletter is a weekly feature from Safari, introducing new titles.

The Coming China Wars book was recommended in that week's newsletter, which was a little interesting, because in my history of reading that newsletter, I rarely see those kind of books recommended. Besides, Safari is mainly a book for technical books;

In that newsletter, readers were informed that The Coming China Wars was published by Financial Times Press, to be available on April 28th.

I then logged into Safari books on line, and started typing China in the search text box. Safari has this Suggest function, where it tries to guess what you are looking for. Before I could finish typing China, "China Wars" were suggested back to me; (I should have done a screen capture, darn it)

2. On April 15th, Financial Times newspaper released results from a survey, which Harris pollsters carried out for the Financial Times. The survey found that Europeans see China as the biggest threat to global stability. Now it seemed like a long time ago, but in mid to end of April, that was big news carried by major news outlets around the world. Curiously, I just went to Financial Times web site, and searched for "China threat survey", but didn't see anything during my cursory look. I then Googled for "Financial Times survey China threat", that came up a few hits, with a link to Harris survey result in a pdf. That search also leads to results that Europeans view US as a threat to global stability in 2007;

3. A week after the China threat news were well publicized by all new major outlets, the China Wars book hit the market. As mentioned earlier, the China War book was published by Financial Times Press;

4. I just went to Safari book site again. This time when I typed in China, "China Wars" are not suggested back to me. I wonder if it is reasonable to speculate that Financial Times bought those suggested keywords from Safari during the China Wars book marketing campaign.

Anonymous said...

I thought this book would give me some new insight, but it is just a waste of time and money. Don't ever buy any book that have the words "China" and "War" in the title.

Anonymous said...

The USA [ie the government, the media and many of citizens living there] have a habit of repeating this strange 'free trade' mantra as a an answer to every ill in the world. What I find so odd about this is that there are very few countries which have such severe protectionist policies as the USA. My conclusion is that 'free trade' in US terms means open up your market for us - do as we tell you, not as we do.

"we should keep pressure on China and Europe to lower tariffs and protective barriers" - maybe when you do we might think about it.

Xujun said...

Thank you all for your comments.

As far as free trade goes, everybody seems to want this as long as it is the other guys that have to live by the rules. It is not just the US that has this attitude, though certainly it is one of the most vocal in expressing it.

Haidong, that is an interesting history. I have seen some good articles in the Financial Times' Chinese edition, but the English edition is quite different. Your skepticism does seem justified. I agree, it appears this book is more a product of financial interest than serious writing.

Anonymous said...

It is like watching a cheesy bubble get bursted. Well done.