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A sinister look at China as an economic threat

The country is trying to take over the world, an author says. But that's not the scary part. The remedies he offers include military action.

December 10, 2006|Morgen Witzel | Financial Times

For some American policymakers and commentators, China is replacing Islamic extremism as the boogeyman under the bed.

As they see it, China's uninterrupted growth poses a threat to American interests and must be stopped.

One such commentator is Peter Navarro of UC Irvine, a well-known analyst and commentator in the American broadcast media. He believes that China is conducting "an aggressive drive for global economic hegemony." In "The Coming China Wars," he urges America to do all it can to halt the country's forward march.

Measures should include direct economic confrontation with China. Sanctions and border controls should be backed up, if necessary, by military action.

Having set out this remarkable thesis, Navarro lists the potential flashpoints that could lead to conflicts between China and other nations, especially the United States.

These include the flow of cheap manufactured goods that have come to dominate many world markets, which he dubs the "weapon of mass production."

The now-familiar story of counterfeiting and piracy is also trotted out, along with environmental pollution, the growing Chinese demand for sources of energy and its internal social problems.

What is new -- and sinister -- is how Navarro weaves these into his theme. In every single case, the Chinese government is directly or indirectly responsible for the problem. In every single case, the problem is linked to an attempt by China to achieve world economic domination.

For example, Navarro believes that piracy and counterfeiting are tacitly supported by the Chinese government. Referring to "China's buccaneer nation," he quotes a senior executive from an American pharmaceutical company who says, "Let's be practical here. It won't get much better until China has its own intellectual property to protect."

Thus is reinforced the lie that China produces no innovations of its own but merely scavenges off the West. The idea that the country that invented gunpowder, paper and ketchup, among other things, has no intellectual property of its own is laughable, but Navarro asserts it as fact.

He is critical too of the urbanization of China, seeing it as deliberate policy to ensure a supply of cheap labor for the "WMP."

But urbanization is a hallmark of a developing economy. China's share of gross domestic product derived from agriculture, 39% in 2003, is comparable to that of medieval Britain: 44% in 1300. That must change. Migration to the cities is a natural, if painful, part of growth. This point is ignored.

The obscurations go on, but it is the chapter on drugs that really sets the tone. "No single country plays more of a key role than China in the global production, transportation and distribution of ... illegal hard drugs," Navarro writes, adding a long list of scary statistics to prove his point.

He does not blame the Chinese government directly -- but any reader who wishes is free to make the inference that the government of China is indirectly, if not directly, responsible.

The policy prescriptions offered for averting this "threat" are both absurd and chilling. He advocates stripping China of its veto position on the U.N. Security Council on the grounds of its "immoral and opportunistic use of its U.N. veto as a diplomatic shield for all manners of outrage." This would have the added benefit of humiliating China.

Meanwhile, drug trafficking, pollution and piracy are to be combated through tighter border controls and sanctions against companies involved in them.

He warns American consumers of "the real and dangerous hidden costs that are embedded in the purchase of cheap Chinese goods." But even if American consumers stopped buying them, how would this help the U.S. economy? They would buy equally low-priced goods from other sources.

Then comes the moment when hair stands up on the back of the neck. "What virtually all these policy prescriptions share ... is that they require the economic and political will to stand up to China along with the military might to back up the prescriptions."

The author offers no credible evidence to support the thesis of an aggressive Chinese quest for domination. When he discusses China's difficult internal social problems, he goes a long way toward contradicting it.

To suggest that China is engaged in "an aggressive drive for global economic hegemony" is nonsense.

To assert that the U.S. must respond with economic confrontation backed up by the threat of war is, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham, nonsense on stilts.

*

Morgen Witzel is a columnist for the Financial Times, in which this review first appeared.

*

Fighting words?

--

* "The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Will Be Won"

* By Peter Navarro

* Prentice Hall, $24.99, 288 pages

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