Over the last decade, around the world, China has been buying up mountains and mines, agricultural land, and oil fields at an extraordinary rate. In 2007, a Chinese company bought the mineral rights to two billion tons of copper in a Peruvian mountain for U.S. $3 billion. This was relatively small change; in 2008 the same company spent $14 billion on a stake in Australia’s aluminum industry. Since 2005, China has engaged in nearly 500 direct foreign investments and large contracts, valued at U.S. $505 billion–roughly one billion U.S. dollars per week.

These investments ensure China an upper hand in future struggles over resources. Finite and rapidly depleting supplies of land, water, minerals, and fossil fuels cannot match rising demand, driven by a growing world population, rapidly increasing global wealth, and urbanization. This fundamental supply-demand imbalance will lead to higher commodity prices and an increased risk of resource-driven conflict. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, commodity prices increased 150 percent. And since 1990, at least twenty-four civil wars and violent conflicts have had their origins in commodities. Many more conflicts are likely in the coming decades.

Yet China seems to be alone in adopting a multilateral commodities strategy, relying on trade, investment, resource swaps, and financial transfers to gain resource control. In 2010, China pledged to lay $12 billion worth of railway lines in Argentina, helping to sweeten relations with that country and facilitate export of minerals. In 2009, China loaned Russian oil companies $25 billion in exchange for a twenty-year supply of oil, at 300 thousand barrels per day. These deals benefit both China and its resource-rich hosts.

Finite supplies of land, water, minerals and fossil fuels cannot match rising demand. Yet China seems to be alone in adopting a multilateral commodities strategy.

By contrast, many other national governments have adopted a unilateral approach to resource acquisition and control, using a mix of military force to gain access to resources abroad and taxation and export bans to prevent control of domestic resources. In April, Argentina nationalized a majority stake in the energy company YPF, formerly a major subsidiary of the Spanish company Respol, after the discovery of new major natural gas deposits off its coast. Heavy-handed policies to exert control over local resources and commodity prices are not limited to the developing world. In March, Australia introduced a 30 percent tax on iron and coal mining profits, in an effort to grab cash from a local resource boon. Such policies are ultimately inefficient, hamper global production, exacerbate shortages, and force commodity prices even higher.

China has systematically befriended the “Axis of the Unloved”: countries and regions of the world that have largely been ignored as destinations for investment by Western economies.

The predilection of the United States and her allies for military incursions into resource-rich regions such as Iraq, for example, almost always disrupts production and forces commodity prices higher. Political uncertainty can add a risk premium of $10 or more to the price of a barrel of oil.

Despite the serious risks that come with possible global commodity shortages, no unified international body exists to address these challenges. In the absence of such an entity, China’s multilateral approach to the commodity problem is sensible. Ultimately, if the world doesn’t take larger steps to address the imbalance between resource supply and demand, we face higher prices, scarcity, and more resource conflict.

China’s commodity campaign has three key facets. First, China has systematically befriended the “Axis of the Unloved”: countries and regions of the world that have largely been ignored as destinations for investment by Western economies, including Brazil, Argentina, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and many countries in Africa. China’s strategy is to build symbiotic relationships with these resource-rich hosts, who gain much-needed capital inflows, infrastructure, and a large market for exports in exchange for mortgaging their resources.

Second, China’s vast wealth and its broad political-economic goals mean the capital costs virtually nothing: China can seek to secure resources at nearly any price. What sometimes looks like over-paying to the Western-trained eye actually reflects China’s broad dedication to improving the livelihoods of the Chinese population.

China’s approach is not always cooperative, but its motives are transparent, and evidence overwhelmingly points to symbiotic partnerships that see resource-rich host countries greatly benefit.

In order to prevent a crisis of legitimacy for their rule, the Chinese political classes must pursue economic growth and better living standards at nearly any cost. Third, China’s aggressive and systematic approach has made it the ‘go-to buyer’ for almost all commodities, giving it unprecedented influence on global prices.

China’s approach is not always cooperative. The country controls 95 percent of the world’s rare earths, scarce elements necessary in the telecommunications, electronics, and energy industries, and has enacted export quotas to protect its supplies.

But the country’s motives are, in fact, transparent, and evidence overwhelmingly points to symbiotic partnerships that see resource-rich host countries greatly benefit. China does not deserve a free pass to run roughshod around the world, but allegations that frequently arise of exploitation, worker abuses, and systematic labor and environmental transgressions in China’s projects are generally exaggerated. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of ten sub-Saharan Africa countries, Africans support Chinese investment by very large margins, with the balance of opinion of those surveyed regarding China as a positive and constructive force.

Some aspects of China’s strategy, such as state-backed financing, are unique, making it difficult for others to follow its lead exactly. But other nations would gain from recognizing the huge emerging markets in the developing world and striking mutually beneficial deals, as China has done. Their current nationalistic policies only serve to increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and to increase the risk of commodities price spikes and, possibly, conflict.

What is needed is a global body to encourage the rest of the world to adopt a multinational approach to commodity scarcity. Such bodies are not currently very popular or successful: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, for one, has not made much progress overcoming national interests. But creating a forum for discussing commodities is the first step toward a multinational consensus that allows communal interests to win out. Such a body would need to have a clear mission to define and manage competing interests, as well as to forge codes of conduct and agreements that promote cooperation and sharing. Unlike many existing international bodies, membership must include broad representation from the emerging markets, where 80 percent of the world’s population lives.

Even if all nations were to engage in multilateral discussions about resources, the world would still face the core problem–too little supply for too much demand. Aggressive government meddling in commodity markets (such as banning commodity speculators) has, on balance, tended to do more harm than good. Policies aiming to curb demand, such as higher taxes on consumption, are possible but remain politically unpalatable in a world dedicated to possessing ever-more material goods and a higher standard of living. A few supply-side policies show more promise. These include eliminating inefficient food subsidies and discouraging food waste, encouraging the recycling of metals, and investing in research and development for alternatives or solutions to resource scarcity.

For most other challenges that are global in nature, the world has attempted to find collaborative solutions. It is time we hosted a global discussion about commodities, learning lessons from the Chinese approach, and adopting a more cooperative and inclusive long-term strategy.

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4 Comments on “Closing the China Gap

  1. Clueless. Resources are infinite. The problem is getting at them. American ingenuity and exceptionalism will solve that problem. Fracking will solve Chinese energy problems for the next several centuries. By then Americans will be exploiting the solar system.

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