THE death of Mao Zedong in 1976 led to the dominance of Deng Xiaoping and his like-minded colleagues in the Chinese leadership. To Mao’s insistence that China should hew to the socialist path of development, Deng argued that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black so long as it catches mice”–i.e., that capitalism could just as well, and even better drive, China’s development.
Thirty-eight years later it seems that Deng had a point. Although socialist in name, China is now a capitalist society. It has the world’s second largest economy, and its cities throb with all the appurtenances of progress and development. China has also reclaimed its place among the world’s powers. No issue of global significance, whether Iran or North Korea, can be addressed, resolved, or even discussed without China’s participation, concurrence, or at least its silence.
But like their products, which they grind out in an endless streams from hundreds of thousands of State and privately-owned enterprises, the Chinese have also become globally ubiquitous. They’re in Latin America as well as in the US and Canada. They’re in Africa—and in much of Asia, in search of the resources and the means to make access to these resources possible so as to feed its raw material-hungry factories and its constantly expanding cities.
“There is no exaggerating China’s hunger for commodities,” says Mary Dell Lucas of the British publication The Economist.
“The country accounts for about a fifth of the world’s population, yet it gobbles up more than half of the world’s pork, half of its cement, a third of its steel and over a quarter of its aluminum. It is spending 35 times as much on imports of soya beans and crude oil as it did in 1999, and 23 times as much importing copper—indeed, China has swallowed over four-fifths of the increase in the world’s copper supply since 2000.
“What is more, China is getting ever hungrier. Although consumption of petrol is falling in America, the oil price is setting new records, because demand from China and other developing economies is still on the rise. The International Energy Agency expects China’s imports of oil to triple by 2030.”
But, continues Lucas, “not all observers think that China’s unstinting appetite for commodities is super. The most common complaint centers on foreign policy. In its drive to secure reliable supplies of raw materials, it is said, China is coddling dictators, despoiling poor countries and undermining Western efforts to spread democracy and prosperity.”
Forget that mythical part about “Western efforts to spread democracy and prosperity.” What is true is that in addition to “despoiling poor countries,” such as the poorest countries of Africa, China is also flexing its muscles in the West Philippine (or, as some would prefer it, the South China) Sea, in the guise of establishing its “historic claim” to the Spratlys island group supposedly in furtherance of its sovereignty, but in reality as part of its unremitting hunger for resources.
The Spratlys consist of coral reefs, islets, islands, and sand bars strewn over the West Philippine Sea. The total area of these shredded islands is infinitesimal, and it is certainly not for land that the Chinese are elbowing their way into the West Philippine Sea and intimidating small fishermen with its huge military and civilian ships, while it continues to modernize its armed forces so it can, a la the US, project its power in the rest of the world.
“The Spratly Islands’ geostrategic and economic significance are invaluable,” says Jörn Dosch of the Harvard International Review. “Linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the South China (or West Philippine) Sea sees passage of nearly 50 percent of global merchant traffic and 80 percent of crude oil transports en route to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Securing sovereignty over the Spratly Islands equates to direct control over some of the world’s most important sea-lanes.
“Furthermore, the islands are set amid some of the world’s most productive fishing grounds and may prove to be rich in undersea oil and gas resources.” China’s Geology and Mineral Resources Ministry has already mapped the natural resources of the region around the Spratlys, and claims that the area holds oil and natural gas reserves of approximately 17.7 billion tons.
“If this figure is correct,” continues Dosch, “the area would form the fourth largest reserve bed in the world”–a powerful incentive for China to grab the island group. China’s anticipation is that the technology to exploit these resources can be developed.
Chinese spokespersons and even academics have dismissed criticism of China’s claims to an area some 1000 kilometers from its nearest shores by comparing it to European and US expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, and declaring that its claim over the Spratlys is not new. A late-comer in the colonial game, the US seized Guam (and the Philippines) at the turn of the century, but was preceded much earlier by the British occupation of Malaya and India, and the Dutch colonization of the East Indies.
Though an admission, strange to make in the 21st century, that China is this late acting like the old colonial powers, what it’s doing is less in the manner of old colonialism than in the style of contemporary imperialism, which most of all is driven by the insatiable hunger for raw materials and natural resources as a consequence of constant expansion.
Both Mao and Deng did pledge at some point in their lives never to act on the world stage as China’s former Western tormentors did. But there is a logic in capitalism that defies the best intentions. Part of that logic is the need for access to raw materials and sources of energy, and the use of any means whatever–whether muscle diplomacy, blackmail, and even war–to acquire them, in the manner of the US and its fellow Western powers in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. That is what drives China in Latin America, Africa, and the West Philippine Sea–and what has made it into just another imperialist bully on the block.