In my last post we were looking at China. We’ll probably continue that trend because, well, that’s what we agreed upon… and I’m a man of my word. I’d hate to leave you all in suspense. Let’s pick up where we left off: China and resources; this time around we begin by looking at that sticky icky stuff again (however we’ll get to the people of China very soon).
Oil has been called ‘the life-blood of the global economy’ – and for no small reason. It has, more than any other resource on earth, played a pivotal role in the great economic transformation that included an explosion in wealth and population growth across the globe over the last 150 years. However, unlike the U.S.A which founded most of its military and economic strength off of its oil wealth in the early 20th century, China “is already dependent on external sources for 54% of its oil, and many experts predict it will be the world’s largest importer of oil by 2025”. As noted before though, China’s “increasing dependence on external sources of energy has led it to befriend any number of authoritarian regimes…” meaning for the foreseeable future, a steady stream of oil is guaranteed. When China has turned to its’ immediate region to lock in future oil supplies in the South China Sea, tensions have been considerably heightened. With five nations in the region laying claim to the same territorial area, and “all [parties] driven in some part by nationalistic politics and resource needs” it is becoming an increasingly hostile environment. China has also made competing claims against Japan over Diaoyudao/Senkaku, which has ‘potentially’ large oil and gas deposits. According to an expert in Geopolitics, this has led “to confrontations at sea and prevented genuine normalization of relations”. In both disputes involving China’s Southeast Asian neighbours and Japan, the U.S has publicly declared support for those opposing Chinese encroachment on the grounds of ‘national interest’ and ‘freedom of navigation’.
Add to China’s current predicament a growing consensus that oil production has peaked globally and demand is currently outstripping supply (although admittedly – not at this very moment), with the situation set to worsen China’s reliance on oil becomes critical. The situation is best summed up by Li as this – “China and India arrive on the world economic stage as the world is entering the declining phase of fossil fuels”. The party is over China, go home – you’re drunk.
The use of coal helped create the dominant Britain of the 19th century, while oil thrust the United States on to the world stage in the 20th century – in this century however it will be these two key resources that eventually undo any chance China has of claiming sole dominance. Water and future food security also play a major role in any chance China may have of becoming the dominant world force in the current century.
From a resource perspective, the battle for China to protect and maintain its water and food supply in an environment of climate change, declining fossil fuels, mass aquifer depletion and the erosion of soil could be its’ greatest obstacle to defining this century as its’ own. In China, industry has been threatening local water supplies for decades and on a larger scale limits to freshwater could restrict the economic growth of China by impacting on its’ society in a variety of ways, with “China’s environmental pressures already exceed the carrying capacity of this densely populated land”. In regards to food production, industrial phosphorous is playing an increasingly important role in feeding China’s 1.3 billion people. Phosphorous can be recycled, and interestingly the Chinese did this in their traditional food-agriculture systems, where human and animal wastes were returned to the soil. However, today it is used on such an industrial scale that the world might hit peak phosphate as early as 2033. Although China has the worlds’ largest reserves of phosphate at 35% (which it has now placed restrictions on exporting) it is not immune to demands for the precious and non-substitutable resource.
When the Soil Association dug around (get it? lulz) they came to the conclusion that, “when demand for phosphate fertilizer outstripped supply in 2007/08, the price of rock phosphate rose 800%”. Again, in regards to China’s food supply, “a concern is justified about the sustainability of the agriculture – land degradation is rapid – and agrochemicals are used in very high amounts”.
The research is there to suggest the result of these culminating resource management issues will result almost inevitably in a worldwide food crisis sometime in the next two or three decades. With China having to feed more mouths than any other nation on earth, it seems increasingly unlikely that they will remain unscathed if such a crisis grips the globe.
Lastly, China’s greatest resource – its’ people – may be the defining characteristic of China’s rise or fall over the rest of this century. China has been praised in some circles for its ability to alter and transform its economy and society to deal with internal and external pressures – especially in regards to resource management. However, in a nation with increasing injustice for its citizens and a weak civil society, even the faintest possibility of a slowing economy could have disastrous results for the stability of the state. Gaps in income and living standards are widening between rich and poor, between urban and rural dwellers, and between costal and interior populations. With the rising economies of Southeast Asia, Bangladesh and the other challenger for the new economic powerhouse in Asia – India – all vying for the jobs that Chinese workers currently have, the Chinese domination over the region is facing a real threat. In a nation where personal income has not advanced as fast as GDP, where income inequality is now higher than in the U.S and industrial strikes are becoming increasingly common, it is not unfair to question the viability of the state in the midst of the future obstacles China faces.
Upon assessing the merits of the argument that the 21st century is the Chinese century, I’m coming to the conclusion that this is highly unlikely.
Ironically, China can claim to be a world leader only on the proviso that the other dominant forces around the globe fuck up – but for these trading partners to be in economic decline threatens China’s current export-driven model. On top of the volatility of their trading partners for exports, as demonstrated China will be depending increasingly upon dubious and unstable regions of the world for a dwindling supply of non-renewable resources.
In regards to the resources that China is currently abundant and self-sufficient in, I think I’ve shown pretty well that China also places itself in a precarious position by depending on these key resources for future hegemony. However, these issues presented are not unique to China and will affect every region of the world in much the same way. So although I’m saying that this century will never be China’s for the taking, no one else is in a position to lay claim to domination of the 21st century either. But what do you all reckon? Is it possible that somehow China can be crowned number one?
Or will it be America, Germany, Russia, Brazil… possibly even ‘Straya, mate??!? Let me know where you reckon we’re heading.