Monday, 29 June 2009

“The Coming China Wars”, by Peter Navarro (FT Press)

Navarro-ComingChinaWars A sensational look at the “China Threat”

In The Coming China Wars, Peter Navarro describes the threats presented by China’s dramatic rise as an economic and military power. The book (now in this expanded and updated paperback edition), covers the complete range of issues that affect the US-China relationship, as Navarro puts it, the “China Wars” of the title. These issues are predominantly in the economic sphere, but the author also covers China’s military modernisation, increasing environmental degradation, China’s voracious appetite for natural resources, and numerous human rights issues and their implications for the future.

The book is meant to offer an “alternative path to safely manage China’s growth and avoid global catastrophe” (emphasis in original). What it really does, though, is provide a sensational account of China’s faults and the contentious issues inherent in the US-China relations (usually presented in a way highly critical of the PRC, but also of US corporations who take advantage of China’s lax enforcement standards), and an image of the PRC as a “cold and callous government”, disinterested, negligent, and a selfish economic cheat, with its finger hovering over the trigger, ready to start a “hot” war.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the author, reading The Coming China Wars is an entertaining experience. Navarro’s writing style is very accessible and he has a gift for turning the occasional amusing or pithy phrase. His language is frequently hyperbolic and/or sensational, lacking the balance or restraint that is normal for academics (the author is a business professor at the University of California-Irvine). For example:

Trade with China has “vaporised literally millions of manufacturing jobs and driven down wages”

China has “slave-labor conditions coupled with a potent array of unfair trade practices that violate virtually every tenet and norm of international trade”

Manufacturing employees, “Upon being injured or maimed,… simply become the detritus of a ruthless manufacturing machine”

“virtually nothing coming out of today’s China should be "considered safe”

Chinese entrepreneurs and manufacturers are described as having “cold, black, godless hearts”

China’s “brass-knuckled, amoral approach to securing its oil reserves” is facilitating tragedies in Burma and Darfur, as well as “rapidly accelerating the global arms race and nuclear proliferation”

All very sensational, and no doubt most readers will be able to tease out the facts from among the general hyperbole, but his use of such language is important to note.

It would be difficult to ‘prove’ the author wrong, as he provides plenty of concrete examples and facts to support his argument (everyone’s heard of the poisonous toys and medicines, the dodgy cars and other manufactures, for example). He draws extensively on existing literature (predominantly journalism) and also includes plenty of quotations from officials and scholars to make and back up his case, but Navarro doesn’t provide enough of a moderating tone to tease out norms from the (admittedly not infrequent) exceptional examples of malfeasance. The lack of sufficient bibliographical information is a considerable shortcoming, and prevents deeper study or possible follow up, not to mention calling into question the depth of his research approach. Even the book’s website doesn’t offer any bibliographic information.

Each new section is opened with a quotation, but there are no sources listed for the information and quotations used in the main body of the text. Also, at one point, when trying to portray the shortcuts China takes in manufacturing, and the resultant dangers this presents, he uses the following construction: “To understand the very real dangers, consider these fictional scenarios – which are all based on real-world events”. As someone who endeavours to make a real contribution to the study of China’s Rise, it is disappointing that he would resort to fictional scenarios, when there are, by his own admission, plenty of factual examples available.

If someone wanted to have a distilled account of the China-skeptics’ agenda, Navarro’s The Coming China Wars is a perfect starting point. The lack of balance is disappointing, but there is a wealth of interesting (not to mention amusing to read) information contained in this volume. I would, however, direct people towards Ted C. Fishman’s China, Inc. and James Kynge’s China Shakes the World before I recommended The Coming China Wars.

Some interesting stuff, but not a book that will be taken particularly seriously by those in a position to make decisions. Given his academic background, the author should have been prepared to provide sources, and perhaps tone down the shrill sensationalism. This could have been a far more powerful and immediate book if a little more care and attention had been paid to style and framework. Regardless, some interesting stuff that offers plenty to make one think, but there are better books out there.

Further Reading: Ross H. Munro & Richard Bernstein, The Coming Conflict With China (1998); Ted C Fishman, China, Inc. (2006); James Kynge, China Shakes the World (2006); Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall (2007); Sara Bongiorni, A Year Without “Made in China” (2008); Martin Jacques, When China Rules The World (2009); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); Hugo de Burgh, China: Friend or Foe? (2006); George Walden, China: A Wolf in the World? (2008); Paul Midler, Poorly Made In China (2009)

[Recommended alternatives are linked]

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