As a growing and environmentally challenged China seeks natural resources abroad, it's falling into cycles of mutual dependence with rich and poor countries alike.
Although China occupies a vast and varied landmass, its development and economic ambitions in many ways exceed its own resources. Desertification creeps east and south from the northern reaches of the nation. Fresh water is likely to be in short supply in the not-too-distant future. Historically food self-sufficient, China became a net grain importer for the first time in 2010. The accelerating protein demands of a rising middle class are likely to exacerbate further the problems of feeding a population of 1.3 billion and rising. The housing and consumer-goods demands of that same rising middle class also mean a rising demand for the raw metals and minerals that go into houses and refrigerators, large-screen TVs, and automobiles.
To meet these challenges, China's leaders have embarked on a hugely ambitious program, domestically and internationally: desalinization plants, pipelines, vastly expanding fleets of ocean-going transports. Like a 19th-century colonial power, China has ranged the world over to secure the resources needed to meet its ambitions. Unlike many of those earlier colonial powers, though, its strategy has been less to plunder the natural wealth of the countries it deals with than to strike long-range aid and trade agreements.
Many of China's resource plays seem perfectly reasonable. Buying a foreign mountain seems lavish in the extreme -- until you stop to realize that the particular mountain in question, Peru's Mount Toromocho, contains one of the world's largest deposits of copper, a vital component of everything from wiring to plumbing and a mineral not abundant in China itself. Other resource plays do just the opposite: challenge reason. Why, when China has a hundred-year reserve of coal of its own, would it be so actively importing coal? Reasonable or not, China's resource plays reverberate greatly in the world at large. Part of that is the sheer size involved: quantities and money. The larger part, though, is the future uncertainty sown by so many of these swaps, trades, and outright purchases. What is the master plan? What effect will China's mass gathering-in have on resource prices and their availability in the short- and long-term future? These are vexing billion-dollar questions, perhaps trillion-dollar ones. But there is, in fact, an exquisite if poorly understood mechanism for measuring these issues: the global commodities market.
Over the past several decades China has executed a remarkably clever role reversal, in the process transforming itself from borrower to global lender extraordinaire. The most interesting aspect of this drive, however, is not just that China was successful in pursuing its goals, but also how successfully it continues to pursue its resource acquisition campaign. Simply stated, China has developed into the global price setter par excellence for numerous commodities through its specific relationships with resource-rich countries.
The biological definition of symbiosis describes a close and often long-term interaction between different biological species in relationships that can range from mutually beneficial to parasitic. The psychiatric definition is similar: a relationship between two people in which each is dependent on and receives reinforcement from the other, whether that dependency is beneficial or detrimental. China's global commodity strategy has all the hallmarks of a symbiotic relationship: each party is dependent on the other, almost to the point of survival. China provides the cash that other countries need in exchange for the access to resources that China so desperately requires. In so doing, the symbiotic equilibrium born of commodities sets up a long-term relationship that can thrive -- at least until the diminishing resources are depleted.
This kind of economic symbiosis is hardly rare. One well-known example is the so-called Chimerica relationship, by which China has lent vast amounts of money to the U.S. government in return for virtually unshackled access to America's consumer market. As in any positive symbiotic relationship, each country gets what it wants. Washington continues to receive its vital cash loans, and China retains access to the U.S. consumer market.