Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Speak Softly, Carry a Big Checkbook

Posted by vmsalama on February 6, 2008

by Vivian Salama

PostGlobal-Washingtonpost.com

The late Middle East historian Albert Hourani once wrote “[He] who rules the Near East rules the world; and he who has interests in the world is bound to concern himself with the Near East.” For more than half a century, the United States has made its interests apparent to the world via a clash of political and economic endeavors. Business interests have been pursued under a veil of democracy which, when imposed, have the potential to spark the type of blowback we are witnessing today.

In recent years, China has proven that it, too, recognizes both the potential of the region as well as its vulnerability. However, unlike the United States, the quasi-Communist giant has used a different tactic: speak softly and carry a big checkbook. China’s message has been strictly one of business. Given its recent successes, it appears China – and not the United States, at least under the current administration – has excelled in the language of globalization.

Take the following example. Known more for land mines than natural resources, Afghanistan’s Logar Province is drawing attention for resources other than poppy plants. Car bombs and rocket attacks on government, military and civil targets once painted the picture of this embattled province. However, since the American military first attacked Afghanistan after 9/11, the Bush administration has sought to paint a new, more hopeful picture – one of development and progression.

Some analysts believe copper holds the key to Afghanistan’s future. Surveys conducted by Soviet geologists during the occupation of the 1970s and 1980s found that the country may contain some 240 million tons of ore at a copper grade of more than 2 percent. Realizing this market potential, some of the world’s biggest mining companies recently went head to head to get in on the multi-billion dollar contract to buy, develop and operate the Aynak project, located in a relatively calm region nineteen miles south of Kabul.

Nine foreign mining companies were granted permission to participate in the bidding process. They include Arizona copper giant Phelps Dodge Corp., India’s Hindalco Industries Ltd. and Vancouver’s Hunter Dickinson Inc. All nine companies, including firms from China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Australia, sent inspectors to evaluate the site’s potential. They have good reason to be eager: At around $3.30 a pound, copper has steadily remained above its average price of about $1 per pound. Prices peaked above $4 per pound last May.

Then last November, a decision was made: the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) will invest in transforming the Aynak exploration area into one of the world’s largest open cast mines. With copper prices currently running high, estimates predict the reserve could be worth as much as $42 billion. MMC has also promised to build a power plant in an attempt to boost Kabul’s intermittent electricity supply.

No one is calling China a hero. The Aynak project, while certainly bringing much-needed money to war-torn Afghanistan, has also triggered a flurry of environmentalist red flags. Still, despite the convivial relationship between Washington and Kabul’s government under Hamid Karzai, China has missed no opportunity to provide neighborly assistance to the war-torn nation in an effort to further secure its presence in the region.

A UPI/Zogby Poll released last year revealed that an overwhelming number of Americans see China as the primary economic rival of the United States. Sixty percent of Americans said they view China as an economic threat to the U.S., while 22 percent believe China is a threat to U.S. national security. Just 6 percent said they would describe China as an economic partner and an ally. More than half of Americans (55 percent) reported seeing China’s growing economy and trade as a threat to the U.S., while just 20 percent see it as a benefit.

China’s time is now. As the United States loses favor on the international stage, more doors will open to the Asian giant. Simply put, many countries that have long been reliant on American dollars have thus been at the mercy of Washington. At this stage, China is not interested in telling anyone how to run their government – and quite frankly, its top officials probably recognize that they are in no position to do so. Rather, what we are seeing is a little back-scratching and a lot of business. The days of Cold War bipolarity are long gone, and the days of American hegemony are slipping away as well. With an economy expected to double over the next decade, let it be known: China is here to stay.

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