Why Every American Should Care About China

When the Olympics begin Friday in Beijing it will be a "coming out" party of sorts for China.

Beijing hopes this will be a bright spot in what has otherwise been a tough year -- the country was hit by a devastating earthquake and rocked by scandals over tainted food and medicine and toxic toys.

There have been protests, both within China and in other countries, about its human rights policies in Tibet and Darfur.

Even the Olympic torch relay, normally a celebratory event, sparked demonstrations around the world.

Now billions of eyes will be focused on a nation that has become so important to so many, yet remains misunderstood. Many people, perhaps most vocally in the United States, fear China's growing power and influence around the world. But it is unavoidable.

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"The rise of China is the single most important geopolitical event of the 21st century," said John Thornton, professor and director of Global Leadership at Tsingua University in Beijing. "And the implications of that rise are enormous."

After 300 years of relative isolation, China has decided an integral factor in its success will be its strategic relationships around the world.

Beijing now sees any country as a potential ally, and almost no country is disqualified for bad behavior -- except those that support total independence for Taiwan.

The bottom line for countries like Angola, Brazil, Cambodia and countless others where Beijing has invested is that China is there to support its own growing economy -- not to get involved in local politics.

The Chinese are working to expand their influence around the world for one reason: to make it possible for more and more of their people to live like Americans do.

'The Failure of Western Countries'

In country after country around the world, the story is the same: What China is doing, America is not.

Angola, for example, is one of the fastest growing oil producers in the world, but remains a strikingly poor country, still struggling to recover from a 30-year civil war that left more than 1 million people dead before the shooting finally stopped in 2002.

"By the end of the civil war, Angola was just an absolute disaster," said Alec Russell, Johannesburg bureau chief of the Financial Times. "The country was on its knees."

Russell said Angola expected Western nations to step in and help it rebuild, but no such aid materialized.

Instead, it was the Chinese who came forward with the most appealing offer: $2 billion in loans, with very few strings attached. In exchange, China now receives 10,000 barrels of Angolan oil daily.

Now, thanks to Beijing's massive loans, conditions in Angola are improving, while China satisfies its ever-expanding need for oil. And Angola is just one example of how China's new approach is giving it increased access in more and more nations.

Today, China has established meaningful economic relationships with 48 of the 53 countries in Africa.

"Many Western countries have been in Africa for centuries, but little has been done for the infrastructure development," said Li Ruogu, chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of China. "It is really the failure of Western countries."

'We're in This Together'

The daily habits of the more than 1.3 billion people of China have changed dramatically over the last decade, and those habits are now taking a serious toll on the country's resources.

The soaring price of food is becoming a crisis felt worldwide. The price of soybeans, which are critical to the world food supply, has doubled in the last 15 months. Economists say this is a result of China's economic miracle.

The country's rapid growth has helped more than 600 million Chinese emerge from poverty in the last 30 years, and as people have more income, they eat better, placing more demands on the food chain and eventually driving up prices.

In Brazil, soy production is growing and most of the crop is going to China, a country that, in 1995, did not need to import soy beans at all. China now accounts for nearly half of the global trade in the crop.

China is home to 20 percent of humanity, but has only 10 percent of the planet's farmland. As the country modernizes, more and more of that land becomes unusable every year as new buildings and factories are built.

Growing demand for soy could also be hurting the Amazon. According to a recent study by NASA, increased clearing of the rain forest has been directly related to the rising price of soy.

"China's land scarcity is becoming everyone's land scarcity," said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. "Their water shortages are our water shortages. Their rising food prices are our food prices. We're in this together."

Burying the Past With Money

Beijing, unlike Washington, has been able to overcome its bitter history with Cambodia to make the country a place of opportunity for the Chinese.

Unlike many of China's other relationships around the globe, its interest in Cambodia is not just about resources, it's about diplomacy.

"Cambodia holds economic and strategic value for China," said Evan Osnos, the Beijing bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune.

China is looking for a "foothold" in the region to strengthen its influence, he said, but this new friendship is surprising in light of the two countries' past relations.

"One has to understand China's role in Cambodia in the 1970s," said Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online. "China was perhaps the most important supporter of the Khmer Rouge."

The genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge was a disastrous aftereffect of the ways the United States and Vietnam had expanded their war into Cambodia. China supported the regime because it wanted to keep Vietnamese influence from expanding throughout Southeast Asia. By the time the Vietnamese forcibly removed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, nearly 2 million Cambodians had died.

Though many Cambodians still blame the Chinese for this tragic chapter in their nation's history, China is working to bury the past with money. China has become the biggest foreign investor in Cambodia, in addition to providing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and unconditional loans.

Here, and around the world, China is stepping in where the United States has been visibly absent.

"There's a perception among a lot of Southeast Asian leaders that the U.S. has pulled back from the region in the last few years," Osnos said. "Cambodia ultimately feels that it lives in a Chinese world. You cannot be in Southeast Asia today and not play with the Chinese and not make deals with them."

The U.S.: China's Partner?

Back in the United States, China has moved onto center stage. President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao have met six times in the last three years, recognizing that their nations must forge a good relationship in order to ensure a successful future.

"In China, we always regarded our relations with the U.S. as the most important bilateral relations in the world," said Ambassador Wang Guangya, China's representative at the United Nations. "We want to regard the U.S. as our partners in maintaining world peace and promoting world economic development."

The world is now addicted to what China produces, and in 2007, China's income from exports was $1.2 trillion.

"China today is the workshop of the world," said Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International magazine.

China's economic revolution is doing what Chairman Mao Zedong's communist revolution never could: It is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. China now creates a million new jobs a month, many in factories producing products for export.

And Americans can't get enough. Last year, $320 billion worth of Chinese products -- clothing, computer parts, video equipment, sporting goods, furniture and shoes -- were sold in the United States.

Though some Americans fear that China's rise will mean economic downfall in the United States, China is playing a major role in keeping the U.S. economy afloat. During the last 12 months, China has bought more government securities than almost any other country, and is now financing close to $1 trillion of U.S. debt, with billions of dollars also tied up in American businesses.

"We're interdependent," Thornton said. "We're dependent on their money to finance our national debt, but they're dependent on a thriving U.S. economy to provide the demand for the goods that are being manufactured."

For Zakaria, China's strength signals a positive future for the United States.

"You can't stop China's rise," he said. "All you can do is make sure that the U.S. is fully positioned to take advantage of that rise. Those are our options -- we can either ride this wave or we can drown in it."