When Economics clashes with (Geo)politics

First published in The New York Times on Wednesday, Thomas Friedman writes about the low likelihood of a “benign 2010” given the economic and geopolitical conditions currently brewing. I read the reprinted article on mypaper on Thursday and was rather amused by his arguments.

He started off by saying that 2009 was a pleasant surprise for being a rather peaceful year for “the world’s biggest economies” to heal without any major wars or political / geopolitical disruptions, and then asserts that 2010 would probably not be as peaceful. I do not really agree with him about the “three major struggles” we face (the banks vs President Obama, China vs Google & Iran vs the world), but he has managed to make rather substantial arguments.

Struggle 1: The banks vs President Obama
I did not quite think that this was a significant issue, but that is probably because Singapore is / was pretty sheltered from the full force of the economic breakdown in the West. At least in Singapore, the banks appear to be in rather good shape. But Singapore still bore some brunt from the crisis, thanks to our open economy. I will not go into an argument about how globalized our economy should be (suffice to say that I am for globalization, but not the “free-for-all” some Republicans seem to want) but I must agree that banking regulations need to be stiffened. President Obama has a very tough job balancing giving free rein to the banks to operate and continually grow their wealth (and hence America’s economy too) and managing expectations that as president he should be concerned more about his people who are suffering as a result of the folly of these bankers (and hence should punish the bankers). Either way, this tough balancing act is going to take much more than just “change we can believe in” or “yes we can” as President Obama promised before becoming president. His actions will have direct or indirect impact on the WHOLE world.

Struggle 2: China vs Google
Again, I never thought of this as a huge issue too, but it must certainly be one of much concern to quite a few if columnists keep writing every day about the relations between China and America and whether the trough in relations they are going through marks a change in tact or just posturing. The G2 (Group of 2 – China & America) notion aside, the assault on Google was certainly daring and bellicose. I am more inclined to side with Google and America, but you must also take into consideration the views of millions (of Chinese netizens) that the Chinese government have to assuage and calm. Many of them see the China-bashing as unwarranted and colonial bullying that is behind the times given the ascendant status of China, so I do not foresee that China and America’s retaliatory actions are going to end at just sanctions. I sure hope they do things calmly though… recall the saying “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”.

Struggle 3: Iran vs the World
Now this is an issue that I think people do not believe is a sufficiently major problem. Iran’s nuclear proliferation will be very dangerous to America as well as the world, and it will derail all the economic efforts put in by the world’s major economies given the potential changes it will cause to the geopolitical arena. This I think would be the most difficult struggle to resolve, given the ramifications that could spillover into the economic and social spheres (e.g. war). Unfortunately, given all the other problems that America and the world is facing now, it is inevitable for the Iran issue to be placed on the back-burner. But there must be understanding that neglecting the Iran issue and letting it fester will not make it any easier to solve.

I echo Friedman’s wishes that “cooler heads prevail” this year. Or else, as he says, “fasten your seat belts”.

China’s Green Revolution

Green Leaf
Green Power

China, as an emerging superpower, is also said to be emerging as one of the biggest polluters of the environment. The industrialisation and modernisation of China in particular is of great concern for climate change / global warming, as China looks scheduled to overtake the United States as “the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide”. Gary Dirks and David G Victor, in Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010, suggests that China is making attempts to go green, not just to allay global concerns but to allay domestic concerns as well.

China is concerned about its growth, not so much because it is bothered by how other countries (both developing and developed) perceive it. It is more because of the environmental problems that have plagued its growth that makes it realise the importance of being green. “Severe pollution and worries over dependence on fossil fuels” are just some problems of national security that concern the Chinese government, and it is doing what it can by enhancing energy-efficiency and attempting to move away from fossil fuels. It cannot probably move away entirely from coal because of its abundance and cheap price, but China is making efforts to make coal “less polluting”.

China is also investing in new technologies, such as clean renewable energy research, that could potentially open up a new market for such products as well as cement China’s position as an industrial leader in a new field that is yet untapped fully in most other countries. The Telegraph in an earlier article in May observes some changes to what China is doing in this new field. However, China would require the help of other developed countries in the West in managing its research and development.

All these will add up to “a massive impact on greenhouse-gas pollution”, and such efforts are certainly laudable and commendable. It is, however, important, for China to lead not just locally but globally. As a rising superpower, it is “ready to lead when it starts playing offense in climate talks as well as defense”, and China needs to prove that “it can cut emissions”, which will then assuage global concerns as well as debunk the West’s “excuse for doing nothing” because of “Chinese inaction”.

Other writers and newspapers have weighed it on China’s “Green Revolution”. The Guardian details some targets set by Chinese officials on adoption of renewable energy sources, while Thomas Friedman in The New York Times writes about how “red China” is becoming “green China”. There appears to be much regarding what China is doing for the environment, even if it might seem miniscule, so the United States should certainly do its part and contribute more than “business as usual”, given its current superpower status (which it might soon lose to China if it does nothing to stem the decline).