Saturday, June 6, 2009

Geography as Destiny? Zeihan on China

Below is an excerpt from the China-related part of Peter Zeihan's column The Geography of Recession.

China's core is the farmland of the Yellow River basin in the north of the country, a river that is not readily navigable and is remarkably flood prone. Simply avoiding periodic starvation requires a high level of state planning and coordination. (Wrestling a large river is not the easiest thing one can do.) Additionally, the southern half of the country has a subtropical climate, riddling it with diseases that the southerners are resistant to but the northerners are not. This compromises the north's political control of the south.

Central control is also threatened by China's maritime geography. China boasts two other rivers, but they do not link to each other or the Yellow naturally. And China's best ports are at the mouths of these two rivers: Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtze and Hong Kong/Macau/Guangzhou at the mouth of the Pearl. The Yellow boasts no significant ocean port. The end result is that other regional centers can and do develop economic means independent of Beijing.

With geography complicating northern rule and supporting southern economic independence, Beijing's age-old problem has been trying to keep China in one piece. Beijing has to underwrite massive (and expensive) development programs to stitch the country together with a common infrastructure, the most visible of which is the Grand Canal that links the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. The cost of such linkages instantly guarantees that while China may have a shot at being unified, it will always be capital-poor.

Beijing also has to provide its autonomy-minded regions with an economic incentive to remain part of Greater China, and "simple" infrastructure will not cut it. Modern China has turned to a state-centered finance model for this. Under the model, all of the scarce capital that is available is funneled to the state, which divvies it out via a handful of large state banks. These state banks then grant loans to various firms and local governments at below the cost of raising the capital. This provides a powerful economic stimulus that achieves maximum employment and growth — think of what you could do with a near-endless supply of loans at below 0 percent interest — but comes at the cost of encouraging projects that are loss-making, as no one is ever called to account for failures. (They can just get a new loan.) The resultant growth is rapid, but it is also unsustainable. It is no wonder, then, that the central government has chosen to keep its $2 trillion of currency reserves in dollar-based assets; the rate of return is greater, the value holds over a long period, and Beijing doesn't have to worry about the United States seceding.

Because the domestic market is considerably limited by the poor-capital nature of the country, most producers choose to tap export markets to generate income. In times of plenty this works fairly well, but when Chinese goods are not needed, the entire Chinese system can seize up. Lack of exports reduces capital availability, which constrains loan availability. This in turn not only damages the ability of firms to employ China's legions of citizens, but it also removes the primary reason the disparate Chinese regions pay homage to Beijing. China's geography hardwires in a series of economic challenges that weaken the coherence of the state and make China dependent upon uninterrupted access to foreign markets to maintain state unity. As a result, China has not been a unified entity for the vast majority of its history, but instead a cauldron of competing regions that cleave along many different fault lines: coastal versus interior, Han versus minority, north versus south.

China's survival technique for the current recession is simple. Because exports, which account for roughly half of China's economic activity, have sunk by half, Beijing is throwing the equivalent of the financial kitchen sink at the problem. China has force-fed more loans through the banks in the first four months of 2009 than it did in the entirety of 2008. The long-term result could well bury China beneath a mountain of bad loans — a similar strategy resulted in Japan's 1991 crash, from which Tokyo has yet to recover. But for now it is holding the country together. The bottom line remains, however: China's recovery is completely dependent upon external demand for its production, and the most it can do on its own is tread water.

James Kynge of the Financial Times has an entirely different take on China's near-term economic prospects. We'll save Kynge's thesis for the next post, to keep this one from getting too long.

The image above comes from Zeihan's column.

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