One reason I often write about China is because of the lopsided coverage and criticism Western media routinely dishes out. And despite the obvious lack of rigor and balanced reporting, our country drinks the cool-aid. It’s like we’ve forgotten one of our important early childhood lessons—there are (at least) two sides to every story.

The West seems to suspect the worst about China around everything from China’s mercantilist practices, to human rights violations, to sullying the air, to standing in the way of climate change progress, and so on. We rarely take a more collaborative, or analytical approach to understanding things from China’s perspective.

When we read Western reports about China, why do we accept the Western characterization of China as villain, and not ask intelligent questions? And why do we accept that China is solely responsible for creating big problems, and not look for ways we can solve problems together?

Even at home, we polarize our views to our detriment. The results of the recent special election in Massachusetts ends the Democrat’s filibuster-proof supermajority. Why did we try to solve something as complex as healthcare unilaterally in the first place? Going forward, it is likely that the only way we’ll achieve meaningful health reform is “in smaller waves of bipartisan effort rather than a hyper-partisan big bang.”

With technology and the Internet lowering the barriers to entry in many businesses, industries, and sectors we have to expect a large, emerging, able, willing nation like China to seek to improve living conditions at home. That’s what every nation wants, after all, and China is certainly no different in that respect.

For example, economically, China needs mining resources in order to realize its national vision of raising standards and the overall quality-of-living conditions for hundreds of millions of its citizens. Its situation is in some ways analogous to the emerging nations of the 15th and 16th centuries, whose mercantilism enabled them to gain power and economic status. And it’s much like how the U.S. has sought to control as many oil reserves as it can in support of its national vision and strategies in the 20th century.

Mercantilism was how the world did business back when Britain had the biggest navy and empire in the world. Today it’s a bad word among the literate white-collar first-world nations of the Earth.

But we should not get hung up on individual words, like mercantilism, because their meanings change, especially as disruptive innovations in technology and business alter the contexts of our economies.

21st century mercantilism, mixed with some red-blooded market economics, and stirred with some culture- and education-exchange programs might be just the thing for a world that must contend with a community and emerging economy of China’s proportions and intentions.

Mirror, mirror

But we can’t leave it there—our economies are more interconnected than ever before, and it’s not only us contending with them, it is them contending with us.

We all might do well to think of us as we, not as us and them anymore.

But the West falls sadly short on providing leadership, insights, and collaboration best practices around how to partner with China. Indeed, on issues around solving poor air quality and global warming, it’s all about the we. And we in the West tend to forget that we produced about 90% of all the carbon perhaps since the Industrial Revolution.

Worse, our brand of capitalism nearly bankrupted the United States while simultaneously fueling what some term “China’s mercantilism” (which could as easily and as accurately be viewed as American greed and desire to buy more cheap goods than we could ever use in a lifetime) and which has caused such an internal backlash as to prompt our own government to bail out (i.e. take ownership of, to some extent) our banks and some of our major industries, too (autos, for example).

Our lack of fiscal restraint has been bolstered by the lack of structure in some of our key policies, which underscores either our leaders’ lack of insight into their own actions or their complicity in driving us to our current predicament, or both.

Our embarrassing bail-outs have brought us precariously close in practice to the protectionist mercantilism we so condescendingly denounce from our oversized couches as we watch our oversized plasma televisions (made in China, of course).

Some critics go so far as to dub America’s system, structural mercantilism, which describes “the institutional and ideational structures perceived to have been built by, and in the interests of, rich countries and corporations” (Gee, T, The World System is not Neo Liberal: The Emergence of Structural Mercantilism).

More resources and more control

China needs more resources, and it wants control over those resources when and where it can have control.

That’s why China’s state-owned PetroChina purchased a 60% stake in Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands Corporation for USD$1.7B at the end of 2009.

It’s also why Chinalco (the state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China) tried to purchase a stake in Australia’s mining assets for USD$19.5B from Rio Tinto. The deal would have given Chinalco an 18.5% stake in Rio, which would “have made the Chinese government Rio’s single biggest shareholder by far and given it an advisory role in the company’s operations. Chinalco would also have gained substantial stakes in individual mines in several countries.”

After months of negotiating during the first half of 2009, the UK-Australian-owned Rio Tinto Group ultimately rejected Chinalco’s offer, citing issues of “widespread political concern over control of the country’s natural resources.”

Patrick Mulloy (a member of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission) said of PetroChina’s Athabasca acquisition, “I don’t think we have fully understood that we’re dealing with state mercantilism.” Mulloy, stressing he was not speaking on behalf of the Commission, which reports to Congress, said, “We don’t have an overall policy to deal with this new direction in foreign policy.”

And although the Chinalco-Rio deal fell through, the PetroChina-Athabasca deal’s success might point a way toward the future. Mulloy’s comment, in the context of China’s natural resources shopping spree, suggests that non-traditional partnerships, unorthodox business arrangements, and more flexible, collaborative foreign policies might be required in our generation.

Are mega-partnerships a better place?

If China succeeds in owning more mining resources, it might also, for example, want to control where and how metals like steel and aluminum are processed for use in buildings, roads, rails, and other major strategic infrastructure projects in China.

For example, the whole world knows (from the steel industry’s experience with Nucor) that mini-mills are cheaper, cleaner, and more flexible to operate than traditional steel mills. Looking to the future, China might seek partners with mini-mill technologies, skills, and experience for their on-and off-shore operations. This could present a golden opportunity for a firm that wants to break away from its competitors.

China isn’t shy to acknowledge when someone else has a better product, and they’re willing to pay for such experience and expertise. China bought the Hummer brand for precisely this reason.

If the legacy economic models enabled integrated, publically traded firms to compete in and dominate industries, why can’t today’s model center on a new brand of mega-partnership—where the partners are firms, nations, and global markets? Of course, monopoly, conflict of interest, and anti-trust issues are hurdles in either model and, as Mulloy and other economists suggest, we will need to recast some of our policies to better align with today’s realities.

Higher-order partnerships that rely on each mega-partner bringing a specialization-suite or an entire market to the game are becoming more common, even when the partners include unseemly bedfellows (by traditional standards).

An example of a mega-partnership is one that evolved between Better Place (a Silicon Valley green tech firm founded and led by SAP’s former tech guru, Shai Agassi, who is the mega-partnership’s visionary), Renault (an innovative car company), and Israel (a republic, ranked 31st in GDP):

Better Place supplies an innovative (patented) green-engine technology; Renault supplies the car manufacturing expertise, skills, supply chain, and distribution; and the Israeli government supplies an able workforce, a willing market for the environmentally-friendly cars, and economic subsidies for Israelis who want to buy them (think of the potential analogous market in China if such a mega-partnership could be struck there).

In addition, all three partners can potentially “leap frog” ahead of their respective competition by being first-movers and/or market-leaders (they also shoulder the burden of first-mover risk).

A better way forward

It’s very tough to argue that we need anything short of radical policy change to move forward in any number of key industries and sectors at home and around the globe—health-care, automotive, banking, and exchange markets, not to mention all the corollary socio-cultural aspects of the flattening world.

We don’t yet have the right thinking (and policies) in place to deal with bids like Chinalco’s—either at the government or the business level.

The day when such policies and business strategies are put into place must not be far off, though.

Leaders—and their nations and companies—who see and embrace a mega-partner vision for the future will have an easier time getting there than those who do not.

© John Dila 2009