In January 2008, an Omaha-based commodity trader placed a $100-a-barrel bid for Oklahoma crude. "This is the big one," he declared of his transaction, which pushed the price of oil to an all-time high. Commodity analysts had a seemingly satisfying explanation for the historic surge: With its double-digit economic growth rates, China was pushing the world toward a state of resource scarcity and ever higher prices.
Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi use this anecdote as the opening scene in "By All Means Necessary: How China's Resource Quest Is Changing the World," a mostly dry but wide-ranging and richly informed look at how the rapid growth of the world's most-populous country is affecting the global economy. Yet the oil trader's story is deployed merely to be knocked down, as the authors show how well markets have accommodated the new demand. For all the talk of Beijing locking up supplies, China's share of the world's oil, by historical standards, isn't especially remarkable.
According to the authors, in other words, China's supposedly pending economic takeover of the world's resources is more hype than reality. Ms. Economy and Mr. Levi, both senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, range from commodity to commodity and sector to sector to show that China's economy and culture are being changed at least as much by the world as China is exerting transformative change upon it. As this process unfolds, they argue, many of the West's worst fears about the rise of a state-capitalist juggernaut will dissipate.
Even before they get very far with China, the authors draw a useful analogy with another Asian giant: Japan. In the 1950s and '60s, that country posted growth rates similar to China's today. "Japanese oil imports accounted for a considerably larger part of the world market than Chinese imports do today," they write. "Japan boosted its share of world steel production, the main source of demand for iron ore, from 6 percent in 1960 to 17 percent by 1973, nearly passing the United States, and spurring a demand for iron ore imports that greatly exceeded U.S. demand." And yet, they add, "Australia did not become a Japanese mine," as many at the time had darkly predicted.
Matters with China will follow much the same pattern, Ms. Economy and Mr. Levi suggest. Talk of the country taking over big natural-resource players in Africa and elsewhere is mostly unfounded; China won't be governing countries like South Sudan merely because it has invested heavily there. For starters, there is little evidence that China seeks direct control over energy sources abroad. Far from developing captive sources, China's big state oil companies, for example, sell most of their supplies on the open market. These companies, moreover, have been constrained by a variety of responses from producing countries. In big Western markets like the United States, Canada and Australia, a combination of regulations and political attitudes have often thwarted Chinese ambitions to take controlling stakes in strategic industries or companies.
In Central Asia, China has become a big player quickly, but it was late to a game still mostly played by Russian rules that govern the supply and transport of oil and gas. In neighboring Mongolia, a fear of becoming dependent on China has brought a wide range of measures, from tough rules on investment and immigration to the odd decision to build a railroad that uses a different gauge from that of its neighbor.
Arguably more important than all of this, the authors say, is the way China is often forced to bend to the reality of international markets. Once China surpassed Japan in steel production in the mid-2000s, for example, state planners pushed consolidation of the industry in order to maximize the country's market power. So far, this approach hasn't succeeded, as dozens of relatively small players in China continue to fight for survival, meaning that Japan, Korea and big European buyers play leading roles as market makers for long-term contracts.
The authors indirectly raise and leave largely unresolved perhaps the most crucial problem raised by their book. "China has, of course, not invaded other countries to exploit their natural resources," they write. "Still, many have argued that the pattern of extracting resources abroad but shipping them home for processing is colonialism in another form."
Colonialism is in the eyes of the beholder. As the authors note, Beijing relies more on "informal relationships and personal ties than working through formal institutions or legal practices. One consequence of this is that other authoritarian states in particular find the Chinese state-centered but personalistic approach reassuring." Nowhere is this more visible than in Africa, where the disparity between China's fast-growing wealth and power and its emerging clients is greatest. Without more openness and respect for local laws and civil society, it seems likely that Africans will begin to pose questions about what booming economic ties with China are costing them in terms of their independence and long-term development.
Some are already posing such questions. As Nigeria's central-bank governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, told the Financial Times in March 2013: "China takes from us primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism. China is no longer a fellow underdeveloped economy. China is the second biggest economy in the world, an economic giant capable of the same forms of exploitation as the West. China is a major contributor to the de-industrialization of Africa and thus African underdevelopment."
Mr. French teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of the forthcoming "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa."