(08/19/05) Clyde Prestowitz quoted in the Christian Science Monitor
Is China Japan all over again?
Chinese firms failed in their bids to buy Unocal and Maytag this
summer. But that's barely diminished the anxious warnings from
Indeed, as China's economy grows, it's easy to think the 1980s are back.
That's when Japan's economic 'miracle' threatened North America,
prompting an intense backlash as companies like Toyota and Subaru,
Matsushita, and Sony grabbed growing shares of industries at the heart
of our identity: cars, steel, and consumer electronics.
Now the ominous warnings are resurfacing -- with China cast as the villain.
As concerns grow that a new Asian giant is intent on challenging Canada
and the United States in everything from sedans to software, the Japan
experience of the '80s may provide insights on how the we and China
might compete -- and co-exist -- in the global economy of the 21st
On one level, say analysts, China is not as much of a threat as it is often portrayed to be.
It has decades to go to match the high-tech and management prowess of the North America -- unlike Japan 20 years ago.
Another critical difference is that Beijing has welcomed foreign investment and companies.
That's something that Tokyo was (and still is) loath to do. China's
total exports and imports accounted for 75 percent of GDP in 2004, for
example; the figure for Japan is about 25 percent. And China, thus far,
hasn't bid for such American icons as Rockefeller Center, though it
clearly has set its eye on greater investment in the U.S. and Canada.
In many respects, China's challenge to North American economic and strategic influence is only beginning to take form.
True, its growth -- officially nine per cent annually since embracing
market reforms a quarter-century ago -- is impressive. And the country
is boosting the skills of at the high end of its labour force --
churning out more PhDs and building engineering schools -- even as its
huge reserves of low-wage workers ensure its status as 'factory of the
RISING, BUT SLOWLY
"China, with its supply of cheap labour and high levels of education,
will continue to be a very big challenge, one that's unlikely to level
off as quickly as Japan," said Ezra Vogel, a professor at Harvard
University and an expert on China and Japan.
But he adds, "While there will be a lot of Americans frightened at a
growing China, if we have skillful political managers, there's no
reason we can't get along."
China's rise certainly bears similarities to that of Japan.
It's easy to forget that Japan once battled with the U.S. over textile
exports. Both Asian nations have pursued export-driven growth and
focused on developing 'strategic industries' like autos and
Like China now, Japan once faced pressure to strengthen its currency to help reduce a monumental trade deficit with the U.S.
But while there are trade barriers that contribute to that deficit,
there's no question the Chinese economy is more open to outsiders than
China has set up joint ventures as a way to leapfrog development in cars, for example.
Foreign direct investment hit nearly $55 billion last year, compared with Japan's $8 billion.
As a result, Bay Street and Wall Street today is solidly behind China.
American business was solidly antagonistic toward Japan -- a result of
battles for the right to sell everything from apples to autos in its
CHINA TO WAL-MART: $18 BILLION
But U.S. business interests --Wal-Mart, General Motors, Microsoft -- are increasingly intertwined with China's.
America's largest corporation, Wal-Mart, stocked its shelves with $18 billion of goods from China last year.
Companies that once led the charge on Capitol Hill to get tough on
Japan are worried about lawmakers' increasingly charged views of China,
evidenced most recently in the failed bid by a Chinese firm for the
U.S. oil company Unocal.
China also has a friend in North American consumers.
For the most part, its exports are taking jobs from other countries.
And as loyalty to domestically made products has waned in Canada and
the U.S., low prices -- a product of cheap Chinese labour -- have
become viewed as something of a right.
"The American consumer is not jingoistic," observes Laurent Jacque, an
economics professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School.
Most North Americans will choose the cheap import over the more expensive domestic-made product.
But that very cheapness is causing uneasiness.
As high-quality Japanese goods gained ground in North American markets,
Canadians and Americans embraced Japanese quality control and 'just in
time' purchasing. But in China's case, one thing remains a focus: cost.
"Many people look at China and say, there's no way we can catch up with
those prices," said Oded Shenkar, professor at the Fisher School of
Business at Ohio State University.
He notes that China is unlikely to lose its low-cost advantage even as it moves up the technological ladder.
"This generates negative sentiment."
The fact that many Chinese companies are state-owned -- with access to cheap capital and labour-- is also a sore point.
"One thing that caused so much tension was that the premise of all of
our negotiations with Japan was that .. the Japanese economy was
similar to ours," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic
Strategy Institute and author of Three Billion New Capitalists. "That
was a false assumption. The same is true of China. They are not playing
He notes that the consumption-driven North American economy of the has no match in Asia, where things are structured to export.
Still, the North American economy has many strengths, and Americans and
Canadians have long had faith in their ability to innovate themselves
out of problems.
But China is playing on an uneven field. It has done little to stem the
tide of patent and copyright infringements that help produce cheaper
knockoffs of competitors' goods -- something the U.S. is pushing China
to have corrected. China has also been skillful at getting technology
transferred that will help it develop.
Perhaps the biggest challenges underlying the North American-China
relationship, observers say, are the political ones -- differences over
Taiwan and support for regimes the U.S.opposes. Japan is a military
ally in Asia. China is seen as an emerging military rival.
"With Japan, we never felt there was any fear, just a sense of injustice," said Prestowitz.
In the case of China, he said, "If you could strip away the politics,
there wouldn't be too much concern about the relationship."
But as the U.S. continues to be dependent on foreign financing of its
deficit, and sees the limits of its influence as China 'cozies up' to
countries like Iran, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela, he said, "it's going to
Amelia Newcomb is a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor.