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Cooking the Books 1: What’s China’s game?

An interesting take-over battle is now taking place in the world mining industry. Towards the end of last year, BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, made a bid to take over Rio Tinto, the world’s second largest mining company. According to the Times (5 February) a BHP-Rio merger

“would create the world’s largest iron ore, aluminium and coal supplier . . . A merged BNP-Rio would control about 36 per cent of the world’s iron ore, which is used to make steel, and consolidate 75 per cent of that market in the hands of only two companies”. (The other would be Vale, the Brazilian mining corporation).

Steel-producing countries dependent on imports of iron ore – China, the EU, Japan – are not too happy about this prospect of an “OPEC for iron ore”. But so far only China has acted. At the beginning of February Chinalco, the Chinese state-owned aluminium company, splashed out £7 billion in cash to acquire a 12 percent holding in Rio Tinto, probably to at least have a say in the disposal of Rio Tinto’s assets.

There is a theory which sees multinational corporations such as BHP and Rio Tinto as agents of the Western “imperialist” states, but here the victims will be other capitalist corporations in the developed capitalist world who are consumers of iron ore and aluminium. In any event, there can be no doubt that China’s various state-owned companies such as Chinalco, Sinochem Petroleum and China Shenua Energy are agents of the Chinese capitalist, not to say “imperialist”, state.

Capital accumulation is going on apace in China and China has a desperate need for the materials to sustain this (while it lasts):

“China is forecast to consume more than half of all the world’s key resources within the next decade and the country is seeking to control mines and oilfields to ensure its supplies. China is already the world’s largest consumer of every big resource except oil and accounts for 47 per cent of all iron ore, 32 per cent of aluminium and 25 per cent of copper.” (Times, 5 February).

China is also the world’s leading consumer of nickel and zinc. To ensure a steady supply of all these essential materials, China has set up a whole range of state-owned capitalist corporations which operate on the stock exchanges of the world, doing deals with and acquiring shares in Western capitalist corporations.

Western financial journalists such as Patrick Hosking of the Times are intrigued as to “why is China playing the Western capitalist game” (Times, 5 February). Hosking doubts that Chinese state corporations such as Chinalco are interested in maximising profits or in maximising dividends to their single shareholder, the Chinese state, and concludes:

“In one sense it is encouraging that Beijing is buying – literally – into joint-stock capitalism. But it would be naïve to assume its business leaders are motivated by the same forces as their Western counterparts”.

He is probably right. While non-state capitalist corporations are motivated by maximising profits and dividends to their shareholders, states can take a longer and broader view of the overall national capitalist interest. They need to take into consideration such factors as the security of supply of essential materials to industries within their borders. Many a war has been fought to achieve this. But wars are expensive and risky. Much better to try other means first, commercial as well as diplomatic.

This is what China appears to be doing via its state-owned corporations operating alongside Western corporations. At the same time China is building up its armed forces just in case this fails and other means of acquiring a secure supply of essential materials have to be employed (see for example http://www.comw.org/cmp/fulltext/cafnaval.html).