Dambisa Moyo has a zest for zeroing in on the great economic issues of our time and delivering a rough-edged analysis of them. She attacked Western liberal aid programmes in Dead Aid. Then she savaged what she saw as the self-indulgent attitudes of the West and contrasted those with the drive and determination of the emerging world in How the West Was Lost. Now she has focused on the way China is scooping up natural resources to fuel its race to be the world's largest economy, and the impact this will have on the rest of us.
She tells this story from a different perspective than most writers of the West, for she does see things in part from the standpoint of Africa. She was born and brought up in Zambia, before she took her masters at Harvard and her doctorate at Oxford. Africa, with its abundant mineral resources, has been a recipient of huge Chinese investment.
It is a remarkable story: China's leap from an impoverished agrarian society to the world's second largest economy in the space of 30 years. Nothing on this scale and at this speed has ever happened before in the history of the world economy: this is faster than the rise of the US in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. But there is a further difference. When the US expanded, it discovered, or at least unlocked, new natural resources: vast mineral wealth and the new lands of the prairies. China has some natural resources but not nearly enough to supply its needs, so it has to find them from elsewhere.
This scouring of the world for resources is the start of the trail Moyo takes us along: the demand for land and water on the one hand, and for oil, gas and minerals on the other. She looks at the way commodity markets function and at the particular pinch points likely to arise. For example, there seems likely to be an ample supply of aluminium and an adequate supply of cotton and wheat; but also a likely huge excess of demand over supply in copper, lead, zinc. She looks at how China has sought to ensure access to these commodities, if necessary paying over the odds. She looks at the thrust into Africa and the way in which Chinese investment is rather more welcome among Africans than the variety of aid programmes of Western nations and NGOs. "The closer you get to the ground in Africa," she observes, "the better China's participation is viewed."
But she also warns. She warns of the potential for conflict over food. She warns of pollution in China and the costs that this imposes principally on the Chinese people, but also beyond China's borders. And she rounds up her thesis by looking at outcomes of varying degrees of nastiness – from "death and destruction rivalling... that witnessed in the past world wars" to "the view that the Chinese economy is slowing, and slowing fast" and so "will no longer demand world resources in substantial qualities."
This is not an elegantly written book. Her technique is to pepper her assertions with a mass of statistics that often seem scattered like a condiment onto the meal. And there is a hectoring tone that becomes wearing. But she does go to the heart of the issue: what China does over resources is profoundly important, and that deserves our attention.