On October 19, 2011, the government of Afghanistan -- acting in part on the recommendation of U.S. military advisers working with the Afghan Ministry of Mines -- granted a license to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to develop several oil fields in northern Afghanistan. Just three years earlier, another state-owned Chinese company, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation, won the rights to develop Afghanistan's Aynak copper deposit, one of the largest in the world, again with American acquiescence.
These economic wins for Beijing shocked many on Capitol Hill and in the broader policy community. Although it was no secret that China had been gobbling up strategically important resources in emerging markets, people wondered how a country that had not contributed to Afghanistan's transformation could now reap its mineral benefits -- and how the country that had contributed more than any other could let it do so.
There should have been no surprise. The fact is that the United States has long lacked even the semblance of a strategy for competing with China in emerging markets. As a result, American companies are consistently beaten by Chinese ones in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even in nearby Latin America. Not only does the U.S. government offer American firms minimal help; at times, its own excessive regulations and reporting requirements actually discourage U.S. firms from entering new markets. Apart from occasional lip service, U.S. policymakers have so far shown little desire to marshal government power on behalf of the private sector.
This aversion to corporate diplomacy is bipartisan, although the motivation differs. Liberals fear corporate influence over government, whereas conservatives disapprove of federal meddling in the free market. To a certain extent, wariness is justified, although for a third reason: taken to the extreme, full-throated advocacy of the private sector by Washington would come off as economic imperialism and provoke resentment abroad.
But emerging markets offer high-return investments and access to crucial natural resources that the United States cannot afford