China could soon learn the hard way that it's not easy being the largest exporting nation if the rest of the world can't afford to buy its products anymore.
To be sure, the cheap goods that pour out of the Asian nation continue to undercut the homegrown wares of most other countries. But there could be a point when weakened demand on the part of China's global consumer base starts to be felt on the assembly lines of Shanghai.
Just yesterday, America's Federal Reserve Bank pledged to keep interest rates at rock bottom for at least another year. The Fed's action is the latest acknowledgement that the West is saddled with near-unmanageable debt. The purchasing power of Western consumers isn't what it used to be.
The longstanding Chinese practice of currency manipulation is now a double-edged sword. The value of the yuan, which hit a 17-year high of 6.41 today, has so insulated Chinese manufacturers from reality that a crash in Western demand might make for a rude wake-up call.
So with American and European markets indefinitely depressed, what's a huge Asian manufacturing country to do? The dean of the School of World Economics and International Affairs at Russia's National Research University Higher School of Economics, Sergei Karaganov, says that a reorientation of Russia to East from West could be a complete economic game-changer.
Although Russia continues to integrate itself with Europe - especially Germany - its relationship with the Asia-Pacific region is what will determine the country's success in the coming decades, according to Karaganov in his recent 'Project Syndicate' column. "Here, the main partner is China, which Russia now supplies with fertilizers, seafood, timber, nonferrous metals, and increasing volumes of crude oil. Unlike the West, Russia imports from China not so much consumer goods as engineering products," he says.
Although Karaganov says that direct competition with Asia would be senseless, given Russia's higher labor costs, positioning itself as an important supplier to the Pacific rim could be the formula to give the Russian economy a bright future. "If current trends persist, Russia east of the Urals, and later the entire country, will become an appendage of China - a warehouse of resources, and then an economic and political vassal. No 'aggressive' or unfriendly effort by China will be needed; Russia will be subdued by default," he says.
Which isn't exactly as bad as it sounds, according to Karaganov: Territorial expansion is not a Chinese historical trait and the two countries have excellent political relations. Over the long haul, China will develop a friendly new market for its goods as well as fostering a Tier 1 supplier in its own backyard.
There's a golden opportunity for Western nations within this scenario. If China does increase its use of eastern Russia as a food and industrial supply base, you can bet that countries like the United States and Germany will be keen to inject their own investment capital into that region so as to challenge China's dominance.
And a little capitalist-style competition never hurt anyone...