Squabble with China: the continuity of US policy in Asia

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The 11-day stand-off between American and Chinese imperialism in April was the first international crisis weathered by the new Bush administration, and it gave a glimpse of what lies ahead for American imperialism. The crisis with China should not be seen as a surprise or anomaly. Just as the election of George Bush has set off alarms bells in European capitals (see Internationalism 116), so too the tensions with the Chinese bourgeoisie have been exacerbated, as both the Chinese and American regimes are feeling each other out now that a new foreign policy team is in place in the US. For the Chinese, the central foreign policy concerns at this juncture include continuation of the strategic partnership in Asia between the US and China brokered during the Clinton years, attempts to influence the US not to sell sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, continued integration of China into the World Trade Organization, and maintenance of most favored nation trade status with the US. Once the accidental collision of the American spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter, it was inevitable that the Chinese would seek to test the mettle of the new Bush administration foreign policy team.

As readers are aware, a routine American reconnaissance flight was buzzed by Chinese fighter jets over international waters off the Chinese coast. One of the Chinese jets accidentally collided with the propeller driven spy plane, sending the Chinese pilot to his death. The crippled American plane, crammed with sophisticated surveillance technology and manned by a crew of 24, made an emergency landing in Chinese territory on Hainan island. The resulting squabble was over release of the American crew members and return of the plane, which is still in Chinese hands, as the Chinese demanded a formal apology from the US and an end to surveillance flights.

The reconnaissance flights serve several functions for American imperialism. Loaded with sophisticated intelligence gathering technology, the spy planes compliment American spy satellites already monitoring military movements around the world, and in China. The flights also serve a more prosaic imperialist function - that of reminding the Chinese, with their pretensions of dominant status in Asia, that the US, the world’s only remaining superpower, can do whatever it wants to anywhere in the world, including in China’s own backyard. American imperialism itself would never tolerate reconnaissance flights by another power so close to its national territory, regardless of whether they were technically flown over international waters. But the Chinese are routinely forced to acknowledge their powerlessness against American assertiveness, emphasizing that the US is top dog in the so-called strategic partnership. In this sense, the rift that has surfaced should not be viewed as totally new, as a break with the prevailing situation in the Clinton years. The provocative flights were not begun by Bush, but are a continuation of Clinton policy. The vehement Chinese objections, and interception and harassment of the flights by Chinese fighters, began during the Clinton years. The accident, while unplanned, fanned the flames of the uneasy relationship between China and the US.

The Collapse of the Imperialist Blocs and the Pressure on US Hegemony

American assertiveness is particularly important because of the chaotic situation on the international level since the collapse of the two international military blocs which were formed at the end of World War II, and the disappearance of the resulting bloc discipline that kept secondary and tertiary powers in line. The demands of the larger bloc-level confrontation forced the lesser powers to subordinate their own imperialist appetites to the larger strategic goals of the bloc, and especially of the bloc leader. Though neither the European or Asian powers can hold a candle to American military power today, America’s former allies and antagonists alike are increasingly playing their own imperialist cards, trying to exert their own imperialist appetites around the world, or on a regional basis. From the US perspective, a key element in its strategy is to prevent any potential rivals to assert themselves, even on a regional level, in a way that might endanger American hegemony.

The US first made its initial overtures to the Chinese government during the Nixon Administration, at the height of the cold war. Nixon having been for so long an anti-Communist poster boy was probably the ideal American president to push for rapprochement with the Chinese. A left/liberal member of the Democratic Party would have been lambasted as an “appeaser” or dupe for such a move. But American imperialism recognized that not only was China a major player in the Far East, but its shift toward alliance with the US would exert tremendous pressure on Russian imperialism, which could not face confrontation with the US bloc on both western and eastern fronts. Following the collapse of the two-bloc system, and the emergence of an “every man for himself” tendency on the imperialist level, the US-Chinese relationship was up for grabs. While the opening of Chinese markets to American industry, providing cheap labor and a wider market for American goods, was a welcomed development in the 1990s for the US, the Chinese ruling clique’s belief in their “manifest destiny” to be the dominant regional power in the Far East was counter to American policy which aimed at “deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role…”(Defense Planning Guidance document, 1992).

During the later part of the 1990s there were serious divergences within the American bourgeoisie on the strategic orientation for the Far East. The drama played out in the Clinton scandals and impeachment process were just a reflection of this behind-the-scenes effort by the right to block the Clinton administration from playing the China card and adopting a policy of a strategic partnership with China in the far east. Opponents of the alliance with China argued that China was too politically and socially unstable to be a reliable ally, and instead preferred a strategy that emphasized Japan as the key US ally in the region,. However the dominant faction of the bourgeoisie at the time was united behind the pro-China policy, and the right went down to political defeat on this question.

The Continuity of US Imperialist Policy

This continuing unity within the dominant faction of the bourgeoisie, including the mainstream of both the Democratic and Republican parties, was demonstrated by full support to the measured response of the Bush administration. While many on the right were seething at the mild mannered response by the Bush administration in April, most bit their tongues and declined to voice their criticism, except for Weekly Standard editor William Kristol who denounced the Bush administration policy as a national disgrace, and insisted on the imposition of economic sanctions, and sending US warships into waters off the Chinese coast, and other warlike measures - all of which was intended to force Bush to de facto rescind the strategic partnership relationship.

Nonetheless, the response by American imperialism demonstrated a complete continuity with the Clinton policy orientation. Despite the fact that during the presidential campaign, Bush appeared to back away from the phrase “strategic partnership” in regard to China and spoke of that country as “a rival,” the American response during the crisis was very mild and measured. The hawks in the administration, like Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were confined to a backbench, and not permitted to speak in public. Despite the militant posturing by the Chinese military, refusing to release either the 24 US crew members or the plane, and steadfastly demanding a US apology and an end to the reconnaissance flights, it was clear that the US concern was to come out of the crisis without inflicting long term damage to the US-China relationship. Secretary of State Colin Powell orchestrated a low expectation diplomatic offensive, eventually managing to draft a statement that expressed great regrets and said the US was very sorry for violating Chinese airspace by making the emergency landing without actually making an apology, giving both sides opportunity to declare victory.

The continuity in policy was acknowledged by the New York Times which reported, “the new president sounded at moments like Mr. Clinton, talking about the risks to the broad, if ambiguous, relationship between the world’s most powerful nation and its most populous one.” President Bush, in his statement following release of the crew, reiterated the Clinton policy in these words, “Both the United States and China must make a determined choice to have productive relations - to have a productive relationship that will contribute to a more secure, more prosperous and more peaceful world."

This will not be the last tense confrontation between American and Chinese imperialism. American strategy designed to maintain US hegemony and prevent the rise of rival powers, both on a global and regional level, will inevitably put strains on the tense US China partnership. Factions within the bourgeoisies in each country, in the military in China, and on the right in the US, will continue to seize on these unavoidable conflicts to undermine the strategic relationship. But the dominant factions in both countries will not lightly abandon the current imperialist orientation.

EF & JG, 15/05/01