Exacerbation of tensions between the great powers and instability of alliances

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While the Covid-19 crisis has persisted for almost two years with its heavy health, social, political and economic impact on most of the world's states, this has in no way moderated their imperialist appetites. The rise in tensions has been particularly marked in recent months by a clear exacerbation of the opposition between the USA and China, highlighted most recently by the so-called “Aukus” agreement between the US, Britain and Australia, and explicitly aimed at China.

Polarisation of tensions in the China Sea

The Biden administration is not only maintaining the aggressive economic measures against China implemented by Trump, but it has above all increased the pressure on the political level (defence of the rights of the Uighurs and Hong Kong, rapprochement with Taiwan with which it is currently negotiating a trade agreement, accusations of computer hacking) and also on the military level in the China Sea, and this in a rather spectacular way since the beginning of April:

- On 7 April, the US deployed an aircraft carrier group (the USS Theodore Roosevelt, accompanied by its flotilla) to the South China Sea and the missile destroyer USS John S. McCain transited the Taiwan Strait (located between China and Taiwan);

- On 11 May, American, French (the amphibious helicopter carrier Tonnerre and the frigate Surcouf), Japanese and Australian ships began joint military exercises (ARC21) in the East China Sea, the first of their kind in this strategic area, not far from the Senkaku, uninhabited islets administered by Japan in the East China Sea and claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu. Before these exercises, the French ships had taken part in the La Pérouse exercises in the Bay of Bengal with American, Australian and Japanese Indian ships. Then, the Tonnerre passed south of Taiwan to reach Japan, while the Surcouf also chose the Taiwan Strait;

- The French presence in Japan is to be followed in 2021 by that of the German frigate Hessen, with Berlin expressing in 2020 its wish to have a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific, and the archipelago will host the British naval air group Queen Elizabeth in 2022.

- In September, the US, Britain and Australia announced a new defence agreement, known as “Aukus”, centred round expanding these countries’ military presence in the seas around China. The three countries will share military intelligence and technological knowledge which will enable Australia to build nuclear power submarines. The Aukus pact constitutes a slap in the face for France, with Australia cancelling a billion-dollar contract with France to build a submarine fleet. Reacting with fury, France has withdrawn its ambassadors from the US and Australia [1]. China has denounced the pact as the start of a new Cold War, although it will no doubt be gratified by these new divisions among its western rivals.

China for its part has reacted furiously to these political and military pressures, particularly those concerning Taiwan:

- In early April, in response to the presence of the US fleet, the aircraft carrier Liaoning accompanied by 5 warships operated in the waters east of the “rebel island”. Taiwanese fighter jets had to take off in a hurry to repel the entry of fifteen Chinese planes into the identification zone of Taiwan's air defence;

- On 19 May, a Hong Kong-based think tank affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party released a study highlighting the fact that tensions in the Taiwan Strait had become so sharp that they indicate an “all-time high” risk of war between mainland China and Taiwan;

- on 15 June, in response to the NATO meeting marking some agreement between the US and the EU on the China issue, twenty-eight Chinese fighter jets entered the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of former Formosa, the largest incursion of People's Liberation Army (PLA) fighters and bombers ever recorded;

- in early July, the Chinese magazine Naval and Merchant Ships published a plan for a three-stage surprise attack on Taiwan, which would lead to a total defeat of the “rebel province's” armed forces. Finally, at the end of August, the annual report of the Taiwanese Ministry of Defence warned that China “can now combine digital operations of its army that would initially paralyse our air defences, sea command centres and counter-attack capabilities, posing a huge threat to us” [2]

Warnings, threats and intimidation have thus followed one another in recent months in the China Sea. They underline the growing pressure exerted by the US on China. In this context, the United States is doing everything possible to draw other Asian countries behind them, worried about Beijing's expansionist ambitions (“The ARC21 exercise is a means of dissuasion in the face of China's increasingly aggressive behaviour in the region”, says Takashi Kawakami, director of the Institute of International Studies at Takushoku University (Japan) [3]. The USA is thus trying to create a sort of Asian NATO, the QUAD, bringing together the United States, Japan, Australia and India. On the other hand, and in the same sense, Biden wants to revive NATO in order to involve European countries in his policy of pressure against China.

To complete the picture, the tensions between NATO and Russia should not be overlooked either: after the incident of the Ryanair flight hijacked and intercepted by Belarus to arrest a dissident who had taken refuge in Lithuania, there were the NATO manoeuvres in the Black Sea off the Ukraine in June, where a clash occurred between a British frigate and Russian ships, and, in September, joint manoeuvres between the Russian and Belarusian armies on the borders of Poland and the Baltic States.

These events confirm that rising imperialist tensions are generating polarisation between the US and China on the one hand and NATO and Russia on the other, which in turn is pushing China and Russia to strengthen their ties with each other in order to confront the US and NATO.

Decomposition generates instability

However, the “Kabul debacle” [4] underlines how the decomposition and persistent destabilisation accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis stimulate centrifugal forces and exacerbate the "every man for himself" attitude of the various imperialisms, thus constantly thwarting any stabilisation of alliances:

- The precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, designed to concentrate military forces in the face of China, was carried out without consulting the allies, whereas Biden had promised a few months earlier at the G7 summit and at the NATO meeting that consultation and coordination would return; this withdrawal also means that the US is abandoning its allies on the ground (cf. the earlier dropping of the Kurds and the cooling of relations with Saudi Arabia) and can only reinforce the mistrust of countries such as India and South Korea towards an ally that is proving to be unreliable, as well as Europe's determination to create defence structures that are more independent of the US;

- On the other hand, the return to power of the Taliban constitutes a serious potential danger for Islamist infiltration into China (via the “Uighur problem”), especially since their allies, the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP), are engaged in a campaign of attacks against the “New Silk Road” construction sites, which has already led to the death of a dozen or so Chinese “cooperators”. This is prompting China to intensify its attempts to establish itself in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) to counter the danger. But these republics are traditionally part of the Russian sphere of influence, which increases the danger of confrontation with this 'strategic ally', with whom its long-term interests are fundamentally opposed anyway: the New Silk Road bypasses Russia and the latter is wary of China's growing economic hold on its Siberian territories;

- The chaos and the imperialist “every man for himself” in the world constantly accentuate the unpredictability of the positioning of the various states: the US is forced to keep up the pressure with regular aerial bombardments on Shiite militias harassing its forces in Iraq; the Russians have to play fireman in the armed confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, instigated by Turkey's imperialist self-interest; the spread of chaos in the Horn of Africa through the civil war in Ethiopia, with Sudan and Egypt supporting the Tigray region and Eritrea supporting the central Ethiopian government, is upsetting in particular the Chinese plans to use Ethiopia as a base for their “Belt and Road” project in North East Africa, and to this end they have installed a military base in Djibouti.

- The uncontrolled expansion of the pandemic linked to the generalisation of the Delta variant requires greater attention from states to the domestic situation, which may have an unpredictable impact on their imperialist policies. For example, the stagnation of vaccination in the USA, after an initial strong start, is causing a new wave of infection in the central and southern states. This leads to new coercive measures by the Biden administration, which in turn revives the recriminations of Trump's supporters. Similarly, in Russia, the government is faced with a resurgence of the epidemic, while vaccination is stalled and the population is extremely suspicious of Russian vaccines, leading the mayor of Moscow (where 15% of the population is vaccinated) to take measures making vaccination almost compulsory.

In China, where the government is counting on herd immunity before opening up the country, the worrying health situation requires constant attention. On the one hand, until this is achieved, China imposes strict lockdowns whenever infections are identified, and this severely hampers commercial activities. For example, last May, after some dockworkers in the port of Yantian became infected, the world's third largest container port was totally isolated for a week, with workers forced to quarantine themselves on site. Now again, entire regions are confined because of the spreading Delta variant, the strongest eruption since Wuhan in December 2019. Secondly, this quest for herd immunity has prompted a number of Chinese provinces and cities to impose heavy penalties on recalcitrants. These initiatives were widely criticised on Chinese social networks and were stopped by the government because they tended to “jeopardise national cohesion”. Finally, perhaps the most serious problem is the increasingly converging evidence about the limited effectiveness of Chinese vaccines.

In such a context, the rise of warlike tensions is inevitable. On the one hand, it indicates a certain polarisation, especially between the USA and China, underlined by a growing aggressiveness of the USA, which knows that, despite China's enormous investments in the modernisation of its armed forces, these cannot yet compete with the military power of the USA, especially in the air, at sea and in terms of its nuclear arsenal.

However, the chaos and the exacerbated “each for himself” constantly make any alliance unstable, stimulate imperialist appetites in all directions and push the major powers to avoid a direct confrontation between their armies, with a massive commitment of military personnel on the ground (“boots on the ground”), as illustrated by the withdrawal of US soldiers from Afghanistan. Instead, they have recourse to private military companies (Wagner organisation by the Russians, Blackwater/Academi by the USA, etc.) or to local militias to carry out actions on the ground: use of Syrian Sunni militias by Turkey in Libya and Azerbaijan, Kurdish militias by the USA in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah or Iraqi Shiite militias by Iran in Syria, Sudanese militias by Saudi Arabia in Yemen ....

The form that the expansion of these tensions is taking therefore heralds a multiplication of increasingly bloody and barbaric warlike confrontations in an environment marked by instability and chaos.

18.09.21/ R. Havanais


[1] We will analyse the significance and implications of this new pact in a subsequent article

[3]  Quoted on 18 May in L’homme nouveau


Imperialist conflicts