Imperialist conflict between China and Japan

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Recent clashes in 2012 and 2013 over the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyus islands (the archipelago is located roughly 200 km northeast of Taiwan, 400 km southwest of the Japanese Okinawa island, and almost 400 km east of China)  have brutally brought to the fore the ambitions and tensions of the two biggest regional rivals in the Far East. Both China, the most populated country and second most important economic power in the world, and Japan, the third biggest economic power, have escalated tensions around the islands and regularly mobilise troops which have been engaged in shows of force. Taiwan has also clashed with Japan over the island. This must be of great concern not only to the population in Japan and China and the region, but the whole world.

The two big sharks as well as Taiwan claim ownership over these islands. Although the islands are mere rocks and uninhabited, their strategic position as well as possible oil and gas fields and rich fishery grounds in the area have increased the determination of these countries to claim possession of the islands.

China – an imperialist rival on the rise

While China claims control over these islands and clashes with Japan, this is not the only hotspot where China has run into conflict with its neighbours.  During the past years, since its economic ascension, China has become increasingly vulnerable because of its high dependency on raw materials. Up to 80% of its maritime goods pass along the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Any blockage of a maritime strait in Asia would seriously disturb China. Moreover, China has increasingly tried to expand its presence beyond the coastal areas of China itself, in particular in the South-China-Sea[1]. In the face of its major rival, India, China has been trying to develop a “string of pearls”- i.e. a series of military outposts in strategically important locations. China has been supporting Iran and Syria against any possible military strike by the USA and other countries. Although the Chinese leadership wants to present the economic rise of the country as peaceful, the ruling clique has been investing heavily in its military capabilities. The USA, the only existing superpower, already perceives China as its main rival in the region and has decided to shift its military focus towards East Asia. The USA plan to position 60% of its navy in the region by 2020.

On top of this, the increasing need for raw materials, in particular energy resources, has driven China to explore and claim exploitation rights in the South China Sea. If the country has been involved in conflict over the South China Sea, and now with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it shows that the country is not only hungry for raw materials but claims a new position in the imperialist hierarchy of the world. It no longer wants to leave the USA and its allies the dominant role but aims to be a regional power, capable of defending its interests far away from Chinese territories. Thus the conflict between China and Japan is only the tip of the iceberg of growing imperialist tensions in the Far East.

Japan – a weakened imperialist power but clinging to its ambitions

Japan in turn has been claiming ownership of the islands, renewing its pride in its imperialist history. Already at the end of the 19th century Japanese capital was directing its ambitions towards Taiwan, the islands of the East China Sea and Korea. Today the regime in Tokyo puts forward its occupation of the islands in 1894 as a justification for its claims of historic ownership. When Japan was defeated by US imperialism in 1945, the USA took control over the islands, but handed them back to Japanese control in 1972. Of course Japan does not want to leave possible energy resources to its Chinese rival. But Japan also wants to defend its position on the imperialist pecking order. The country must try to leave behind the chains of the past. After its defeat in WW2 Japan was pulled under the wing of the USA. After intensive bombing raids (nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fire bombings of Tokyo and other cities) the US took control of the country. Japan was forced to write in its constitution that its armed forces were not allowed to intervene in conflicts abroad.  But already in the Korean war of the early 1950s, in the context of the cold war, the USA had to rearm its former enemy to draw on Japanese support to fight against Russia and China. With North Korea regularly threatening to use its arsenal of weapons against Japan, the USA or South Korea, and with the increasing might of China, Japan finds itself in a contradictory situation. On the one hand it wants to loosen its dependence on the USA; on the other hand, given the many military threats from North Korea and China, the country has to remain under the US weapons shield. Since 1989 the country has made small steps towards expanding its presence. The Japanese army gained first experience of “out-of-area-operations” in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, providing logistic support to  the US-led war coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Japan has participated in military manoeuvres with India and Vietnam in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Recently Japan succeeded in establishing its first military basis in Djiibuti. Its military can count on the most modern weapons. And the modernisation and expansion of the Chinese army has made Tokyo more determined to invest more money into its armed forces. However, Japan is not only at odds with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands: Japan is also quarrelling with South-Korea over the small Dokdo/Takeshima island, which Japan snatched from South Korea in 1905. Japan fears military provocations by North Korea and would perceive a possible unification of the divided Korea as a further threat to its position. However, the ascent of Chinese imperialism is perceived by Japan as the biggest danger. Historically Japan and China have been the two main imperialist rivals in the region. With Japan having occupied large parts of China for years and waging a terrible war with many massacres of the Chinese population, the Chinese ruling class constantly uses chauvinist feelings of revenge against Nippon. In turn, the new Japanese Abe government has announced a more aggressive stance against China.

Any escalation of tensions between Japan and China will pour oil on the conflict between the USA and China and contribute to sharpening tensions in other zones of conflict where the USA and China and their allies clash. The rivalries between the two biggest Asian competitors are full of consequences for the entire planet!

The conflict between China and Japan: a mere nationalist diversion?

On several occasions, in particular in autumn 2012, there were protests in several Chinese cities against Japanese military presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with demonstrators burning Japanese shops or attacking Japanese owned factories. These protests are obviously  welcomed by the Chinese State and probably directly organised by it. Like any other regime, the government in Beijing is most eager to sidetrack from burning social issues – growing economic problems, pollution, anger about the corrupt ruling clique etc. As even official Chinese institutions have to admit the number of “mass incidents” has been growing steadily over the past few years. The Chinese government wants these protests to be pulled onto a nationalist, patriotic terrain. The clashes with Japan can easily be used as a tool to try to rally the population behind the Chinese state. And the Chinese state has been hammering  a sophisticated chauvinist propaganda into the heads of the young generation for years. Likewise, the Japanese government, which has been struggling against the ongoing descent into economic depression for years and is also faced with the disaster of Fukushima and the effects of the Tsunami, also wants the population to run into the nationalist trap and gang up behind the state. But while the ruling cliques certainly manipulate these protests as best they can, it would be dangerous to reduce these clashes to a mere nationalist trick to divert from economic, social or ecological issues. If the two most powerful countries of the Asia-Pacific region clash over these islands, and the USA as well as the other countries of the region are pulled into a process of alignments for or against the contenders, this reveals a sharpening of imperialist tensions in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Because the two countries are heavily dependent on each other for their exports, and trade between the two countries has fallen considerably because of the recent clashes, one might ask: could the rulers not become “reasonable” and keep a lid on their nationalistic tendencies? But are our rulers “reasonable”? In reality, militarism is an incurable disease of the capitalist system; it is stronger than any single government.  The capitalist system does not allow for a peaceful development of economic rivalries. For more than one century the whole system has been pulling humanity deeper and deeper into barbaric wars. In WW1 the main carnage took place in Europe, and Asia was still relatively spared from the battles. But in WW2 large areas of Asia  became a major theatre of war where dozens of millions lost their lives. And the Korean war was one of the deadliest confrontations in the 1950s, before years of imperialist war ravaged Vietnam. Following the collapse of the Russian bloc and the weakening of US imperialism, Chinese imperialism has been able to gain weight and is determined  to challenge the imperialist constellation in Asia. All its regional rivals (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, India etc.) want to prevent a further strengthening of China and look for US military support. The recent confrontation between China and Japan is just one in a series of increased tensions in the entire region.

What should be our attitude?

Should we follow the nationalist orientation of our governments and be ready to massacre each other? No, nationalism, chauvinism, patriotism have been the  gravediggers of the proletariat. The  problems humanity is facing – an insurmountable economic crisis, permanent war drive, xenophobia, pauperisation of the working class, ecological destruction of the planet – cannot be solved by nationalism. If we run into the nationalist trap, the whole of humanity will be annihilated. In the 20th century alone, some 200 million people have been killed in endless wars. We can only overcome this barbarism and the dead-end that this society drives us into by  overcoming this mode of production.

This is the message which the working class, the young generations in particular, have to send to the social movements in other countries. In Japan there have been a number of protests against the effects of Fukushima, and there is growing anger about the effects of the economic crisis.[2] In China there have been a series of workers strikes against their incredible exploitation, and against the horrible ecological pollution[3]. And in so many other countries – we can just mention the Arab Spring, Spain, the USA, Greece, Bangladesh  etc. – where the working class population has been suffering from the effects of mass unemployment,  pauperisation and the increased pressure at work, the solution is not nationalism, ganging up behind the state, but class confrontation. We cannot overcome the  crisis and barbarism if we burn shops and production sites which belong to a “foreign competitor”, call for the boycott of the commodities of the foreign rival or sanctions against them. We need to unite on a working class terrain, the terrain of class against class, and not nation against nation. Our slogan remains:  workers have no fatherland!

It was this standpoint which allowed the working class to bring the carnage of the First World War to an end. Revolutionaries around Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg and others defended an internationalist position – calling for the unification  of all the workers across national boundaries. It was this firm internationalist stance which served as an inspiration to the workers in the factories and fronts, finally encouraging them to end WW1 through revolutionary uprisings. In the war between Japan and China in 1937 the internationalists of the small Left Communist group Bilan defended the same position: “On both sides of the fronts there is a rapacious, dominant bourgeoisie, which only aims at massacring workers. On both sides of the fronts there are workers led to the slaughter. It is wrong, absolutely wrong to believe that there is a bourgeoisie which the Chinese workers could – even temporarily – side with to 'struggle together even for only a short time', with the idea that first Japanese imperialism must be defeated in order to allow the Chinese workers to struggle victoriously for the revolution. Everywhere imperialism sets the pace, and China is only the puppet of the other imperialisms. To find their way to revolutionary battles, the Chinese and Japanese workers must return to the class struggle which will lead to their unification. Their fraternisation should cement their simultaneous assault against their own exploiters (…).” (journal of the Italian Left, Bilan, n°44, October 1937, p1415)

We must take up this internationalist tradition and break out of the nationalist prison. Today, conditions exist for workers to take up contact, to establish links amongst internationalists, to defend a common internationalist position everywhere. Even if our rulers use all means – censorship, control of the internet, repression, closing off borders etc., - we must work towards the unification of the working class. 

While the rulers in China and Japan want the young generation in particular to swallow the nationalist pill, we must firmly put forward our alternative – the class struggle. Such an attitude would be an important message to the workers in North and South Korea, where the rulers threaten each other every day and whip up the same war propaganda, and to the working class of the whole world.

The ICC (February, 2013)

See our pamphlet Imperialism in the Far East, past and present


[3]For example in January/February 2013, when record levels of pollution in Beijing posed a threat to the health of millions of people in the Chinese capital, and a short time later the smog was driven to Japan where similar record levels of pollution were measured, the governments of the two countries were engaged in military adventures over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands instead of protecting the health of their population. 



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Imperialism: Far East