In Asia we are not witnessing the clash between secondary powers but between the world's two most populous countries: China and India. At the same time, the world's two biggest economies, the USA and China, who are more dependent on each other on an economic and financial level than ever, are engaged in an arms race. The zone of conflict involves some of the most important sea lanes of the world and contains the long-term risk of spreading a ring of fire from the Far East to the Middle East, with unpredictable repercussions for the entire world economy. Whereas in World War I the main battles took place in Europe and only very marginally in Asia, now one century later, the whole of Asia with its two oceans and its crucial sea-lanes is becoming engulfed in the deadly spiral. The build-up of destructive capacity dwarfs the power of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than 60 years later, in addition to the USA, half a dozen countries in the region have nuclear weapons or aim at having them: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Russia.1
The USA, the world’s only remaining super-power, feels most threatened by the emergence of China. This has compelled it to reorient its military strategy. While so far 40% of the US navy has been operating in the Atlantic Ocean, Washington plans to deploy 60% of the US navy in Asia. President Obama's recent decision to “pivot” US power towards the East has led to a redeployment of 60% of US naval forces to the Pacific. The US must necessarily do everything in its power to contain China, and so must adapt militarily. In a certain sense for the USA this confrontation is a battle for life or death.2
In March 1946, Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" speech, describing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe: the expression entered common parlance for the next 43 years, until the collapse in 1989 of the bloc built around the USSR. Only a month previously (February 1946) George Kennan (based in America's Moscow embassy) set out his proposals for the "containment" of the USSR – proposals that were to lay the foundation of US policy towards Russian imperialism. These two key moments illustrate an important feature of imperialism in capitalism's decadent epoch: the formation of fixed imperialist blocs is to a great extent dependent, not so much on common interests as on a common fear of a threatening rival. The "Allied" bloc that confronted the Germany-Italy-Japan "Axis" only really came into being in 1941 – the year that Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease agreement that guaranteed US arms shipments to Britain, and that Russia entered the war following its invasion by Germany (Operation Barbarossa), and the opening of the war in the Pacific following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
The "Allied" bloc lasted only five years, and ceased to exist with the annihilation of Nazi Germany and the "Axis", to be replaced by a new confrontation between a Russian bloc based on the military occupation of its neighbours (enforced by invasion where necessary: Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968), and a US bloc based essentially on a common fear of the USSR. When the disintegration of the USSR ended the Cold War with a clear American victory, the glue that had held the US bloc together lost its former holding power, and the US bloc in turn broke apart.
The US remains the world's overwhelmingly dominant power, with a total military budget great than that of the ten next-largest powers combined (45.7% of total world military spending). Nonetheless, China's regional rise poses a real potential threat to its neighbours: the "common fear" factor is overcoming old enmities and pushing towards a series of alliances and rapprochements aimed at containing Chinese power.3 Clearly, there are two powerful poles in the region – China and the United States – and other countries tend to gravitate around them.
Some of these alliances are apparently stable: China's alliance with Pakistan and North Korea, and the India-Japan-USA-Australia grouping. Outside these, however, there is a shifting landscape of regional rivalries: Vietnam and the Philippines fear China, but have their own territorial disputes in the SCS; Cambodia has a troubled history of conflict with Vietnam; Indonesia fears Australia's interference since the independence of East Timor; Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have reason to fear an over-mighty India, and so on. Russia's recent alliance with China in its disputes with the US over Syria and Iran, and North Korea, is essentially opportunistic.4
What we have today, therefore, is not the imminent formation of a new system of imperialist blocs, but rather the emergence of some of the same strategic and political tendencies that have led to the formation of the previous military blocs. There is however one major difference. The previous bloc systems were mostly autarchic in relation to each other (trade between COMECON and the OECD countries, or between China under Mao and the outside world, was insignificant). China and the US, and indeed all the countries of SE Asia, are on the contrary bound together by powerful commercial and financial ties and interests.
And of all these dependencies, those between China and the USA are the strongest. China holds more US-bonds than any other country ($1.15 trillion), thanks to which US capital has been able to finance its astronomic deficit budget, helping to stave off the effects of the crisis and of course financing its military machine. At the same time, China needs the USA as an export market for its commodities. And yet the two countries consider each other as their main global rivals, against whom they have to mobilise. The South China Sea littoral countries all depend on China as a market for their products and on Chinese investments in their economy, and China needs these countries as well, as suppliers of raw materials and as markets.
Surely it is absurd to imagine countries so dependent on each other engaging in military confrontation, "cutting off their nose to spite their face" so to speak?
Such ideas are not new, indeed they date back to the beginning of the 20th century when the danger of imperialist confrontation was an immediate and burning issue. In his 1902 study of imperialism, the British economist John Hobson denounced imperialism as the fruit of the economic domination of finance capital, and thought that the development of a true, vigorous democracy could act as an antidote to its dangers. In 1909, the future Nobel Peace prize winner Norman Angell, another British economist, published Europe's optical illusion, in which he demonstrated that the economic interdependence of the European powers made imperialist war a mutually ruinous, indeed an irrational undertaking.
Hobson and Angell in effect posed the possibility of a "peaceful" imperialism, or a capitalism stripped of its imperialist defects. Similar notions found their way into the workers' movement prior to 1914: Kautsky imagined the emergence of a "super-imperialist" general alliance of the great powers, whose premises, he thought, could be seen in the cooperation between the European powers (with Japan and the USA) to put down the Boxer rebellion in China.
Lenin gave short shrift to Kautsky and Hobson in his Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism: "in the realities of the capitalist system (...) 'inter-imperialist' or 'ultra-imperialist' alliances, no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitably nothing more than a 'truce' in periods between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one conditions the other, producing alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle on one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations within world economics and world politics". Yet in a sense, both Lenin and Angell were correct: Angell showed that war within an advanced capitalist economy could only lead to catastrophe, while Lenin demonstrated (as Luxemburg had before him) that imperialist conflict was notwithstanding inherent to capitalism "in its death throes" (to use Lenin's expression).
The situation in South-East Asia offers a striking illustration of this dual reality. The smaller countries of the region are all dependent on each other and on China economically and yet all perceive their big neighbour China as a major threat and spend prodigious sums of money arming against China! Why does China antagonise all these countries although it is so dependent on on them economically and financially? Why do so many national bourgeoisies turn towards the USA for “help”, knowing that they run the risk of being blackmailed by the USA? This brings up the deeper question of why there is a permanent drive towards militarism? The military question is “imposing” itself – seemingly even against the will of some factions in the ruling classes of these countries.
The root of the problem is that the economic emergence of a country must necessarily be accompanied by military power. A mere stronger economic competitiveness in the long-term is not sufficient. Every country has to have sufficient access to raw materials, energy, has to benefit from the best flow of commodities, i.e. keep its sea lanes and other transport routes free. No country, whether on the decline or “emerging”, whether a former “loser” or “winner” can escape from this inherent tendency of capitalism.
When capitalism was still in its ascendant phase, expanding across the globe, this situation could lead to tension, even conflict (between Britain and France during the American War of Independence or in India, for example), but not to the all-out destruction of 20th century warfare.5 Today the situation is very different: the entire planet is parcelled out among the various imperialist powers, great and small, and the rise of one power can only be at the expense of another – there are no "win-win" situations.
This is not only true on the level of economic wealth and military hardware. Human action is also determined by more intangible factors – which are none the less material for all that. And in international affairs, national prestige is as important as the possession of military power itself, since a nation's prestige makes its threat of force convincing, giving it the power (to use a favourite expression of British diplomacy) to "punch above its weight". The Byzantine Empire survived long after the decline of its military power, in part thanks to the prestige of its wealth and the name of Rome. Nearer to our own time, first the Bolsheviks and then – after the defeat of the Russian revolution – the Stalinist rulers of the USSR, consistently overestimated the power of a British Empire critically weakened by World War I. Even at the end of World War II, the United States thought for a while that they could leave British armies to hold the line against the USSR in Europe, such was the lasting power of the British imperial myth.6
The capacity for vast and extravagant display is crucial to prestige – hence the colossal expenditure of at least $16 billion on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.7 More important though is the ability to exercise military dominance, especially of one's own immediate area.
Hence, at the beginning of the imperialist age, it was the rising power Germany which set out to challenge the dominant British imperialism by embarking (in 1898) on an ambitious plan of naval expansion aimed explicitly at challenging the power of the Royal Navy. This was, and could only be perceived by Britain as a mortal threat to its own sea lanes and trade, on which the country was and is wholly dependent.
The parallel with today's situation is striking, even down to the imperialist powers' protestations of their peaceful intentions. Here is the German Chancellor von Bülow speaking in 1900: "I explained (...) that I understand by a world policy merely the support and advancement of the tasks that have grown out of the expansion of our industry,our trade, the labour power, activity and intelligence of our people. We had no intentions of conducting an aggressive policy of expansion. We wanted only to protect the vital interests that we had acquired, in the natural course of events, throughout the world".8 And here is Hu Jintao in 2007: "the Chinese government and people will always hold high the banner of peace, development and cooperation, pursue an independent foreign policy of peace, safeguard China's interests in terms of sovereignty, security and development, and uphold its foreign policy purposes of maintaining world peace and promoting common development (...) China opposes terrorism, hegemonism and power politics in any form and does not engage in arms race or pose a military threat to any other country, and will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion".9
As we have demonstrated in this article, China has embarked on a vast programme of rearmament and naval expansion with the aim of dominating its own "inner island chain". All the protestations of China's leadership notwithstanding, this inevitably threatens the whole US position in the Pacific and puts at risk not just its shipping and trade, but its prestige and credibility as an ally, amongst the South-East Asian countries which also feel menaced by China's rise, in particular Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. That America is aware of this threat is clearly demonstrated by Obama's "pivot" of US military power towards the Pacific. Almost 100 years since World War I, capitalism has not changed its nature: capitalist competition in its decadent phase poses more than ever a mortal threat to humanity's survival. The responsibility of the world working class, the only power capable of stopping imperialist war, has never been greater.10
Dv/Jens, November 2012
2 (see Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2012, Michael Klare).
3 The case of Vietnam illustrates the tendency. Vietnam, which was colonised by France and suffered from carpet bombings of all kinds by the USA for more than a decade, in the face of the new giant China has started to look for support from the USA and has, for instance, opened its harbour at Cam Ranh Bay to foreign navies, pulling in other countries (in particular the USA, India, Japan) to develop more muscle against China. The Myanmar ruling junta's sudden love affair with "democracy" after years under China's wing, could also be seen as an attempt to win US and Western support against an over-might neighbour.
4 The different regroupments around China and the US, unlike the old bloc system, remain for the moment a largely regional affair despite China's interests in African and the Middle East, and the European powers' nervousness confronted with the Russian bear.
5 The Napoleonic Wars which lasted for 20 years, might be thought to contradict this, However, these are probably better seen as a continuation of the French revolution and of the revolutionary overthrow of feudalism in Europe, rather than as a war between capitalist powers, though inevitably they also contained aspects of the latter.
7 This is not new: one could take a "history of prestige" at least as far back as the potlatch ceremonies of North American Indian tribes, if not further.
8 Quoted in EJ Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, Cardinal Editions p302.
9 Cited by Xinhua, https://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2007-10/15/content_6884160.htm
10 An analysis of the class struggle in China is beyond the scope of this article, but we can say that the Chinese capitalist ruling class is aware of the threat from below: China's internal security budget recently overtook its military spending for the first time as Beijing intensified surveillance and repression. In 2012 China will spend $111.4 billion dollars on public security, which includes police and state security forces – an amount that officially exceeds even the defense budget. See https://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/05/us-china-parliament-security-...