The US attempt to militarily encircle China

By Jane West

US imperialism is facing a threat to its global economic, and therefore also political, dominance. Even at market exchange rates the latest estimates are that the size of China’s economy will overtake that of the US within ten years. The recent prediction by the IMF that on current trends the size of the Chinese economy, measured in PPP terms, will overtake the US in as little as five years’ time, created international comment

A Chinese economy that is larger than the US in terms of absolute size, of course, would not mean that it yet had the same fundamental economic strength and capacity as the US – which in five years time will still be home to many of the world’s largest global businesses, will still have the greatest military power on the planet, and the dollar will probably still be the world’s leading currency. But there is no question that China’s GDP overtaking the US would be a further milestone on the road to the end of US global dominance. The US imperialist ruling class is deeply aware of that fact and wants to do everything possible to try to prevent it.

Precisely because China’s rise is one of the most important threats to the position of US imperialism, the Obama administration has made it one of its top international priorities to attempt to strangle China’s development. This consists of a number of attacks on China’s economic growth and, in line with overall US tactics, to attempt to shift confrontation from the economic field, where the US is losing, to the military arena where the US is still pre-eminent.

US attempts to slow China’s economy

On the economic field the US has taken a number of steps to try to slow down China’s growth. These include blocking high technology exports to China, placing tariffs on some of China’s imports, vetoing Chinese companies’ attempts to expand their production into the US via takeovers, campaigning that China ‘manipulates’ its currency, calling for a fast revaluation of the RMB to make China’s exports uncompetitive internationally, attempting an ideological intervention to persuade the Chinese government to reduce the high rate of investment which powers its economic growth, discouraging FDI into China on the grounds that there is not a ‘level playing field’ for foreign business, and many others. All of these are continuing – although they have so far failed to stop the rapid growth of China’s economy.

US military pressure on China

Given that the economic offensive by the US against China has so far failed, US imperialism is forced to rely even more on the military field – where it still enjoys a large lead. Even the US does not at present envisage a world war with China, which would result in the nuclear devastation of the United States, but there are other forms of military pressure which can be applied. It is these that the US is now paying increasing attention to, even if this means it has to cut down to some degree the resources devoted to other conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Therefore, alongside reducing its military commitment to Afghanistan, reducing its deployment in Iraq, and its refusal to play the leading role in the imperialist assault on Libya, the US is increasing its priority to developing military encirclement of China.

The aim in this is twofold. On the one hand, the US would like to create a relationship of military forces – through its own military presence and the creation of a string of key strategic military alliances around China – which could directly threaten China. But this is not easy to achieve. So, alongside this, it has the more realisable goal of driving up a series of regional and border tensions and therefore forcing China to redirect resources towards military defence and away from developing its economy and improving living standards – a strategy that is seen by US imperialism as having been successful in cracking the USSR’s economy in the 1980s.

This policy has involved the US in a series of diplomatic and military initiatives aimed at creating problems for China around its extensive borders.

North and North East Asia

To the north and east of China, the main forces are Russia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The US has therefore engaged in series of diplomatic and military interventions aimed at stoking up tensions and trying to tie these countries together into an anti-China alliance – a project in which it has had only mixed success.

South Korea (ROK) is entirely tied into the US’s system of alliances and is militarily dependent on the US – with 28 US army and air bases in the country and over 28,000 US troops permanently stationed there. Despite occasional disputes – most recently over the allegation that the US buried quantities of Agent Orange beneath one of its bases after the Vietnam War – essentially South Korea’s government strategically implements the US’s decisions on foreign policy. The US therefore initially decided that the Korean peninsular looked a promising area for heightening an aggressive policy against China.

The first phase of this US new offensive against China, therefore, involved trying to whip up tensions in the Korean peninsula, with sabre-rattling against North Korea, including several incidents involving exchange of fire, and staging provocative US-ROK military exercises in the Sea of Japan. New military exercises are planned, but the US aim of winding up the situation in the region cannot rely exclusively on South Korea – which is too small to pose a significant problem for China militarily.

Japan is therefore even more crucial than South Korea in US strategy towards China in North-East Asia. Like South Korea, Japan is militarily dependent on the US, including as a result of the constraints on Japanese re-armament imposed after the World War Two. The US has 23 military bases in Japan. Some of these have become controversial in Japan, particularly the Okinawa base, which has been subject to an on-going campaign for its removal. Various Japanese politicians have made populist promises to close the base – for example, Prime Minister Hatoyama was elected on such a pledge in 2010 and lasted only eight months in office after reneging on it. But all opposition to the base has foundered on US refusal to compromise and Japanese imperialism’s refusal to fall out with its most powerful ally.

Until recently Japan’s military policy after 1945 had been primarily directed against Russia – as part of the Cold War axis with the West against the Soviet Union. Therefore Japan’s key bases and main military deployment were in the north of the country. Significantly, in December 2010 Japan announced in the outcome of a strategic defence review that in future it will reorient its military focus to confronting China, with defences scaled down in the north and refocused in the south. The review also strengthened the military alliance with the US, which it described as ‘indispensable’.

This decision, undoubtedly at the behest of the US, was parallelled by deteriorating relations between Japan and China over the disputed Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which in 2010 led to Japan detaining a Chinese trawler boat captain for 17 days for allegedly ramming a Japanese coast guard vessel. The US’s absurd offer to be a ‘neutral’ third party mediator in the dispute was roundly rejected by China.

The Diaoyu islands are also claimed by Taiwan, which has recently run into its own dispute with Japan in the area, when a group of activists protesting in support of Taiwan’s claim to the sovereignty over the islands, were confronted by Japanese coastguards. China supported Taiwan in this dispute with Japan.

This incident underlines some complications the US is also experiencing in its relations with Taiwan.

On the one hand, Taiwan has been entirely reliant on the US militarily. Taiwan is a clear historical part of China to which the defeated Kuomintang fled after the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Even the US does not recognise its independent status from China – which is of course also completely rejected by China. Taiwan’s dependence on the US was underlined when in January 2010 the US announced it intended to sell it $6.4bn of antimissile systems, helicopters and other military equipment – provoking protest from China. Taiwan’s total dependence on the US ties it into the anti-China military and diplomatic efforts of US imperialism in the area.

But on the other hand, Taiwan is increasingly economically reliant on mainland China, particularly for much needed investment after the international financial crisis. The election of Ma Ying-Jeou as president of Taiwan in 2008, on a mandate of reducing tension with mainland China, has led to a massive expansion of trade, investment, tourist links and cultural exchanges. This goes in the opposite direction to the increased military tension sought by the US.

However, the fundamental obstacle to the US strategy in North East Asia is its failure to gain the support of Russia, which, as a global military power on a scale far greater than all the other states in the region apart from China itself, is strategically crucial to any potential imperialist encirclement to China’s north-east.

Russia, Japan and China

The USSR entered the war against Japan in its last stages and its military offensive, among other things, secured control of the Kuril Islands to the south east of Russia. These islands now play an important strategic role for Russia, as control of them creates a Russian controlled ‘lake’ in the seas to its south-east from which its nuclear submarines and other military forces can operate with greatly enhanced safety. The Kuril islands are therefore regarded as indispensible to Russia’s interests and the demand that they remain within Russia is overwhelmingly supported by its population – even the slavishly pro-US Yeltsin did not dare to return them to Japan despite offers of major economic assistance from Japanese imperialism if he did so. This situation in the Kuril islands, and the overall threat posed by Japanese imperialism to Russia, is therefore creating problems for the US and Western policy of courting Russia with the aim of drawing it into putting military pressure on China.

US policy towards Russia appeared to be advancing in the first half of 2010 with a reactionary ‘deal’ which delivered Russian support for new sanctions on Iran in return for changes in US ‘missile defence’ plans in Eastern Europe. This helped pressure China into wrongly supporting the Iran sanctions motion at the UN, and appeared to be drawing Russia more closely into US strategic objectives, including with regard to China.

However Russia’s concern for security on its own eastern border, in particular to resist Japan’s claim to the Kuril Islands, has so far prevented any further advance for US policy in this area. Indeed Russia’s position on the Kurils was shown clearly when in November 2010 Medvedev became the first serving Russian President to visit the islands. Not only did he visit – an action that was described as an ‘unforgivable outrage’ by Naoto Kan, premier of Japan – but he went straight from the Kurils to a high profile state visit to China.

These events unsurprisingly led to a sharp deterioration in Russo-Japanese relations, which was deepened in February of this year when Medvedev declared the islands an ‘inseparable’ part of Russia’s territory and a ‘strategic region’, while announcing an increase in the Russian military presence on the islands.

With neither Russia nor Japan willing to compromise over the Kurils, the US has therefore met a significant obstacle to pulling off its anti-China alliance in the region. Without the support of Russia the US does not present China with a new and more seriously worrying relationship of forces in the region. This appears to be why the US has slightly backed away from sabre-rattling over the Korean peninsula at present – although its aims and intentions remain unchanged.

Shifting pressure on China to the south

Given failure to make decisive progress in north east Asia, the US has decided to shift its immediate attention to a more aggressive intervention in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton signalled US intentions on this in July 2010 when at a conference in Hanoi she announced the South China Sea and the local territorial disputes were in the US’s sphere of ‘national interest’ – despite the rather evident fact that they are thousands of kilometres from the United States.

The three main archipelagos of the South China Sea’s islands and atolls are nearly all historically disputed between various regional states including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei, due to their strategic position and more recently to their potential mineral, gas and oil deposits. The US has courted all the other key states in these disputes, offering support against an ‘over-aggressive China’, encouraging them to continue to promote the US’s presence in the region and to build up their military arsenals. Over the last two years, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have taken steps to acquire more modern naval equipment with the support of the US. In late June 2011 the US launched on-going naval military exercises with the Philippines just outside the South China seas, underlining its high profile military presence in the region.

The focus so far of the US’s intervention in the area has been in relation to the strategically significant Spratly group of islands which are particularly hotly disputed between China and Vietnam. Other states in the region also make claims to them.

The Spratlys are an archipelago of 750 atolls and islets spread across the South China Sea between the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. There is probably only one really inhabitable island – known as Itu Aba or Taiping – and this has had a resident Chinese fishing population since at least the beginning of the 20th century – which France recognised when it claimed the islands on behalf of its Indochinese colony in the 1930s. Occupied by Japan in World War Two, Itu Aba/Taiping is now administered by Taiwan, which retained that role after the islands were reclaimed by China following the defeat of Japan. But Vietnam did not relinquish its claim, although the Chinese consider that a letter from the North Vietnamese government in 1958 recognizing the ‘12 nautical mile principle for territorial waters’ accepted the Chinese position.

The issue has waxed and waned in acuteness without being resolved, but has become more significant in recent years due to the combination of rising international trade, especially with China, which now places the islands close to important sea routes, the increased potential for exploitation of oil, gas and mineral deposits, the depletion of fish within the existing agreed maritime zones, and their strategic naval military position. The US has moved in on the dispute to deepen its alliances in the region and strengthen its military position, with a clear hostile stance to China.

In 2009 the dispute escalated when a U.S. navy vessel entered China’s maritime territory off Hainan – which is universally internationally recognised as part of China – without permission.  In recent months there have been a string of incidents.

In May Vietnamese fishing vessels were confronted by Chinese coastguards allegedly outside Vietnam’s maritime zone and within the disputed waters of the Spratlys. While Vietnam hotly denied its fishing boats have breached the agreed maritime zones, and accused China of an unjustified, aggressive response, in fact it appears that the fishing community may have been tacitly encouraged by their government to extend their fishing areas into the disputed areas – both in response to local concerns about depleted fish stocks and to up the ante with China over the Spratlys.

Vietnam also unilaterally announced its intention to start drilling and excavating in the disputed areas. This was strongly opposed by China, which has responded by increasing its coastguard presence and other civilian shipping in the area, with a string of semi-violent clashes as a result. In June a Chinese fishing ships nets allegedly became tangled with the cables of a Vietnamese underwater exploration ship, leading to accusations by China that the lives of its fishers had been endangered, and from Vietnam that China had deliberately cut the cables. This was shortly followed by a highly provocative announcement by Vietnam that it would hold live-fire military exercises in the South China sea.

Behind this lies the US egging Vietnam into a more confrontational stance towards China, with the promise of US backing for its territorial claims.

It is true that China has shown little flexibility in recognising any element of the Vietnamese claims to the islands or the fact that its neighbours have legitimate interests in the area, which has not helped create any momentum towards resolution. But immediately China has put forward two reasonable principles: that the matters should be discussed and resolved bilaterally between China and Vietnam through talks without the involvement of external third parties, and that in the absence of a mutual agreement neither side should take steps to exploit the islands or extend their claims through fishing, port development, drilling or other measures.

This is what made Hillary Clinton’s Hanoi intervention in 2010 so deliberately provocative. Not only did it seem to assert some legitimate interest by Washington in an area in China’s backyard and an enormous distance from the United States, but she went on to suggest the US might help resolve the dispute through ‘collaborative diplomacy’ – that is US meddling in the area.

Not surprisingly this led to very sharp words from China, which objects strongly to attempts by the US to interfere in China’s relations with its neighbours – especially so blatantly. China may be being slow to negotiate with Vietnam, but it quite rightly has no intention at all of negotiating rights in the South China sea with the US, which has no claim at all.

The US strategy is clear – to create an encircling string of de facto or de jure military alliances, support the rearmament of China’s neighbours, intervene in local territorial disputes, and tighten a noose around China. It met with a setback in the North East as Russia could not be drawn into its strategy. It is currently meeting more success in the South China Sea where Vietnam has been unwisely drawn into its machinations and is tending towards greater confrontation with China.

The aim of US imperialism in all this is to try to force China to divert more resources to military defence, undermining its economic growth, and in the final analysis to be in a position to actually challenge China militarily if necessary. Given the rapid growth of China’s economy, and China’s development of increasingly sophisticated military technology, it is not at all clear for how long it is conceivable that the US can present a military challenge to China, so its timetable to strike some blows is speeding up. Not in the sense of a rapid direct military confrontation, but an urgency to turn the relationship of forces regionally against China, for which the US is now prepared to forsake so directly pursuing other interests – for example in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Seeking to win over Russia and isolate China remains a key component of the US policy of encirclement of China – which it has so far not achieved to the degree it wishes. But the US is ruthless, determined and with its global position, and that of the other imperialist powers, at stake it will not give up.

Anti-imperialists and socialists have to see through the machinations and ideological confusions spread by the US and its allies about ‘threats’ presented by China’s growth and understand that the real threat is to imperialism’s global dominance. Taking the side of defence of China against imperialist attempts to militarily encircle it is a decisive class line of divide in world politics today.

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