By Jude Woodward
The United States has launched a confrontation with China that it is attempting to project as of Cold War dimensions. Its clear aim is to isolate China diplomatically and politically, threaten it militarily, force it to divert investment from the productive economy to military spending, exclude it from world markets and label it a ‘pariah’ state.
In pursuit of this, the US is decisively stepping up its naval and military presence directed at China – the so-called ‘pivot to the Pacific’. It is encouraging China’s neighbours to step up their own military spending and take a more aggressive stance to China. Initiatives like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are aimed at creating huge preferential trade blocs led by the US that specifically exclude China.
The US is trying to isolate China politically, not just at the level of states, but by confusing and dividing those that might otherwise oppose this offensive, particularly through hypocritical and exaggerated campaigns on China’s record on human rights and labour standards and presenting China as aggressive and expansionist when it responds to legitimate security concerns or local challenges.
The core of the US’s re-orientation to contain and confront China is a shift to station 60% of the US’s total naval capacity in the Pacific, the first time since 1945 that the majority of US forces will have been out of the Atlantic-Mediterranean arena.
To facilitate this the US has won agreement to a new base in Australia, up-graded its Guam facilities, negotiated with Japan to stay on in Okinawa, is building a major new base in South Korea, and has agreed with the Philippines that its ex-base at Subic Bay is once more at the disposal of the US navy. It has sold a new raft of arms to Taiwan, upped its deal for F-16s with Indonesia, strengthened its military alliance with Japan and encouraged the other countries surrounding China to re-arm.
The fundamental question that this American policy towards China poses is what position should the left, the anti-war movement and progressive forces world-wide take on the confrontation?
The answer should be crystal clear – to defend China against this imperialist offensive.
(Image reproduced from ‘Falling Eagle, Rising Dragon’, published by CND)
The relative positions of the USA and China
On the one hand, the USA is the world’s most powerful military machine. Its record is straightforward: it deploys this unprecedented, immense force to threaten, crush or terrify all signs of resistance to its global economic and political system.
Just since the 1970s, despite its defeat in Vietnam, it covertly armed a coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile, maintained a blockade of Cuba, ran a successful contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, invaded Grenada and Panama, waged two wars in Iraq, intervened in Bosnia, led the bombing of Serbia, organised a coup attempt in Venezuela, ran a covert war then invaded Afghanistan, fought an air war against Libya, and made countless other interventions from drone attacks to bombing raids to covert CIA operations. It targets any sign of resistance, not just socialist or explicitly anti-imperialist, but any hint of independence from its Washington imposed consensus, however faltering, partial, confused or wavering.
On the other hand, since the 1970s, China has risen from absolute poverty to become an ‘upper middle income’ country by international criteria. Only 30% of the world’s population now lives in countries with a higher per capita GDP and 50% of the world’s population is now in countries with a lower per capita GDP. Just to get a scale of this achievement, by 1949 the imperialists’ ‘concessions’, ‘unfair treaties’, annexations and occupations had ensured China’s modern underdevelopment and its people’s impoverishment. Under the heel of imperialism China’s living standards fell from roughly the world average in 1820 to one-fifth of the world average in 1949. The leading economic historian Angus Maddison calculates that China’s level of GDP per capita in 1949 was lower than Britain in 1500, and a fraction of the level even in Africa, which had itself been ravaged by imperialism. China threw off the yoke of the Japanese and Western imperialist powers in 1949. Since then, and especially since its ‘opening up’ under Deng Xiaoping from 1978, Chinese living standards have been restored to close to the world average and over 620 million Chinese people have been lifted out of internationally defined poverty. This was achieved by overthrowing imperialism, not by applying to join its club.
But although this is still nowhere near the levels of development of the imperialist countries, nonetheless international trade with China has begun to provide many poorer countries with an alternative to the unfavourable terms of trade imposed by the West. Its accumulation of large dollar reserves also mean it has become a source of financial aid for indebted poor countries providing larger trade financing and loans to many developing countries than the World Bank. This in turn means they can avoid going cap in hand to the IMF or World Bank, which force them to accept neo-liberal economic prescriptions in return for loans. This has particularly helped Ecuador, Venezuela and other Latin American countries whose leftist social and economic programmes have shut them out from support from the US-dominated international financial institutions.
Defending China against imperialism
In a conflict between the world’s greatest imperialist power and a former colonized and dominated country the most elementary position should be clear: anyone on the side of progress and justice defends semi-colonial, emerging China against the offensive of imperialism and its allies.
It is not even necessary to believe China is a socialist country to form this conclusion. It is simply necessary to take the same principled position that the left would take if the USA and its allies were to organize an assault on any other semi-colonial country whatever the character of the economic or political system in place. Hence, progressive forces world-wide mobilised against the imperialist inspired assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan, irrespective of the character of their regimes. The same attitude should evidently apply to China. It may be bigger, but it is poorer per head than Iran for example, and should be defended in just the same way. Furthermore the defeat of China by the US, for the reasons already given, would constitute a massive setback and worsening of the relation of forces for oppressed and semi-colonial countries throughout the world.
Sadly some on the left have seemed confused on this issue. Falling foul perhaps of imperialist-led propaganda, some commentators even of the left have swallowed whole the ridiculous idea that China is a new ‘superpower’ or that it is pursuing an aggressive expansionist policy in Asia (or indeed in Africa). Some have even argued that the confrontation the US is building up to with China is a new case of ‘inter-imperialist competition’ – in other words China is not socialist, semi-colonial or even just capitalist, but is a new imperialism like the USA, France, Britain or Japan.
First this totally ignores the international alignment of class forces. China’s economic development has enormously aided not only itself but also Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and numerous other semi-colonial countries.
Second, the idea that China is a new superpower is absurd. China’s annual military spending, at roughly 2% of GDP for the last decade or more, has risen in absolute terms as China’s GDP as a whole has grown. But it is still less than a quarter that of the USA in dollar terms. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that the US defence budget in 2012 was $682bn, roughly 4.4% of GDP, to China’s $166bn and 2% of GDP.
Moreover the USA has been spending at this rate for decades, meaning it has 12 of the 24 serviceable aircraft carriers in the world, whereas China has just one reconditioned carrier only suitable for training purposes; not to mention the US’s 71 nuclear submarines to China’s 10; 9600 nuclear warheads to China’s estimated 240; 3318 of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world to China’s 1500 less advanced planes. And one could add in the USA’s missile defence system, stealth technology, drones, assault helicopters and non-nuclear missile systems that China cannot touch.
At the economic level, it is generally agreed (by the IMF or Goldman Sachs for example) that – barring an unforeseen set of economic events – China’s economy will overtake the USA’s in absolute size at market exchange rates sometime in the next decade.
But this will not give China anything like the economic weight of the USA. It will still be an emerging economy with a GDP per capita less than 25% of the USA. Outside oil, gas and banking where China has some large state-owned companies of similar size, American manufacturing and service companies – like WalMart, Ford, General Motors, Apple, Google, AT&T, Verizon, Hewlett-Packard and others – are on a scale where China’s companies don’t appear as a challenge. And while China’s overseas investment has begun to noticeably build up, whereas in 2012 the USA’s accumulated stock of FDI was estimated to be $5.2tr, China’s was less than a tenth of that at $500bn.
The theory that the USA’s build up towards confrontation with China is a case of simply inter-imperialist competition with the United States is equally absurd. It seems to rest on no greater evidence than that China is rather big. In 1820 China’s GDP was 6 times that of Britain and of France, 18 times that of the US, but no socialist argued it was an ‘imperialist’ power, despite being ruled by an Emperor!
The view that the USA and China are engaged in inter-imperialist competition, if logically pursued, leads to the conclusion that the left should be neutral in the event of a conflict between the two.
Neutrality in such a conflict would first and foremost be an utter betrayal of the people of China, who fought and sacrificed in a 30 year long struggle and civil war to break free of the yoke of Japanese and Western imperialism. This successful war of liberation led to socialist revolution in 1949, which has not been overturned – there has been no equivalent of 1991 in Russia, no liquidation of state ownership of the most powerful means of production, no anti-Communist coup. As a result – under the Chinese Communist Party it has lifted vast numbers out of poverty, life expectancy has risen from 35 in 1949 to 75 today, health, education, housing and nutrition continue to improve. To take a position of neutrality while decaying and belligerent US imperialism tried to smash China, pillage its economy and halt its growth would be an act of betrayal to the 1.3bn Chinese people, their hopes and aspirations for the future.
It would also be a betrayal of all those struggling for a more progressive future in Latin America, free of the impositions of their mighty northern neighbour, which have been aided in resisting the US’s demands by Chinese economic support. And it would be a betrayal of all those semi-colonial countries benefitting from Chinese investment and trade deals, which mean they can reject the unfavourable terms of trade demanded by the US and other imperialist powers and turn down the destructive demands of the IMF and the World Bank.
Moreover, if such a US offensive to destroy China was successful it would provide the basis for a new period of imperialist expansion, with all the impositions on the ‘third world’, attacks on the working class living standards, racism, oppression and a qualitative increase in new wars that would entail – as occurred after the overthrow of the USSR.
If China’s domestic and international policies constitute ‘imperialism’, it is imperialism of a very peculiar, progressive kind. It is an imperialism that enormously raises living standards of hundreds of millions of the poorest people in the world, rejects neo-liberalism, defends state ownership of the means of production, has no colonies or dependencies and has formed alliances with and given economic support to progressive, anti-imperialist regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. Which is precisely why such a position is absurd, but also why it is peddled by the supporters of the US offensive against China, to divide and confuse the opposition.
The false analogy with 1914
In this anti-China propaganda offensive, one increasingly common trope is to compare China and the current situation in East Asia to Germany and Europe on the eve of the outbreak of World War One. This analogy originated in neocon US defence circles as a justification for its aggressive policy to China, but was also for example spelled out by right-wing commentator Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times, 4th February 2013. In an article headlined ‘The Shadow of 1914 Falls Over the Pacific’, he argues that ‘The analogy [of China today] with Germany before the first world war is striking.’ Since then it has been taken up more widely. Prime Minister Abe of Japan caused a scandal outside the imperialist countries, when he repeated it at a meeting at Davos.
However, what is particularly disappointing is that some on the left have uncritically repeated this 1914 analogy as though it has some objective value, deploying the punditry of the Financial Times as a substitute for serious analysis.
In reality, this false analogy is an invention created to isolate China and justify the regional military build-up against China.
China is not an imperialist power armed to the teeth as Germany, or indeed Britain, was in 1914. It is accused of a major naval build-up. But the real naval build up is by the United States which is sending increasing numbers of warships and submarines to the region. In 2011 a total of 54 US warships and submarines docked in Subic Bay in the Philippines, in 2012 it was 88, and 72 such ships docked in the first six months of 2013 alone.
Against this China has upgraded its submarine base on Hainan and sent its one re-fitted Soviet era aircraft carrier on training missions in the seas adjacent to its vulnerable commercial shipping lanes. Building the capacity to protect its trade routes from a known US goal to have the ability to ‘blockade’ China by closing routes through the South China Sea is the logic of China’s much inferior naval response.
Nor has China shown expansionist tendencies. There are a number of outstanding territorial disputes between China and some of its neighbours. These are not new. China has not tried to assert its claim to islands in its coastal seas more aggressively than before, but maintained its historic claims against unilateral action in particular by Japan and the Philippines – with tacit US backing – to resolve these disputes in their own favour. Japanese control of the Diaoyu/Senkaku would extend Japanese territorial waters to the near shores of China and give it the ‘legal’ right to exclude Chinese shipping from routes to the Pacific, while guaranteeing US naval access to the same area. Similar considerations apply to Philippine claims to islands in the South China Sea.
Nor is there an aggressive rise of nationalism in China of the kind that can be observed driving politics in Japan. Patriotism in China’s war of resistance to Japanese invasion in the 1930s was not reactionary ‘nationalism’ but entirely progressive. Patriotism in China exists in the form of pride in its long culture and is reflected in its determination to emerge from the 100 years of ‘humiliation’ when it was carved up by Western and Japanese imperialism. There is a strong patriotic response to any hint of revanchist sentiment from is former colonial master, Japan.
There is, of course, one analogy between today and the period leading up to 1914; that period was the last time the world’s previous largest economy, in that case the UK, was replaced by another, the USA. Today the USA stands on the brink of being replaced in this role by China.
This means that if a possible analogy with 1914 is pursued, rather than China being a candidate for Germany’s role, that label more closely fits the USA. In 1914 Germany’s growth had outstripped the UK’s, but the most dynamic global economy was the USA. Its average GDP growth rate from 1870-1913 had hit an historic high of 3.9% compared to Germany’s 2.8%.
The thesis that Germany was culpable for engaging in an aggressive drive to war in 1914 rests on the case that it thought its ‘moment was about to pass’ and only a rapid expansion to the East would allow it to both stop the military rise of Russia and create a basis for a further German economic expansion that could challenge that of the USA. Defeating France was a prerequisite to prevent it coming to the aid of Russia.
None of these features apply to China. China is not being outstripped by a more dynamic global economy; on the contrary that is the situation of the USA. China is not running out of money to develop its military defences, it is the USA that faces a military budget squeeze. China faces no rising military challenge that might be set back by a ‘pre-emptive strike’, as it is argued Germany sought to achieve against Russia in 1914. But this is indeed how much of the US – and Japanese – defence establishment describes the need to pre-empt the ‘threat’ from China before it is ‘too late’. And finally, China has shown no tendency to geographical expansion.
But in reality any sustained use of the analogy breaks down. And idle repetition of Shinzo Abe’s and the Financial Times’ attempts to soften up the opposition to Japan and America’s offensive against China plays into the hands of the most reactionary and dangerous forces in the world.
The USA’s demands on China
It is the case that China has begun to play a more proactive and partisan role in international politics, supporting its friends and allies, while withholding preferential relations from those that gang up with the US’s anti-China campaign.
Take Latin America: China has extended considerable aid to Venezuela, which has received roughly $38bn in credits, including a lifeline of $5bn in December 2013. China is helping Cuba in offshore oil exploration and invested in the upgrade of its Cienfuegos refinery, alongside other expanding trade, investment and commercial agreements. It has covered Ecuador’s foreign exchange needs after its 2008-09 $3.2bn debt default.
In another sign of a shifting emphasis in Chinese foreign policy, it has broken with its own long-standing semi-neutral position in the UN to block imperialist action – sanctions or military steps – against Syria, a country where it has no direct interests. China appears to have drawn lessons from the UN vote on Libya in particular, where alongside Russia, it felt that the US and its allies tricked them with a limited decision to support a ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya that was then used to pursue a ‘regime change’ agenda that was not about regional stability but strengthening the position of the US and its European allies.
But there is nothing about this that can be objectively described as ‘aggressive’, let alone ‘expansionist’. What it does mean is that US imperialism can no longer rely on a passive Chinese response to its own expansionist, aggressive and militaristic attempts to cow regimes that stand up to its demands. It has begun to experience this directly on Syria, and indirectly wherever Chinese investment or loans are offering semi-colonial countries development choices that they have never had before.
For example, the South African Trade Minister Rob Davies, put it neatly, when he told the Financial Times in August 2010 that China’s expanding presence in Africa ‘can only be a good thing’ because it enormously increases choices for developing countries: ‘We don’t have to sign on the dotted line whatever is shoved under our noses any longer… We now have alternatives and that’s to our benefit.’
The significance of such a remark for the US is hard to over-estimate. Its consequence for American global influence means the USA is more and more urgently looking at ways to stall or reverse China’s rise, force it to back off from supporting regimes that are unfriendly to the USA and to toe the US line on international affairs.
The United States and its allies are quite clear in their objectives. First, to surround China with a chain of hostile alliances, that has a sufficient military superiority to carry a real threat of an armed attack or commercial blockade if that was deemed necessary or useful. Secondly, this military build-up, particularly the extension of an encircling Missile Defence Shield, is aimed at forcing China to divert ever greater resources from the productive economy to defence – eventually crashing its economy as Reagan successfully achieved with Russia in the 1980s. And finally it aims to use this military and strategic superiority to exercise sufficient leverage over China that it can force it to pursue policies in the interests of the imperialist powers.
The types of domestic policies it wants China to pursue are to open up its economy to imperialist ransack, particularly by creating capital account convertibility for the RMB with the dollar and by running down the role of the state in the Chinese economy. The latter demand includes calling for extensive privatisations of state-owned companies and banks – while taking protectionist measures against state-owned Chinese companies on the grounds they have an ‘unfair advantage’ – and for a reduction in state-led investment programmes. The effect of these policies would be to slow China’s overall growth rate, slow the rate at which it is technologically catching up with the advanced countries and improve the competitive position of the imperialist companies in both the Chinese domestic and international markets.
The US is also trying to freeze China out of world trade by putting together a series of preferential trade blocs – the Trans Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – that encompass most of South and East Asia, North and South America and Europe.
But imperialism does not confine its demands on China to the domestic economy. On the international level it wants China to toe the imperialist line on such issues as Syria and Iran, end its economic and technological support to Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and other leftist Latin American governments, and pull back from its investments in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the longer term it would like to strategically weaken China by permanently separating Taiwan from the mainland. And to absorb North Korea into a capitalist, pro-imperialist South Korea, allowing the US military access to a vulnerable land border with China.
Ideologically, its aim is to present China as dangerously ‘expansionist’, isolating it as it did the Soviet Union in the Cold War, robbing it of international support and tying the US’s regional allies into a strategic project to ‘limit Chinese aggression’. One element of this is to stoke up regional tensions and then by a propaganda sleight of hand use the global media to present China as the culprit for worsening relations.
It is the USA’s ‘pivot to Asia’ that is driving up the dangers of conflict
The USA’s own role in escalating the pressure on China is to shift the balance of its own military deployments to the region – the ‘pivot to the Pacific’ – with this stepped up military presence encouraging China’s neighbours to take a more aggressive attitude to local disputes and rivalries.
One result of this has been to encourage the rise of revanchist Japanese imperialist nationalism. This has underpinned a drive for Japanese rearmament and the reorientation of its military focus onto China, reinforced its military alliance with the USA and encouraged a more confrontational stance over issues like the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Japan has also extended the meaning of its ‘self-defence only’ constitutional framework to allow greater scope for unilateral military action and has added Taiwan to its designated areas of mutual defence concern with the USA.
Other results can be seen in the strident pro-Americanism of the Philippines: the de facto reversal of its 1990s position to get rid of the US bases on its territory; its own military build-up; and its anti-China grandstanding on the international stage. An example of the latter was President Aquino’s scandalous claim that China was behaving like Hitler’s Germany over the Sudetenland in the South China Sea. His open aim was to soften domestic opposition to a permanent US garrison in the country, currently constitutionally excluded.
The US has also encouraged a generalized stepped up militarization of the region. Although partly driven by domestic concerns, arms’ spending has been rising across the region. Analysts estimate that the South-East Asian countries together increased defence spending by 13.5% 2011-12 to $24.5bn and the figure is projected to rise to $40 billion by 2016.
Resisting this imperialist build up against China and defending China against this onslaught is the task of every progressive person world-wide.
China is not a new imperialism
China describes the system that it is building as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. In summary, this means that it sees its economy in a stage of development where for most functions of the economy markets are a more efficient economic regulator than any other available mechanism. And anyway, the fact that China has to exist in a world capitalist economy means that unless it were to attempt a new disaster of Stalin’s ‘socialism-in-one-country’-type – autarchic – development it has no choice but to participate in the world market. However, the state maintains control over the most powerful levers of the economy through ownership of the banks, key elements of the infrastructure and major companies producing economically crucial or security sensitive products.
The existence of private companies – both domestic and international – means there is a Chinese capitalist class, including some comprador type layers, but these do not hold power and do not determine the course of Chinese politics or economics. There is however a constant struggle in China – which imperialism actively intervenes in – over the direction of economic policy, with the aim of over-turning state ownership and state control. So far this has not succeeded in derailing China’s overall economic direction.
This could be described as an early stage in the construction of a socialist economy in which a massive international and domestic class struggle is playing out over its future direction. But it is not necessary to agree on this to take China’s side in a conflict with imperialism.
However, even if China were conceived to be a purely capitalist country, it also has to be acknowledged that it is a country previously occupied, divided and plundered by a consortium of imperialist powers which left it with all the legacy of under-development that afflicts the semi-colonial world. Such a view, that China is a ‘capitalist country’ of a semi-developed or semi-colonial type, at least has the merit of placing its advocates on the right side of any conflict between China and imperialism. It should lead to a position for the defence of China against imperialism.
Rejecting the USA’s proposed new Cold War
The USA is actively preparing the ground to attempt a new Cold War against China. It is not clear that it can succeed in this objective. China’s scale means it is already quite strong despite its lower level of development, and it is building its own alliances – with Russia in particular. But the USA is the mightiest military power on earth. Its military spending alone is 39% of the world total (compared to China’s estimated 9.5%). And it has powerful regional allies – Japan, South Korea, Philippines. It cannot necessarily co-ordinate its own power projection capabilities and these alliances into an effective blow at China. Nonetheless, this is what it is seeking to do.
Preparing for all the consequences of this means abandoning stupidities such as China is an imperialist state and not tail-ending the US defence establishment and Japanese nationalism with analogies to 1914.
Instead it is becoming increasingly urgent to counter the anti-China media offensive emanating from the USA that is amplified here via its British echo-chambers from the Economist and the Financial Times to the BBC. While all-out war against China is not on the agenda the imperialists are actively seeking to provoke more limited, local confrontations by its regional proxies. Preparing for the defence of China from imperialist inspired assault means an objective assessment of what the USA and its allies are proposing against it, not falling into anti-China traps that imperialism itself has set.
 Angus Maddison, ‘The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective’, OECD 2010
The above article was previously published on Jude Woodward’s New Cold War blog.