First published: Dec 1999
The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia set a precedent for unilateral military action by the United States and its allies outside of any framework of international law – making clear that such wars would not be subject to vetoes by China or Russia within the United Nations Security Council. This was not an ‘accident’ necessitated by the urgency for humanitarian intervention, as NATO claimed. The bombing was meticulously planned many months in advance. The destruction of the post-World War Two international political order was rather a central goal of the bombing and the way in which it was launched.
This was confirmed by the explicit codification of the new doctrine of unilateral US-led military action into NATO’s new strategic concept adopted on 23 April, at the height of the bombing. This provides for offensive NATO military action, with or without the endorsement of the United Nations, anywhere in Western Europe, Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. The new doctrine envisages the accelerated development of NATO rapid deployment forces capable of projecting military force far outside of NATO’s borders. This transformation of NATO – from an avowedly ‘defensive’ alliance to an explicitly offensive military posture – accompanied the integration of its first members from Eastern Europe, the conclusion of a parallel series of military treaties in Asia.
These moves deeply threaten any state in the world which finds itself in conflict with the economic, political or strategic interests of the United States.
The alignment of states and governments during NATO’s eleven-week bombing campaign clearly demonstrated that all of the imperialist states – in Western Europe, Canada and Japan – aim to share in the spoils of this new age of colonialism, and, in addition, the new capitalist states in Eastern Europe would also like to get their snouts into the trough.
They were backed in this by leaderships of virtually every social democratic party in Western Europe – posing themselves as the champions of the emerging European Union imperialism, and clarifying their utter incapacity to stand up not only to European capital, but also to the United States.
Two states in particular now preoccupy US military planners – Russia and China. Russia is a permanent US concern because it is the only state capable of destroying the United States. But, since 1991, its government – the Yeltsin administration – has been a puppet of Washington.
US goals towards Russia centre upon keeping the Yeltsin entourage or an acceptable successor in power, while continuing to grind down the country’s economic and military capacity through the operation of the capitalist economic reform which commenced when Yeltsin took office. Since 1991, the Soviet Union has been dissolved, NATO has expanded to the borders of the former Soviet Union and occupied a large part of the Balkans. Now the US is seeking military cooperation with states of the former Soviet Union itself – building links with Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova with a view to pulling the Commonwealth of Independent States apart and securing control of the export routes for Caspian oil.
The delicate issue of tactics constraining the US, is the need to pursue this course without provoking a reaction from the Russian population so violent that Yeltsin and his would-be successors are ejected from office. Such a development could set in motion a dynamic of convergence of key states of the former Soviet Union to withstand the destruction of their societies at the behest of the West and the mafiocracies it has spawned. In such an event, which remains possible given the human catastrophe which capitalism and the West have produced in Russia, the US is already creating other means of pressure – notably the ability to foment wars along the southern borders of Russia and the option provided by NATO expansion, of deploying nuclear weapons right up to the former Soviet borders.
Having achieved as much as is currently possible in Russia, however, the central confrontation for which the United States is now preparing is with China. Why?
China is not a capitalist state. Yet for more than twenty years it has been the most successful large economy in the world in terms of economic growth and rising living standards.
On its present rate of growth, the Chinese economy may reach the same size as the United States as early as 2010–20. Although this will be in a country far poorer than the US, in terms of income per head, American military planners are obsessively aware of the fact that there is a direct relationship between the size of any economy and its military potential. US preparations for confrontation with China – which now form the central axis of US strategic planning – are based on total determination to do everything possible to forestall China becoming an economic, military and political force capable of standing up to the United States in the way in which the Soviet Union was able to do at the height of its power.
At its strongest, the Soviet economy was never more than roughly half the size of the US economy. Yet the USSR, on that economic basis, acquired the capacity to destroy the US many times over – even though, contrary to CIA propaganda, its offensive military potential never approached that of the US. While income per head in China in 2010 will be much lower than that of the Soviet Union at the peak of its power, let alone the US, the absolute size of its economy, if unchecked, will eventually enable it to acquire a similar military level to that enjoyed previously by the Soviet Union – more than enough to deter any attack.
Having spent 40 years and trillions of dollars in the so-called Cold War – which included real wars, civil wars and military coups in which millions of people were slaughtered by the US or its proxies in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East – the US has no intention of allowing another military super-power capable of constraining it to emerge in the world.
Indeed its entire military doctrine, adopted following the dissolution of the USSR, is directed to that end.
The military capacity of the Soviet Union was the most important constraint on the level of military force deployed by the United States in the post-World War Two period – and that in turn had critical political results. It helped a third of the population of the world break out of capitalism altogether. It also made possible the fall of colonialism as the European imperialist powers were forced to retreat for fear that national liberation movements would radicalise in the direction of the socialist revolutions which followed the second world in the Balkans, Asia and ultimately Cuba.
Without the threat to the existence of the US posed by a nuclear-armed USSR, there can be little doubt that Washington would have used nuclear weapons in Korea in 1950–53 and later in Vietnam. It could not do so and, as a result, Korea became the first war which the US failed to win – ending in stalemate – while Vietnam became the first war in history which the US actually lost. The results of the latter were traumatic – making it politically impossible for the US to use direct military intervention to prop up the Shah of Iran, or its ally the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua or, following the 1975 fall of the Caetano dictatorship in Portugal, to prevent the Cuban assistance to the MPLA in Angola which defeated the South African army and triggered the process which culminated in the collapse of the Apartheid regime.
Although none of the post-World War Two socialist revolutions and national liberation struggles were instigated by the Soviet bureaucracy, and many, like the Chinese and Yugoslav revolutions were explicitly opposed by it, Soviet military assistance, whether in the form of arms supplies or indirectly in deterring a higher level of US violence, was critical to their success. That is why the central goal of US foreign policy, between the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was to contain, roll back and eliminate the Soviet Union. That is why trillions of dollars were spent on the Cold War, millions of lives sacrificed in Korea and Vietnam, proxy wars fought around the globe and US military bases established along the entire perimeter of the Soviet Union. In particular, following its defeat in Vietnam, the US drew the conclusion that the only way to avoid future such catastrophes would be to intensify its pressure upon the Soviet Union – above all through the new spiral in the arms race under Reagan – with a view to weakening or if possible eliminating it. It succeeded in this.
But the victory in the Cold War posed the US with the necessity of re-defining its strategic objectives. The resources necessary to fund the final twist to the arms race which cracked the Soviet economy, bought Gorbachev to power and ultimately bought down the USSR, had been beyond the means of the United States alone. The US was only able to finally defeat the Soviet Union because it was able to mobilise the resources of the international capitalist economy to fund Reagan’s new arms race. Even so, the strain was immense and contributed to the transformation of the US from the world’s biggest creditor state to its biggest debtor by the end of the 1980s.
Moreover, by the end of the Cold War, even though the most powerful non-capitalist state in the world had been dissolved, the fundamental bases of US global hegemony were also being eroded.
Bases of US power
US dominance of the capitalist world after the Second World War had been based upon three pillars. First, it was by far the most dynamic capitalist economy in the world – two of its main rivals, Germany and Japan, were in ruins and the third, Britain, was totally dependent on US financial support. Second, the US effectively controlled the linchpins of the emerging world capitalist economic system – symbolised by the role of the dollar. Third, only the US had the military capacity to fight a war with the Soviet Union – making German and Japanese imperialisms totally militarily dependent on the United States.
Each of these pillars came under threat. One, by the end of the Cold War, while the US remained by far the largest economy in the world – with more than double the GDP of Japan and more than four times that of Germany – its relative dominance had declined dramatically vis-à-vis Germany and what was then the European Community through the 1950s and 1960s and then Japan and South East Asia through the 1970s and 1980s.
Second, the launch of the Euro in 1999 marked the first potential threat to the supremacy of the dollar in the world economy.
Third, on the military and political level, the cement of the threat of the Soviet Union and socialist revolution, which had bound Japan and Germany to the US throughout the Cold War, was enormously weakened by the restoration of capitalism into Eastern Europe in 1989, the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1990 and dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
In this context, the framework within which the debate on the redefinition of US strategic objectives took place was absolutely explicit: how to retain US world dominance in the post-Cold War world. This was spelled out with brutal clarity, showing just how laughable is the idea peddled by some Western journalists of the supposed ‘threat’ of a US retreat to isolationism: ‘In a broad new policy statement the Defense Department asserts that the US political and military mission is the post-Cold War era will be to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territory of the former Soviet Union. The draft takes the position that “no collection of nations can aspire to regional dominance because that would put them on the path to global rivalry with the American super-power.” The classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one super-power. The new draft sketches a world in which there is one dominant military power whose leaders “must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role”’ (International Herald Tribune, 9 March 1993).
Having established itself as the world’s sole superpower, the US was, and is, determined to retain that position by all means necessary.
Thus the United States’ new strategic doctrine took account not simply of socialist threats to its world dominance – particularly in the event of an anti-US regime coming to power in Russia – but also of the need to forestall any potential capitalist competitor to the US. For example, emerging in the form of a German-led European Union or a Japanese-led East Asian regional alliance deciding to acquire nuclear weapons.
These threats exist precisely because the balance of forces between the imperialist powers which emerged from the Second World War has changed. This is indeed why it is impossible to abolish inter-imperialist conflict. As Lenin put it, writing during the First World War:
‘The only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies, etc, is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength, etc. And the strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, for the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry, or countries is impossible under capitalism. Half a century ago Germany was a miserable insignificant country, if her capitalist strength is compared with the Britain of the time; Japan compared with Russia in the same way. Is it “conceivable” that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? It is out of the question’ (Collected Works, volume X, p295).
The United States ruling class has no intention of allowing its position to be displaced by the rise of its capitalist rivals. It has deployed all of the weapons at its disposal – economic, financial, political and military – to resist its relative decline. In this it has, to date, had considerable success. In particular, it has been able to use its position as the economic, political and military linchpin of the international capitalist system to draw upon not only its own resources, but also those of its capitalist rivals. From the point of view of US imperialism this is precisely the function of the global financial liberalisation of the last two decades – to allow it to draw upon surplus value generated elsewhere in the world to fund investment in the United States.
As a result, from the locomotive of the world capitalist economy in the 1950s and 1960s, the US has been transformed into a parasite upon it – whereby its economic growth takes place at the expense of its capitalist rivals. Thus, first Western Europe from the mid-1970s, then Japan from the end of the 1980s, have fallen behind the US in terms of their rates of economic growth. For the weakest capitalist states the results have been catastrophic – with Africa and the Middle East from the beginning of the 1970s, Latin America from the 1980s, and Eastern Europe from the beginning of the 1990s, being thrown backwards.
The most powerful capitalist states have inevitably tried to resist this process. That is the significance, on the economic plane, of the launch of the Euro and the continuing obstacles being placed in the way of the attempts by American capital, particularly since the financial crash in the summer of 1997, to penetrate East Asia and Japan. While the third world states have less power to resist, such diverse phenomena as the attempt of Iraq to halt the fall in oil prices by invading Kuwait in 1990, the imposition of exchange controls by Malaysia in response to the East Asian financial crash and the rise to power of the left bourgeois populist regime of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, are all manifestations of the pressure to resist the economic exactions of the United States.
The strategy of the United States in these circumstances is to use not only all of the economic levers at its disposal, but also to exploit its dominance on the one field where its pre-eminence over all of its rivals remains entirely unchallenged – the military – to further its economic and strategic interests.
Thus the Gulf War was used to demonstrate that only the US can defend the access to the oil reserves of the Middle East upon which both the European and Japanese economies are totally dependent.
Similarly, the US intervened into the crisis in Yugoslavia where Germany was intent upon creating a new sphere of influence. In Bosnia, it blocked every attempt at a peaceful resolution, to demonstrate that only Washington had the military capacity to defeat the Bosnian Serbs, with the result that under the Dayton Agreement Bosnia is now effectively a NATO colony.
In relation to Kosovo, by encouraging the KLA with the promise of eventual NATO intervention, and engineering the Rambouillet talks to present Yugoslavia with demands which no sovereign state could accept, the US created the conditions for the NATO military intervention which once again made clear the complete military dependence of the European Union upon the United States. Tony Blair has sought to utilise this situation to try resolve the contradictions of British imperialism’s relations with the EU and the US, by bidding for the position of privileged US ally, championing US strategic dominance in Europe, within the framework of European Monetary Union.
Finally, in this regard, the geo-strategic position of Japan adjacent to both a non-capitalist China and a Russia where capitalism is far from assured of stabilising itself, makes it utterly militarily dependent on the US.
Asserting military might
Thus the overall balance sheet of the struggle of the US to re-assert its dominance over its potential imperialist competitors following its victory in the Cold War is as follows. While on the economic field the struggle continues, the United States has succeeded in using its military pre-eminence to re-assert its hegemony over both Japan and the European Union. The outcome of the bombing of Yugoslavia is that the US controlled NATO, not the European Union, has been established as the leadership of the capitalist colonisation of Eastern Europe and the drive to penetrate the former Soviet Union. In Asia, Japan has concluded a new security treaty with the United States providing for increased Japanese participation in and funding of military operations, including the construction of an anti-missile shield directed against China, under total US control and leadership.
These trends are now set to deepen precisely because the US is on the verge of a new period of economic weakening. By abandoning the original advice of the IMF, the East Asian economies have resumed rapid economic growth and ultra-Keynesian intervention in Japan is also having some success. As a result the flow of funds from Asia, which have funded the biggest US balance of payments deficit in history and in the process helped to inflate the present bubble on US stock markets, is starting to slow.
In essence, Asia is trying to use its capital to finance investment in its own economies rather than the US. At the same time, economic revival in Asia is pushing up international commodity prices – with oil up by 100 per cent in a year. This is generating inflationary pressures in the US. With the flow of funds from Asia into the US slowing, the dollar coming under downward pressure and long-term interest rates rising, US economic growth has started to turn down accompanied by the threat of a serious collapse on Wall Street. The Dow Jones index saw its biggest weekly decline in a decade in the second week of October 1999.
In these circumstances, with a new period of economic enfeeblement looming for the US, the drive to reassert itself by utilising its military capacity will deepen and this strategic subordination of the European Union and Japan to the United States will set the limits within which their economic conflicts unfold. As Perry Anderson put it in another context, but correctly: ‘one of the basic axioms of historical materialism [is that] the secular struggle between classes is ultimately resolved at the political – not at the economic or cultural – level of society’ (Lineages of the Absolutist State).
With the economic pillars of US global dominance eroding and its dependence on its military power consequently accentuated, the US is constrained, increasingly, to seek to pose conflicts on the military level. The two key strategic problems for the US in this regard are how to manage what it hopes will be Russia’s irreversible decline, on the one hand, and how to block the rise of China, on the other.
The Pentagon’s strategic planners are under no illusions that capitalism has stabilised itself in Russia. They believe, correctly, that a Communist or other anti-Western regime, could come to power. Indeed, such forces were represented, for a short period following the August 1998 financial collapse, in Yevgeny Primakov’s government. This was actively working towards a strategic alliance of Russia, China and India as a proposed counterweight to US global hegemony, while domestically launching the actions against the Kremlin-centred mafiocracy which have culminated in the recent revelations. That was why Primakov was removed by Yeltsin at the height of the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
The NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, was correctly interpreted by the Russian military as a dry run, and threat, of the kind of operations NATO would like to be able to project into the former Soviet Union. The eastward expansion of NATO, and military pacts with some of the former Soviet states, are precisely designed not only to safeguard western expansion but also to contain Russia. As the Pentagon document quoted above put it: ‘In the event of a resurgent threat from Russia, “we should plan to defend against any such threat” further forward on the territories of Eastern Europe’ (IHT, 9 March 1993).
But, the US is also aware that the Russia economy has been so devastated by the capitalist economic reform carried out under US guidance since January 1992, that while the country retains its ability to destroy the US with nuclear weapons, its ability to conduct any kind of aggressive foreign policy has been enormously weakened. Thus, Primakov’s position on the bombing of Yugoslavia was perfectly realistic. He condemned it – as did 95 per cent of the Russian population – but he had little ability to do very much more than give diplomatic assistance to Yugoslavia. Thus, the US strategy towards Russia remains to try to weaken it as much as possible, prevent any recreation of the USSR, utilise economic and military pressure – such as its ability via Turkey to kindle serious military conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia – in order to try to also prevent the more immediate threat of an alliance between China and Russia.
China has risen to the top of the US strategic agenda because, one, it is not a capitalist state and, two, it has had been the most successful major economy, with the most rapidly rising living standards, in the world since 1978. Some Western economists, most of the media and many on the left, argue that China is carrying out a transition to a capitalist economy – albeit more rationally and successfully than the disasters which followed the re-introduction of capitalism into Eastern Europe and the USSR.
The Pentagon labours under no such illusions. They understand that the industrial core of China’s economy remains publicly owned, that the largest growth sector of the economy has been the development of collective property forms owned by town and village governments, that land remains publicly owned and leased to farmers and that the economy is planned. There has been no large scale privatisation of industry in China.
In reality, the success of the Chinese economic reform is precisely based upon the introduction of market mechanisms within the overall framework of a planned economy, which has allowed the reorientation of the economy to prioritise the consumer goods and agricultural sectors, allowing a rapid increase in living standards, to create a virtuous circle of rapid economic growth which in turn has resulted in a vast expansion of the infrastructure. Given its rate of growth and sheer size, this has made China so attractive for foreign investment that the local and national governments can play Western states and companies off against each other to negotiate the most favourable possible terms for their domestic economic development.
This strategy has allowed China to correct some of the main failings of the Soviet and Chinese central planning, notably to develop the consumer goods sector of the economy, without abandoning the planned industrial core of the economy.
As a result, at its present rate of economic growth, which at 7–8 per cent a year is lower than its peak of 12–13 per cent, China will overtake the US as the largest economy in the world within 10–20 years and on this basis can acquire a military capacity equivalent to that of the former USSR.
For US imperialism China has to be stopped before it acquires the ability to defend itself – which would only be possible with nuclear weapons. At present, although a nuclear power, China only has a handful of nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching American targets. That is why the US intends to move rapidly.
This has nothing to do with the foreign policy orientation of China – which from the end of the Vietnam war until relatively recently sought to systematically accommodate the US. Indeed, the de facto alliance of China with the US against the Soviet Union was decisive in derailing the left in East Asia and allowing the US to focus its resources on cracking the USSR in the 1980s. The shift in Chinese foreign policy over the last decade – moving to equidistance with the Soviet Union, then seeking to ally with Russia against the threat of the US, opposing NATO’s eastward expansion, the recent bombing of Iraq and the war on Yugoslavia, has been in response to the fact that it is now more threatened by the US.
US strategy towards China is proceeding on three fronts simultaneously. First, its preferred option, because the least risky and expensive would be to assist in an internal political disintegration of the country akin to that produced by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The difficulty is that there is no sign of such a current coming to power and the Chinese have undoubtedly learnt from the experience of the Soviet Union and have no intention of willingly going down the same path to national collapse.
Second, the US has already launched an arms race against China with the conclusion of new security agreements for enhanced Japanese participation in any US-led military conflict in East Asia, similar agreements with the Philippines, the supply of advanced military aircraft and other weapons to Taiwan, plans for a theatre missile defence system in the region and for a national anti-ballistic missiles defence shield for the United States itself – in defiance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty with the Soviet Union. The purpose of this arms race is to put political pressure on China, to force it to divert resources from economic growth to military spending thereby hoping to provoke political instability. But also to the third option, that of a military conflict involving China and the US – which would almost inevitably involve the use of nuclear weapons – which is a credible threat.
The means to provoke such a conflict already exist – by engineering a declaration of independence from China by Taiwan, the area occupied under US protection after 1949 by the remnant of the Chiang Kai-Shek regime overthrown in 1949. China has repeatedly threatened to resort to force in such circumstances, and the US is committed to military intervention on the side of Taiwan. This option depends on China being unable to retaliate effectively against the US. That in turn depends on (a) China not having had time to develop its own nuclear potential and (b) China not being in a military alliance with Russia against the US.
Events this year have confirmed this dynamic. In the spring, despite big concessions offered by China, the Clinton administration scuppered talks on Chinese accession to the World Trade Organisation. During the bombing of Yugoslavia it announced that its new Ambassador in Beijing would be Admiral Joseph Preuer, Naval commander in the Pacific from 1996 to March 1999. The bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is now widely believed to have been deliberate. Far from seeking to calm the resulting tensions with China, Washington followed up the bombing with the claim that China had stolen virtually all of the United States’ nuclear weapons designs.
Following a sharp escalation of tensions with Taiwan, after the latter took a step towards declaring independence by announcing that in future relations with China would be conducted ‘state to state’, the US increased its arms sales to Taiwan. This was followed in the second week of August with the threat military intervention in the event of a conflict between Taiwan and China delivered in the most direct possible way. The Commander of one of the two American aircraft carrier battle groups in the region, Rear Admiral Timothy Keating, said: ‘China will know if they attempt any kind of operation, whether it’s Taiwan or anything, that they are going to have the US navy to deal with.’
Shortly afterwards the agreement for joint US research with Japan to develop a regional anti-missile defence shield was announced.
China’s response to these threats was typified by an article which appeared on 19 August, in Global Times, a weekly magazine associated with the official People’s Daily newspaper. The article, entitled ‘USA, do not mix it’ said: ‘China’s neutron bombs are more than enough to handle aircraft carriers.’
Beijing is vigorously pursuing cooperation with Russia to counter the escalation of US military pressure in the region and to oppose the development of anti-missile defence systems – whose significance, if they prove technologically feasible, would be that they would allow the US to use nuclear weapons against other states without the fear of retaliation – which is why they have previously been outlawed as a colossal escalation of the arms race.
US tactics elsewhere in the world are directly related to this rising tension with China. As there is considerable reason to doubt the practical ability of the US to carry out its military doctrine of being able to fight two regional wars simultaneously, it needs to confront any potential problems it will face elsewhere in order to free the maximum possible resources for pressure upon China.
This was part of its objectives in bombing Yugoslavia – to dragoon its allies into acceptance that the post-Second World War political order had to be dismantled to allow wars to be launched without the acquiescence of Russia or China, and to demonstrate that no power on earth had the capacity to prevent the US from doing this.
Although, as a result of the international opposition which the bombing provoked, the US has not yet succeeded in disposing of Yugoslavia, and will continue to use economic and military means to try to install a pro-NATO government in Belgrade, the intervention in the Balkans was explicitly conceived as opening the way for similar NATO operations in Eastern Europe and into the former USSR. This is for both economic purposes of securing access to oil reserves in the former Soviet states, and in order to put military pressure on Russia – warning against any attempt to recreate the former USSR and against any moves towards an alliance with China against the US.
This latter objective has not been achieved. On the contrary, because the very existence of Russia is now threatened, the pressures for an alliance with China as a counterweight to the US are enormous. For China, this is decisive because Russia is its only possible source of advanced weapons, and, at the same time, protects its northern flank against attack. For the Russian military and working class, it makes sense in terms of bolstering its own strategic position and because there is an obvious complementary economic relationship in terms of the exchange of Russian weapons and energy for Chinese consumer goods. An alliance with China is backed by the left in Russia, the army, the military-industrial complex and even some sectors of the oil and gas industry.
The second big obstacle to US planning for strategic confrontation with China is the consequence for Asia. Here China has two big weapons of which the South East Asian capitalist governments are all too aware. First is the sheer economic weight of China in the region. Had China devalued its currency at the time of the financial crash from summer 1997, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the economic crisis in the region to have been turned around so rapidly. China paid a very big price for that decision – in terms of increased competition for the South East Asian economies which had carried out devaluations of up to 50 per cent – which has slowed the Chinese economy, put enormous competitive pressures on key sectors of its economy, resulted in rapid deflation and pressure on living standards. It traded political kudos with the US and Japan, by propping up the East Asian economy, for downward pressure on its own economic growth. The rapid intensification of US hostility since, has shown that price was not worth paying. Now China has put the possibility of a devaluation of its currency on the agenda. If it does so the economic shock waves will reverberate throughout east Asia.
Second, China also has enormous potential political influence in the region. In the event of a looming confrontation with the United States, the Chinese leadership would have the option of promoting political instability within East Asia by helping to rebuild Communist Parties and left wing opposition in the region.
So, with the exception of Taiwan, the East Asian regimes have their own agenda – which does not include a massive confrontation with China because it would slow down their economies and simultaneously increase the threat of Chinese backed revival of their domestic class struggles.
Third, there is clearly now a strategic debate taking place in India, the second most populous country on earth. Although the BJP government originally stated that its first nuclear test was directed first and foremost against China, India responded to the bombing of Yugoslavia by pointing out that countries now needed nuclear weapons to protect themselves if the US could flout international law to launch wars with impunity. Its project of acquiring nuclear weapons and a seat at the UN Security Council was clearly undermined by the bombing of Yugoslavia. During the Kashmir conflict earlier in the year between Pakistan and India, China did not back Pakistan. Indeed, the US finally ordered Pakistan to pull out its soldiers because it feared the consequences for its relations with India of explicitly backing its traditional client state Pakistan on that occasion.
These are the circumstances in which the Australian role in leading the UN intervention force in East Timor must be understood. Needless to say it has nothing to do with humanitarianism – Australia recognised the occupation of East Timor by the US-backed Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia when it was directed against a leftist national liberation movement. Today, with the Indonesian regime in deep crisis, the Australian Prime Minister explicitly explained the new Australian role as acting as Washington’s deputy: ‘It is already being called the Howard doctrine and would mean a radical shift in Australia’s relations with its Asian neighbours. John Howard, the Australian PM said, in an interview this weekend that Australia should adopt a far more aggressive approach to regional peacekeeping and act as America’s “deputy” global policeman in Asia’ (Independent on Sunday, 26 September 1999). Howard himself put it like this: ‘We have been seen by counties, not only in the region but around the world, as being able to do something that probably no other country could do; because of the special characteristics we have; because we occupy that special place – we are a European, Western civilisation, with strong links with North America, but here we are in Asia’ (quoted in International Herald Tribune, 27 September 1999). However, notwithstanding Howard’s racist rhetoric, with a population of just 20 million, Australia can, in reality, be little more than a useful staging post in the event of a serious clash between China and the US.
In sum, an economically weakened US imperialism is seeking to utilise its military pre-eminence to counteract its economic decline. It retains its absolute dominance and no other imperialist power is remotely approaching the position where it could challenge the US for world supremacy in the way Washington displaced London between 1914 and 1945. Such a displacement in the centre of capitalist world dominance would indeed require convulsions, and blood-letting on at least the scale of that last period of change in capitalist world leadership.
At present, the absolute size of its economy and its overwhelming military preponderance allow the US to continue to subordinate its imperialist rivals. Only within this framework does their economic competition unfold. Those on the left who hope for a social democratic European challenge to the US will be cruelly disappointed. At the same time, its relative economic decline requires the US to continually re-assert its strategic leadership as the only force capable of defending the common interests of the imperialist powers by the means of provoking military conflicts.
Within that framework, the chief strategic concern of the US is now the rise of China and the possibility of it defending itself through an alliance with Russia against the US. The US is actively attempting to forestall such an alliance by strengthening and expanding the NATO threat to Russia in Europe, war and direct colonisation of the Balkans, detaching parts of the Caucasus (particularly via its relay Turkey), extending the scope of its military alliances in Asia and launching a new spiral of the arms race as part of an overall course towards confrontation with China. This rising conflict, and Washington’s moves to clear the ground for it, are going to become the central axis of world politics.
The left wing of the international workers’ movement should prepare accordingly by constructing a united front of every possible force to oppose the next wave of US imperialist aggression.