By Martin Woodley
Tensions in The Black Sea
Britain’s reckless adventure in the Black Sea where HMS Defender entered Crimean coastal waters, provoking Russia to respond with live fire, focussed attention on the newly escalating tensions between imperialism and Russia.
The tensions arise because of the prospect of Ukraine being positioned to prospectively join NATO. Within NATO, the UK is positioning itself as the main bulwark of imperialism facing Russia, and Britain and Ukraine are unveiling a new strategic partnership.
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Andriy Taran and UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace signed a Memorandum on military and defense construction cooperation, to be largely funded by GBP 1.25 billion on favorable terms from UK Export Finance (UKEF), the UK’s export credit agency. This agreement will result in the production of missile cruisers and other ships in line with NATO standards to help rebuild the Ukrainian Navy. The first two ships will be built in the UK in cooperation with Ukraine, leading to the construction of improved shipyards in Ukraine in order to continue the production of many more ships armed with the latest high-precision weapons and electronic defenses.
If Ukraine joins NATO and becomes subject to its article 5 provision – that of collective defence – Russia would view that as a very serious provocation given its dispute with Ukraine over Crimea.
When the Ukrainian premier Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that NATO had confirmed Ukraine’s membership, Biden and Stoltenberg pointedly refused to confirm. However, the fact that Zelensky was claiming the confirmation is evidence of the process, while Biden’s refusal to confirm is only evidence of hesitancy over the timing.
US retreats, Russia and China advance in the Middle East
The escalating tensions in the Black Sea are taking place simultaneously with major transformations in the Middle East.
The US has been defeated in Syria and Afghanistan, and is making a strategic withdrawal from Iraq. These moves have been necessitated by the redeployment of US forces to the Pacific theatre. As a result Russia and China are strengthening their position in the Middle East.
For example, following a diplomatic visit to the Middle East by Russian Foriegn Minister Sergei Lavrov in early March 2021, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured the Middle East in late March. Mr Wang’s March visit was followed by a second visit in July to mark Syrian premier Bashar Al Assad’s re-election.
Meanwhile, the Taliban leadership visited Moscow on a diplomatic mission in July during which they reassured Russia that their advances did not present a threat.
In comments carried by the Russian state Tass news agency, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen said their delegation came to Moscow to “assure that we won’t allow anyone to use the Afghan territory to attack Russia or neighboring countries.”
This was followed by a visit by the Taliban leadership to Tianjin, where Wang Yi met with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar. The coincidence in the timings of these high level diplomatic meetings suggest that there is close coordination between China and Russia in diplomatic policy.
Consequently Russia and China are reinforcing themselves as the major external powers influencing the unfolding events in Afghanistan. This has to be seen in the light of a larger question of Russia consolidating a pivot away from the US and toward Russia itself on the part of several central Asian republics like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the northern border of Afghanistan, while China seeks to protect its border with Afghanistan in the sensitive Xinjiang region.
On August 9, the Times carried an article entitled “Russia welcomes the Taliban as a lesser evil in Afghanistan”. Given the rapid uprooting of the government of Ashram Ghani, the real choice in Afghanistan was between the Taliban and the various forces of other jihadist groups. Given that it is possible to cut a deal with the Taliban with regard to the export of terrorism from Afghanistan into both Central Asia and China, whereas it would be impossible for such a deal to be made with the other jihadist forces, even with all its faults the Taliban are much the preferred option. This is especially important for China since ETIM, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, are operating in Afghanistan, whereas the Taliban have agreed to fight these groups.
Upon the entry of the Taliban into Kabul and its subsequent assumption of power the Russian embassy immediately opened direct communications with the Taliban commanders in order to secure the safety of the diplomatic zone, and to reiterate the agreement arrived at in Moscow and Tianjin that dependent upon the Taliban keeping to its assurances then the government that they establish would be recognised officially.
An article in the Global Times carried the strap line ‘China respects Afghans’ choice, urges Taliban to implement commitments’, which essentially conveyed the same message.
Where Russia and China are positioned to become the most influential countries influencing the developments in Afghanistan, imperialism has found itself in utter disarray. Former British defence ministers Johnny Mercer and Tobias Ellwood called for a rethink of the NATO withdrawal as the Taliban made its advance. This was not an isolated view, since the present Defence Secretary promoted the same view, and canvassed agreement among European NATO allies for a military return to Afghanistan. This of course received a frosty response.
Moreover, at the military level there is growing trust and cooperation between the Russian and Chinese forces displayed recently when Russian troops operated modern PLA equipment for first time in a joint exercise. This is the first stage of the Russian and Chinese military acquiring interoperability – a signature feature of a close military alliance. Furthermore, China revealed its latest J-20 fighter jets, highlighting China-Russia joint strategic drills and displaying the growing trust between the two countries armed forces.
Also, the high display of trust revealed in the joint exercise and the apparent sharing of technology leads one to believe that it is only a matter of time before research and production capability are also shared. Were this to actually be realised it would mean that the combination of advanced Russian military technologies with Chinese industrial capability would represent a decisive shift in the balance of military power.
Placed alongside the closely coordinated diplomatic policy and the strategic cooperation between Russia and China in organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it seems that a full spectrum alliance including military, diplomatic and strategic cooperation has developed.
Tension in the Taiwan Straight and South China Sea
Imperialism has reduced its footprint – accepted defeat in Syria and Afghanistan and is pulling out of Iraq – in order to concentrate primarily on the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and secondarily on the Black Sea. Hence the recent swift advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the re-election of Bashar Al Assad in Syria have strengthened the position of Russia and China.
Imperialism is now engaging in an attempt to tighten a noose around China’s coastline. It has sought unsuccessfully to increase the membership of the present Quad by inviting South Korea to join. France, the US and various South Pacific allies have formed a combined coastguard network, including the presence of many of their NATO allies.
As early in the Biden administration as March, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin conducted a tour of Asia to signal their intent with respect to tensions with China.
Wendy Sherman, US Deputy Secretary of State recently conducted a tour of Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia in May. This was followed by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in July. This flurry of diplomatic activity will continue with the visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to Singapore and Vietnam later this month.
These are clearly aimed at moving ASEAN away from their relationship with China. This is important because of the growing weight of ASEAN in both the region and the world economy, with their combined population of 660 million people, a share of world imports and exports which has tripled between 1967 and 2016 to 7.2% and 6.6% respectively, and a FDI which has increased from $22 billion in 2000 to $96 billion in 2016. This is not an easy task since ASEAN has a policy of staying aloof from politics and strict adherence to economic relations only.
For instance this was displayed recently by Vietnam and Singapore, while China is confident that there is little the US can do to disrupt its ties with ASEAN countries and with the community as a whole.
Moreover, the objective balance of forces between China and the US in relations with ASEAN countries is revealing. The Figures below, which are taken from the Harvard Atlas of economic complexity, show imports and exports between the Philippines and its trading partners from 2000 and 2018. It can be seen that imperialism’s share has decreased markedly from 2000 to 2018 whereas the share of China and Hong Kong has increased substantially. The US diplomatic mission to the ASEAN countries appears to be to persuade them to commit commercial suicide.
Given the nature of such a task, naturally imperialism will seek to inflame tensions in the region. For instance, Japan has called for a ‘Sense of Crisis’ over China-Taiwan tensions. Trump adopted a policy of pushing the independence of Taiwan as far as possible – including with substantial arms sales in 2020. Biden has not reversed this course. The Taiwan issue is clearly as sensitive to China in East Asia as Crimea is to Russia in East Europe – they are both possible flash points. In particular, China will not back down over provocations involving Taiwan and the associated large scale military exercises, since to do so would simply invite further attempts to inflame tensions in the region. Russia has already demonstrated that it will not back down to threats in the Black Sea.
An indication that imperialism is probing China to see how it would respond to provocations involving Taiwan was given by the recent decision of Lithuania to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in the name of ‘Taiwan’, to which China responded by recalling its ambassador.
Why is imperialism implementing such a deranged policy
It appears that the US and its allies are preparing to confront Russia and China with escalating provocations, militarisation and an arms race in the Black Sea, Strait of Taiwan and South China Sea, not separately but simultaneously. It is attempting to do so in a situation where Russia by itself is militarily somewhat of a match for the US, and where China by itself possesses an industrial capacity greater than that of the US.
Many attribute the actions of the US to the Wolfowitz doctrine, that is to maintain a global order in which, i) the US is the world’s only superpower; ii) the US maintains a leadership role in the world order; iii) unilateralism of action; iv) preventive intervention; v) to remain the predominant outside power in the Middle East and south west Asia. This later formed the basis of the Bush doctrine pre-emptive war and was described by Senator Edward Kennedy as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.”
However, the desire to preserve US hegemony does not explain either the derangement, nor haste currently being displayed by the imperialist alliance. The only rational explanation is provided by the pronouncements of Steve Bannon in relation to the necessity of the US to conduct a war against China within 10 years (a pronouncement made 5 years ago).
The reason for such a timetable for war is clear – after this time it is estimated that global capitalism will be more dependent on China than China will be dependent upon global capitalism. It is already the case that China controls 90% of the world’s supply of rare earth minerals, which given their importance to modern technology means that in this area alone China holds a massive advantage.
Moreover, under the Trump administration a major attempt was made to undermine the Chinese technology sector by adding companies such as Huawei to a blacklist compiled to prevent Western companies supplying blacklisted companies with technology components such as microchips. However the result has been to stimulate a major project in China to develop its own microchip design and fabrication industry. The result is likely to be that not only will the effort to undermine the Chinese technology sector fail, but it will cause Chinese microchip products to not only supply their domestic industry but to compete with western microchip manufacturers on the world market.
Moreover, the trade war consisting of punitive tariffs introduced by Trump and continued by Biden have been detrimental to the US economy. Janet Yellen, US Treasury Secretary, has said that the Trump-China trade deal has hurt American consumers. Tariffs that remain on $360 billion of Chinese imports are hanging in the balance, and the Biden administration has said little about the deal’s fate, which essentially means that they will remain for the foreseeable future.
Added to that is the pace at which Eurasian integration is proceeding primarily under the Belt and Road Initiative and under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This development would further shift the centre of gravity of the world economy away from the Atlantic and towards Asia where the Chinese economy would act as the major hub.
The military commitment of the US to multiple wars and occupations in the Middle East has seen the US annual military expenditure balloon from $460 billion in 2001 to $700 billion in 2018, and where currently 67% of US federal discretionary spending is devoted to the military. Such a situation is untenable when an additional major pivot to large scale increases in deployment to the Pacific are intended. Hence a major retreat from commitments in the Middle East are necessitated and are currently proceeding.
The approach of the situation where global capitalism becomes more dependent on China than China Is dependent on global capitalism defines a tipping point after which it will be increasingly difficult to crush China without crushing capitalism itself. In particular, the current developments regarding operational integration of China’s and Russia’s military technology places a premium on forcing an encounter sooner rather than later.
The last time there was such a timetable for war was in the prelude to WW1, when the central powers faced the possibility of fighting a war on two fronts. What sustained them was the experience of the Franco-German war of 1870 when Germany defeated France in eight weeks, plus the fact that Russia was a backward country that was unable to deploy troops to the front quickly. The Clausewitz theory contended that Germany could quickly defeat France in the west and redeploy to the east to defeat Russia.
However, the rapid industrialisation of Russia was eroding the validity of the Clausewitz theory which effectively created a timetable for war.
These matters are insufficiently understood by the left in the imperialist countries. However, they have a major role to play in preventing a serious military conflict between imperialism and the Russia-China partnership. But such prevention is indispensable if humanity is to address the challenges which it faces, such as the looming climate catastrophe.