Imperialist contradictions intensify in East China Sea

China's announcement of Air Defence Identification Zone highlights the tensions between Chinese and American imperialism.

On November 23rd China announced its very own Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), something the US, Japan, Britain and many other countries also claim. According to the Chinese government, anyone planning on flying into this zone must radio ahead and inform Chinese air traffic control of their intentions in order to get permission to do so. The trouble is, this zone is rather large and extends far beyond Chinese airspace. It happens to encroach on the ADIZ of its neighbour and nemesis Japan, and covers the Japanese controlled islands known as the Senkakus, or Diaoyus to the Chinese. This ominous step by China is proof that US imperialism's golden era of relative stability is drawing to a close and a new phase of instability and conflicts dawns, and that the epicentre of the fundamental contradiction amongst world capitalist powers is moving to the Western Pacific.

Like the steady build up of chess pieces in a web of strategic positions on the board, Chinese and US imperialism are making manoeuvres which point unmistakably to future conflicts. The contradictions between the US and China loom ominously like a dark storm cloud over the horizon of the future, calling to mind the chaos of WWI and II. All the region's secondary powers, from Japan and South Korea to Vietnam and the Philippines, feel the enormous squeeze between between their two main trading partners and cower behind the stronger bully, the US, for protection.

click to enlarge map Graphic: Far East Flash Point Click to enlargeNot even the most zealous of Chinese patriots can take seriously the government’s claims that the ADIZ is merely an innocent attempt at shoring up China’s defencive warning systems. Not only the timing, coming in the wake of the ongoing Senkaku/Diaoyu Island crisis, but also the exact shape of the zone, reveal that it is a manoeuvre in China’s imperialist strategy in the Western Pacific. For the zone not only overlaps significantly with Japan’s already existing ADIZ, but also manages to avoid Taiwan whilst covering the nearby and highly contentious Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (see picture). This is undoubtedly because China is in the process of dragging Taiwan back into its sphere of influence, utilising Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, where 42% of its exports go.

No one can doubt that the motive force behind this process is China’s emergence as the world’s largest manufacturer (after 110 years of US dominance) and in turn the largest trader in manufactured goods. Neither can the US nor anyone else claim to be surprised that the emergence of China has led to tension and conflicting territorial claims in the South and East China seas.

Manufacturing and trade preponderance have always been the underlying basis for empires in capitalism. Let us therefore compare the respective positions of these two competing powers, the USA and China, to better understand the basis for this new ‘cold war’.

Click to enlarge graphClick to enlarge graph

We have already stated that China is now the world’s largest manufacturer and trader in goods. Its position in these domains will only strengthen into an unassailable lead. China now exports over three times as many containerised manufactured goods as the United States. The US trade deficit in manufactured goods stands at about $700bn, whereas China has a $230bn surplus in this field!

China produces in the region of 60,000,000 tons of steel per month. By comparison, Germany, Europe’s biggest steel producer, manages only 3,300,000, and the EU in total 14,000,000! Japan is the world’s second largest steel producer, at about 8-9,000,000 per month, that is, about 7 times less than China. The US produces about 7-8,000,000 tons per month. Taken as a whole, the world produces about 123,000,000 tons of steel per month, meaning that China produces virtually ½ all the world’s steel!

Such realities cannot but lead to a shifting in the sands of world relations. The number of countries for whom China is their first or second trade partner, and is consequently of decisive significance in their internal life, is vast and constantly growing at the expense of the importance of the United States.

Those countries falling into diplomatic dependency on China are, naturally, the weaker and less important ones for imperialism, such as much of sub-Saharan Africa, for whom America cares little. However it is not only ‘failed states’, but in some cases moderately strategically important countries and regions who are drifting closer to China. After 12 years of US occupation, China is the biggest investor in Afghanistan, not the USA. Whilst the US continually pounds its key ‘ally’ in the ‘War on Terror’ with drones, Pakistan signs more deals and establishes closer diplomatic relations with China.

Four out of five of the Central Asian economies count China as their largest trading partner. China has just signed $30bn in new deals with Kazakhstan, especially for the exploitation of new oil fields, which are amongst the largest in world. It has signed $15bn in new deals with Uzbekistan for its oil, uranium and natural gas. Trade between these countries and China is up 100 fold from 1991. As the Economist says, "unlike the Americans, China puts its money where its mouth is” in Central Asia. The US has as a result just lost an important military base in Kyrgyzstan which was being used for its occupation of Afghanistan.

China’s diplomatic strength, which flows from its manufacturing and trade prowess, has also been revealed somewhat closer to home for the US. According to the Economist, American mayors are making twenty times as many trips to China as they were in 2007 in a desperate plea for Chinese firms to part with their hard earned dollars and invest in their cities - since US firms will not do so. Boris Johnson, that walking upper-class parody who passes for Mayor of London, has just returned from a glorified sales-trip to China. David Cameron, like all the other Western leaders, has sold China his 'commitment' to Tibetan independence along with the rights to build Britain's railways and power plants. To imagine that China is anywhere near to breaking America's dominance in the field of world diplomacy is to mistake the embryo for the baby, but one cannot deny that China is making inroads into the system of world alliances in a way no other country can.

Nor is it China's immediate aim to be the undisputed superpower. China merely wants control of the vital arteries of world trade, in particular the shipping lanes in its own 'back yard', which anyway would only reflect economic reality. For instance, 30% of the volume of containerised exports in the world are from China, which is three times the quantity from the USA. In 1964, the US had the world's largest Merchant Marine (the collection of ships needed for trade), it has now been relegated to fourteenth, with China number two. The world's first, third, fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth busiest commercial ports are all in China. None of the top ten are in the USA. It is estimated that by 2030 China will own one third of the world's container ships.

This is the economic reality impelling China to assert control over the South and East China seas, both of which are absolutely essential shipping lanes for world and Chinese trade. The ADIZ is quite clearly part of this strategy which is, from the standpoint of the growth of Chinese capitalism (on which the world market depends) an absolute necessity.

90% of China's imports are via the seas. It is the world's largest consumer of oil, but has no control over which ships can and cannot pass through the Strait of Hormuz, through which 1/3 of the world's waterborne oil exports and the majority of China's oil imports must pass. The USA decides that. Closer to home, the Strait of Malacca, through which 1/4 of the world's commercial shipping passes, is again controlled by the US Navy, and China has effectively no say if the US decides to close this lane to its ships. The entire South and East China sea region, despite bearing China's name, is under the jealous control of the US Navy. From the perspective of Chinese capitalism and imperialism it is both necessary and justified for it to assert its 21st Century equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine, i.e. that these seas and their shipping - most of which is coming or going from China - constitute China's backyard and exclusive domain. But such a rebalancing of world relations with economic reality is blocked by the heritage of the US's former industrial dominance, that is, the legion of US aircraft carriers stalking these waters.

According to John Batchelor in Al Jazeera, the ADIZ may have been announced as a result of the outcome of the recent relaxing of US imposed sanctions on Iran: "Beijing knew beforehand that the easing of sanctions on Iran’s economy would restart the lavish investments in Iranian fields and pipelines that China needs to prosper, since, by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency, 90 percent of all Middle Eastern fossil fuel exports will flow to Asia.

"With the opening in the Iranian energy sector, China knew it must also secure shipping routes to Iran. Long-established Chinese military strategy holds adamantly that it must control the routes through the first island chain, which includes the East China Sea and the Senkakus.

"So a new Chinese global strategy appears to be unfolding: open Iran, exploit its oil fields, secure the shipping routes, impose Chinese authority, and do it all so swiftly on one day that the neighbors — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines — are left to hope that the U.S. will find a way to reverse the facts on the ground."

Washington of course has its own strategy of 'Chinese containment', one that is altogether more subtle, or rather, it appears more subtle to those inured to US dominance. For the past few years they have been pushing the so-called Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is a free trade deal launched by Washington intended to include virtually every country in the Pacific region. However they seem to have forgotten to put China on the invite list, quite an oversight. The nature of the 'Partnership' is completely US dominated, since the other members must gain the approval of the US Congress to join and the full contents of the 'Partnership' are screened from everyone bar America!

In addition, the TPP contains rules specifically aimed against China's important State Owned Enterprises, with the obvious intention that China will thereby be excluded from even asking to join for fear of losing its protectionist advantages. This is what Barack Obama had to say on the strategy behind the TPP: "We're organising trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards", that is to say, the standards that fit the USA's unrivalled dominance of world relations.

What the TPP reveals is that in the epoch of decaying imperialism, there is no part of the world market that hasn't been captured by one or another power. What are presented as free trade deals to knock down protectionist barriers to growth, are in reality bulwarks of one powerful state's protectionist ring against another. The logic of the TPP's exclusion of China is for China to assert its power, to try to gather into its net those countries so dependent on trade with China that they surrender all pretence of meaningful sovereignty. The world becomes carved up into competing power blocs who erect diplomatic and trade barriers against one another, whilst at the same time still depending on one another for their wealth.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama's chief military adviser, says, "The US military will be obliged to overtly confront China as it faced down the Soviet Union." By 2020, the Pentagon intends to station roughly 60 percent of its naval military forces in the Pacific, including six aircraft carriers and numerous destroyers, cruisers and submarines.

How can we speak of the sovereignty of Southeast Asian nations when Washington and Manila have been negotiating since August on stationing more US Marines in the Philippines? Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has already announced that the US will in the future inform his country's armed forces if Chinese ships enter territorial waters claimed by Manila. In exchange, US warships will soon be able return to Subic Bay, a Philipine naval station that the US Navy vacated in 1992.

It has not escaped the attention of many that the period opening up for world capitalism bears a close resemblance to the epoch of wars and revolutions from 1914-45. One of the defining characteristics of that crisis ridden era was the profound instability in world relations due to Britain's economic decline, which was not accompanied by a gentlemanly vacation from the military scene on behalf of Britain, but instead two World Wars for global supremacy. In his writings from that time, Trotsky emphasised that America was able to 'learn the paths of world politics' from Britain very quickly on the flesh and bones of Europe. He also pointed out that America had a tremendous advantage should it need to win itself tributaries from Britain's vast empire, because it could pose as their liberator, supplying the anti-colonial forces with arms and illusions in American freedom.

China is some way from being in a position to launch such a struggle for world domination, however the lines of the future struggle have clearly been drawn. But how can China win diplomatic, political and military supremacy from the world superpower, whose military spending virtually outstrips the rest of the world combined? China has an additional disadvantage. Its first task is to gain control of the shipping lanes that surround its shores. But it is in precisely this sphere that American domination is dressed in the most vibrant colours of democracy and freedom. Its chief allies, South Korea and Japan, were won for it in the golden era of American wealth and power, when it could buy them bourgeois democracy. Therefore for these countries America appears as a benevolent father. This means China can hardly pose as their liberator from US oppression. But of course behind America's hand of friendship lies the most formidable arrangement of aircraft carriers, submarines and nuclear bombs - a couple of which were also deployed in the winning of Japan's 'friendship', let us not forget.

In this conflict, Joe Biden likes to lecture China on 'stability', 'international rules' and respect for human rights. Of course, the exploiter-in-chief always emphasises the need for stability, and wags the finger at the young upstart whose pretensions inevitably undermine the stability suited to the current imperial power. America appears as the defender of stability and reasonable norms in the region because it has already conquered the region through such 'stable' events as the Korean, Vietnamese and Second World wars.

The period which is now opening up is therefore one of extremely protracted instability. American capitalism has frittered away its industrial preeminence, and finds itself, like the Europeans, in a cycle of debt. With this has come the phenomenal growth in inequality and discontent at home. It knows that losing its domination of sea, air and currency markets is unthinkable and would turn an uneasy tension with its own working class into an all out conflict. Without the role as the world reserve currency, the Dollar could no longer be used to finance an ever bigger state deficit, and ever more severe cuts would have to be made. It will therefore do everything in its power to contain China.

It also needs to control the shipping lanes and money markets so that the lucrative trade with China may continue. But this control is extremely expensive, and its military budget is being cut. Without Chinese capitalism American capitalism is nothing. Thus the maintenance of the status quo must mean the continued build up of Chinese wealth and power.

For China, decades of growth have in turn resulted in the growth of the world's largest working class. As we have explained in previous articles, this proletariat is increasingly discontented and conscious of its own power. The Chinese ruling class is terrified lest any slowdown in growth sparks a 'social explosion'. It fears bottlenecks in trade and diplomatic closed doors. It must constantly test the strengths of American imperialism to gauge what cracks in its power China's commodity production has caused. That explains the ADIZ move.

There is only so long countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and even Australia and New Zealand (which has threatened to leave the TPP negotiations should they be used against China) can seek the security of America's warships - which must always come with 'freedom loving' strings attached - whilst China is their largest trading partner. But to win these countries China will require an all-powerful navy and air force, at least one powerful enough to dominate the seas from the Middle-East to Japan.

Therefore China's monumental growth implies not Deng Xiaoping's 'peaceful rise', but is pregnant with instability, wars and revolution. Of course a major war between these two powers is not on the agenda. Not only are none of the two equipped to wage a successful offensive against the other, but the enormous power of the working class in each country would not allow for such an adventure before the working class has been crushed - an unlikely perspective in the short and medium term.

But at the same time, there can be no talk of any harmony between a rising industrial powerhouse, hungry for resources and too powerful to be subordinated to another power, and a declining power who must cling onto its privileges to stave off unrest at home.

An increasingly sick world capitalism will not be able to withstand the instability and uncertainty all this foretells. In 1973, the OPEC oil embargo was sufficient to bring to the surface all the contradictions in the world economy. Exactly what conflicts, skirmishes, embargoes and protectionist barriers lie ahead in this conflict we do not know. What is certain is that the future will not be like the past period. In the turbulence, the voice of the working classes of both countries, whose urges for a better life have been suppressed for a very long time, will come to the fore. In their mutual struggles they will discover a common interest in ending the anarchy of capitalism and the imperialist games that go with it.