Fifty three percent of Chinese respondents and 29 percent of Japanese believe their countries will fight a war in the years ahead. This was the finding in a new poll by Genron/China Daily published on the second anniversary of the current Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands conflict between the world’s second-largest (China) and third-largest (Japan) economies. The move by the previous Japanese government led by Yoshihiko Noda, on 11 September 2012, to ‘nationalise’ part of the contested island chain in the East China Sea, triggered a bitter diplomatic standoff, which has seen a rise in militaristic rhetoric and cat-and-mouse military manoeuvres by the two countries’ air and sea forces in the disputed waters. Japan scrambled its fighter jets against Chinese planes on 415 occasions in the past year, compared with 306 times the year before.
According to the new poll, 38 percent of Japanese think war will be avoided, down from 47 percent in 2013. It found that 93 percent of Japanese have an ‘unfavourable view’ of the Chinese people, with 87 percent of Chinese viewing Japanese unfavourably.
“Amplified” by the rulers
Jeff Kingston, a US-based Japan expert, told the Financial Times that the Japanese media were inflaming negative sentiment towards China and that the nationalist government of Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was “amplifying the anxiety” by talking about the threat from China. Abe created a stir earlier this year, grabbing global headlines, when he compared today’s relationship between Japan and China to Britain and Germany on the eve of the First World War a century ago.
Nationalism, focusing on territorial conflicts (over uninhabited islands and even rocks), has been deliberately whipped up by both governments to shore up their bases of support as neo-liberal economic reforms are pursued at the behest of the capitalists at home and abroad. China’s president Xi Jinping is embroiled in a complex and infected power struggle within the one-party (CCP) state, partly under the cover of an anti-corruption drive. He wants to centralise more power in Beijing and also to break the economy from its current extremely dangerous debt dependency, by accelerating neo-liberal reform measures.
To this end, Xi wants to project his own ‘strong man’ image and to assert China’s newfound military muscle across the region. Nationalism, and specifically the dream of China as number one, is used as an opiate to mollify mass anger over the effects of government policy and a deepening economic malaise. China’s ability to stand up to the US and its regional allies, the foremost of which is Japan, is also intended as a show of strength to intimidate China’s restive regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and also Taiwan, which Beijing eventually wants to reincorporate under its control.
At the time of Japan’s ‘nationalisation’ of the islands – something socialists resolutely opposed, and this opposition extends to all the antagonistic governments including China – massive protests took place across China targeting Japanese companies, cars, and even restaurants. These protests were partly encouraged by the CCP as a way to “release some pressure” from the base of society, with the government able to steer the anger away from itself.
In May, this year, a similar phenomenon gripped Vietnam, with tens of thousands engaging in anti-China protests and riots – initially regime-sanctioned – after China deployed an oil-drilling rig in a part of the South China Sea that is claimed by both governments. These protests blew back upon the Vietnamese regime with 460 factories attacked – Korean and Singaporean as well as Chinese and Taiwanese – causing millions of dollars in damage and at least four deaths. Taiwan is the biggest investor in Vietnam’s sweatshop industrial zones and its factories – rather than Chinese-owned plants – bore the brunt of popular anger.
Abe’s right-wing agenda
Abe, who like Xi is a ‘princeling’ descendant of a political dynasty, has also engaged in nationalistic posturing, using the ‘China threat’ to advance an agenda of increased Japanese militarisation and a pushback against Chinese economic influence in Asia. In December, Abe ignored pressure from the US and paid a controversial visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which is strongly associated with Japan’s wartime atrocities. Since coming to power in late 2012, in large part due to exploiting the Diaoyu-Senkaku issue, Abe has surrounded himself with ultra-nationalists and ‘revisionists’ who deny Japan’s war crimes such as the mass coercion of women in occupied countries into sex slavery (so-called ‘comfort women’). A newly appointed minister in Abe’s cabinet and another prominent LDP member were just this week exposed for posing in photographs with the leader of an openly neo-Nazi party.
Abe’s government recently approved a ‘reinterpretation’ of Japan’s peace constitution that for the first time since 1945 allows it to send troops to fight overseas. This policy has aroused powerful opposition inside Japan. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Tokyo against the move with slogans against ‘fascism’. One protester set himself alight outside Tokyo’s busiest train station. The government’s ramped-up nationalism is not just linked to its military agenda, but serves as a cover for attacks on the working class, the public sector, and for the introduction of more authoritarian controls on political activities and civil liberties.
Abe has followed a hyperactive timetable of regional diplomacy, visiting almost all East Asian countries (but conspicuously not China) to cut new financial and trade deals, and in some cases to strengthen military ties. Abe recently hosted talks with India’s right-wing leader Narendra Modi, announcing a “special, strategic global partnership” between the two Asian giants. This is clearly pitted against China, which Modi said has an “expansionist mindset”. The Japanese government pledged to invest US$34 billion in India during these talks.
This week Abe visits Bangladesh and then travels to Sri Lanka, as the first Japanese PM to call on the island nation in nearly a quarter of a century. Xi Jinping will arrive in Colombo within days of Abe’s visit, underlining the frenzied pace of diplomatic jockeying in the region. Sri Lanka is already caught in a tug-of-war between the Indian and Chinese regimes, who are vying for influence, and Abe’s visit signals that Japanese imperialism also wants a piece of this action. With the governments of the Philippines and Vietnam also clashing with China over sovereignty claims in disputed waters in the South China Sea, Abe has offered these governments Japanese support and naval equipment, as has the US, most blatantly in the case of the Philippines.
US ‘pivot’ spells disaster
Regional tensions have been exacerbated by the policy of US imperialism. Battered by a series of calamitous military adventures in the Muslim world, the US is now seeking to recoup its formerly dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region, where it is increasingly being elbowed aside by China’s growing economic power. This is the origin of Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ launched in 2011. The ‘pivot’ (or ‘rebalancing’ as Washington now prefers to call it) is a political, economic and military strategy to refocus American power upon Asia, which has become the main arena of activity for world capitalism. On the military plane, it involves new bases and revamped defence pacts with old and new allies, including for example the return of at least a token US military contingent to the Philippines, a quarter century after US forces were made to close their bases there.
But with the US constrained by an unprecedented economic crisis and forced to scale down military spending, a key element of its ‘pivot’ strategy is to push its Asia-Pacific allies – notably Australia, South Korea, India and especially Japan – to pick up a bigger share of the military bill. This is fuelling an arms race and, most clearly in the case of US support for Japan’s military build-up, threatens to destabilise the continent.
Economically, as an accompaniment to the the ‘pivot’, the US is attempting to knit together a neo-liberal trade and investment treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), which may or may not take off due to the potentially big opposition that could come from the people of the negotiating countries. The TPP is driven by the profit-hunger of multinational companies but also seeks to cement a US-led anti-China political alliance of ‘Asian Democracies’ (which ironically includes Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam). Some of the difficulties that could stop the TPP in its tracks are shown by the problems Abe’s government is having in meeting US-TPP demands in sectors such as farming and autos.
The Chinese regime has become more assertive in regional conflicts as its overseas investments soar, acquiring significant stakes in mining, banking, utilities, transportation, and other sectors throughout Southeast Asia especially. Beijing has embraced the theory of Western and US ‘declinism’ and is increasingly prepared to parry and block US moves in the region, while still being careful to avoid a head-on clash, given both the crushing military preponderance of the US (spending four times as much on its military than China, the second biggest spender worldwide) and the disastrous economic repercussions of a US-China military conflict.
Socialists oppose the US ‘pivot’, which is stoking potentially disastrous conflicts throughout Asia. This follows on the heels of a decade of US power games and military interventions in the Middle East (Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere) that have wrought long-term havoc. At the same time, we oppose the nationalistic rhetoric and military plans of Asian governments including Beijing. Although less global in character at this stage, the Chinese dictatorship is also pursuing its own great power ambitions, and in the process is inflaming national tensions and providing a convenient ‘scarecrow’ for right-wing nationalist politicians such as Japan’s Abe to drive forward their reactionary political agendas.
Against nationalism and capitalism
The rise of right-wing nationalist governments across Asia, and their drive to increase military spending are a serious threat to peace and the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. Asia now spends more on arms than Europe for the first time in modern history. At the same time, Asia holds 60 percent of the world’s urban slums. In South Asia alone there are 27 million children who do not go to school. Instead of increasing spending on schools and hospitals, capitalist governments are pouring billions into submarines, missile systems and patrol boats, while unleashing a tsunami of privatisations and outsourcing upon workers and the poor.
This is the logic of capitalism, which is a diseased and crisis-ridden system, only capable of enriching a tiny billionaire elite at the expense of the mass of the population. Even in Japan, the richest country in Asia, and formerly one of the least unequal, 16.3% of children live in “economic hardship” according to government data. Under neo-liberal restructuring, of which Abe is planning more, the number of part-time, temporary and other non-regular workers in Japan has soared over the past 15 years to 19.7 million, which is 38 percent of the labour force.
Socialists urge the workers’ movement to resist the poison of nationalism and focus on the fight against the class enemy – the capitalists and their governments. Everywhere nationalism is gaining ground there is a visible absence of independent working class politics. The situation from China to Japan to the US cries out for mass workers’ parties, socialist policies and fighting trade unions.
Workers have nothing to gain from the military schemes of Abe, Xi and Obama, and their respective general staffs, while there is an urgent need to organise and struggle against the anti-working class policies of these governments. As Karl Marx said the working class has no country; our struggle is international!
Oppose all the warmongering governments in the East China Sea and South China Sea conflicts!
Link up workers’ struggles across national boundaries to fight capitalism, outsourcing, casualisation and privatisation!
We want schools, hospitals and affordable homes, not weapons of mass destruction!
Oppose the neo-liberal TPP and all capitalist trade deals!
Demilitarise the South and East China Seas!
Share the resources of the oceans between the people of the region through a democratically planned and administered ‘international commons’ – as part of a democratic socialist confederation of Asian countries!