Asia Pacific: A new order developing

World moving from being ‘unipolar’ to ‘bipolar’

Below we publish an edited version of a speech given by Stephen Jolly from the Socialist Party (CWI in Australia) at the recent meeting of the CWI International Executive Committee.

The recent drama over a number of uninhabited, remote, rocky outcrops in the East China Sea is just the latest example of the rising geopolitical tension between the US and China. Perhaps hypocritically, US Defence Sec Chuck Hegal described China’s actions as “a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the area”. What we are seeing is the world moving from being ‘unipolar’ to ‘bipolar’ for the first time since the fall of the USSR in 1991.

A new order is developing in East Asia after 40 years of relative stability, since Nixon visited Mao in 1972. We know the facts of China’s growth. Half of its workforce has moved from the field to the factory. 10% annual growth rates from 1985 to 2011 and now 6-8%. Yes, its per capita GDP is still far behind the US, but its strategic and political weight in the world depends on its overall GDP which is much closer to that of the US.

On the other side, the position of the US in East Asia is in decline. The US’s share of trade to East Asia fell from 19.5% to 9.5% from 2000 to 2012, while China’s rose from 10.2% to 20% over the same period. In November 2009 Obama announced his “Pivot to Asia” in terms of foreign policy, which was an attempt to check China’s emergence as a challenger to US dominance in Asia.

As an aside, this is a secondary reason why the US didn’t bomb Syria and has done a deal with Iran: it wants to disengage as much as it can from the Middle East and Afghanistan to allow itself to ‘pivot’ east. We’ve seen the repositioning of US armed forces to East Asia, including 2,500 US Marines to the Darwin Australian base.

The US is identifying ‘choke points’ to potentially cut off China’s trade (for example, the Malacca Straits). China is reliant on a steady import of coal, iron ore etc. to drive its economy. More fundamentally, with 20% of the world’s population it only has 8% of its arable land and 7% of fresh surface water.

We have seen the massive surveillance led by the NSA and “5 eyes” which was recently exposed by the leaks of Edward Snowden. The level of surveillance was quite astounding and covered every person from Presidents to cleaners. Both the US and China are actively seeking allies in the region, in a modern version of the ‘Great Game’.

In fact, every dispute from the recent tension over the islands in the East China Sea, down to the internal politics of Fiji and Papa New Guinea can only be understood through the prism of this conflict between superpowers. It hasn’t all been plane sailing for the US. Obama’s ‘no show’ at the APEC meeting earlier this year due to the budget crisis in Washington DC was a “blow to the Administration’s much-vaunted pivot to Asia and the damage is done” said ex-US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell. “It’s a serious blow to US standing and its interests in the region and globally”, said one Australian academic.

In Japan, the right-wing Abe government is carrying out a policy of aggressive nationalism and rearmament. The disputed islands were “nationalised” by the last Japanese government but the situation has been capitalised on by this government. China, in response, declared an Air Defence Identification Zone around the islands, about two thirds the size of Britain.

China is driven by imperialist interests in the region and a rising assertive nationalism.

They want to weaken Japan and sow divisions between its capitalists, some of whom want to trade with China and its government. Plus, they want to increase the military and diplomatic cost to the US of its alliance with Japan. In the short term, a military conflict is unlikely. In fact, when the US sent 2 unarmed B52s right through the ADIZ, China pretended they had merely skirted the zone to “save face” domestically.

However, since September 2012, Japanese military aircraft have engaged in manoeuvres 386 times, more than once a day. As one analyst said: “China is undertaking defensive emergency measures, they don’t want conflict and are trying to be assertive and robust without actually pushing themselves over the line.” They are demanding greater respect to correspond with their economic rise.

Nevertheless, this situation is the most important threat to US in the region ever. Up until now, all US “war games” ended with 2 aircraft carrier groups entering the region and the enemy backed off.

Now though, China is developing cost-effective sea-defence capabilities (submarines, drones, long range ballistic and anti-ship missiles etc) to turn the Western Pacific into a naval no-go zone. A recent Pentagon report acknowledged that “China is deploying an anti-ship missile — known as the DF-21D — with a range of more than 1,500 kilometers, giving ‘PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.’”

Australia remains the US ‘deputy sheriff’ or in fact plain subordinate in the area, despite its massive economic ties to China. In 2009, trade and investment with China “benefitted” each Australian family by $4000 – that rose to $10,500 by 2011. From 2006 to 2012, Australian exports to China rose by 25% a year. Two-way trade in 2008 was worth $73 billion and this went up to $125 billion by 2012. China is the biggest influence on Australia’s economic growth in the last decade.

Australia has seen a 25-year boom, based on the export of coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas.

However, by the way, the boom has been based in the West and North of Australia and has led to a highly-valued Australian dollar which is destroying manufacturing, tourism and higher education in the East coast.

Also, the boom hides a raelity of relative decline. 20 years ago, Australia’s economy was equal in size to China, now China’s economy is 4 times bigger. However, politically Australia is firmly in the US camp and even saw Gillard replacing Rudd in a coup backed by mining bosses and the US as a recent example.

Two other issues show the contradictions of Australian capitalism. The decision to say no to China’s biggest private company, Huewei, taking over the National Broadband Network rollout was driven by US opposition. They would not be able to spy effectively if the network in Australia was run by a Chinese ‘enemy’ company! In return, China is angry and will take it out on Australia in Free Trade Agreement talks that Australia was hoping would lead to greater food exports to China.

Secondly, the Snowden case revelations have angered Indonesia where Australia tapped even the mobile of the President’s wife. Abbot originally said to Indonesia that this was for “your own good”! Indonesia has described the Australian response as ”belittling and without remorse”. This dispute has already destroyed people smuggling cooperation between the two states and potentially also beef exports to a market expected to be in the world’s top 10 in the medium term.

In conclusion, history knows of no examples of a rising power finding its place in international order without a war with the dominant power. This is not on the cards in the short term but war is inherent in the situation without a perspective for a socialist future, which we fight for. In years to come the Cold War between US and USSR will be seen to be replaced by one between imperialist rivals, China and the US.

For US imperialist interests, the ‘Pivot to Asia’ is key but can it really pull it off? For China, there is great unease. The fear of an internal explosion for the recently-formed National Security Council, and the regime still spend more on internal security than on military spending. The military buildup by China will continue. However, there is a contradiction between the need for China to continue to trade with foreign powers on the one hand, and its assertive nationalist foreign policy on the other.

The Asia Pacific region is both the most important area for capitalism and most dangerous geopolitical conflict point at this moment.

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December 2013