20. “Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics”.

Almost everyone in the world knows by now that China is no longer a socialist country. Even the capitalists in the West, and the U.S. government, have long since come to recognize this full well—despite their continuing criticism that China is ruled by what is still called a “Communist” Party. (However, even western ideologists now criticize the CCP not for being communist, but rather for being authoritarian.)

But the CCP itself, and the Chinese government, still try to keep up the pretense that the country is “socialist”. According to them the Chinese system today is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The Chinese ruling bourgeoisie fears that openly admitting the obvious—that China is a capitalist country ruled by its own capitalist class centered in the CCP—would destroy whatever lingering “legitimacy” that they think they have. Hence the continuing absurd verbal pretense.

Only a few revisionists, in China and elsewhere, have failed to understand this basic situation.[1]

Consequently, all around the world (and maybe even for growing numbers of people within China itself), this phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is viewed humorously, as the ridiculous nonsense that it clearly is. And this has led to the tag “with Chinese characteristics” being tacked onto other features of contemporary China whenever an element of humor or ridicule is desired.

A case in point is the small book by Michael Metcalf, Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics?, which was published in 2011 by the National Intelligence University operated by the Department of Defense of the U.S. government.[2] Metcalf is a faculty member of the NIU and has spent decades working for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis. His special focus is in helping the U.S. government and military understand the actual motivations and intentions of the Chinese government and the CCP.

Metcalf’s central thesis is that China is now an imperialist country (though perhaps with “Chinese characteristics”) and that it is rapidly preparing its military to protect and promote Chinese imperialist economic interests abroad.

It probably seems quite bizarre to many people that anyone in the U.S. military or government would condemn China for being imperialist or for building up a military force capable of protecting and expanding its foreign economic interests! After all, the U.S. since World War II has itself been the most powerful imperialist country in the world, engaged in constant economic and political intervention into other countries and almost constant wars to protect and expand its own politico-economic interests! And since the collapse of the Soviet Union the U.S. has been the sole superpower, the unquestioned top dog among all the imperialist powers.

And yet, it is the top imperialist dogs themselves who are most alert to, and afraid of, the rise of new imperialist competitors. They know very well what they themselves are doing in the world, and they really don’t like it one bit when they see other countries rising to challenge them in doing the very same thing, especially if those upstart imperialists threaten to go outside the existing, agreed upon framework of a single imperialist system with established “rules”!

With a mixture of both extreme greed and hopes for major new profits (on the one hand), but also trepidations about the rise of a potential new capitalist-imperialist competitor (on the other hand), the U.S. and other long-established imperialist countries gradually accepted China into the current world imperialist system over the past 25 years. The key event which formalized China’s joining the world imperialist system was its acceptance into the World Trade Organization in December 2001, after long and arduous negotiations.[3]

As we have argued earlier, China is now not only an integral part of the current world imperialist system, it has even come to play an indispensible role within that system (as the primary super-exploited “workshop of the world”, and through its support of the world financial system via its purchase of massive runaway government debt in the U.S. and other imperialist countries).

But China is also a major threat to that current world imperialist system if it gets so powerful economically (and eventually militarily) that it is able to rewrite the rules of that existing system in its own favor, or else if (what is far more likely) it becomes strong enough to split off part of that imperialist system into an independent (or semi-independent) imperialist system that China itself dominates. This is the possibility and trend that so alarms the U.S. ruling class!

Michael Metcalf bases his analysis of China’s military intentions not primarily on China’s continuing rapid expansion of its military spending and power (which of course both he and the U.S. government in general are very well aware of), but rather on some key writings of Chinese military and political leaders.

In particular, every two years since 1998 China has released a public “defense white paper” describing the overall role and strategy of China’s military. Metcalf focuses on the 2006 White Paper and on two explanatory essays further explicating China’s military thinking which were written by one of the main authors of those official white papers, Chen Zhou,[4] and which were published in the Chinese military journal, China Military Science, in 2007 and 2009.

Chinese military doctrine is quite clear that military strategy depends on what political goals are being aimed at. In the early decades of the People’s Republic of China the central political goals were survival and warding off attack by foreign imperialism (the U.S. and the social-imperialist Soviet Union), both against China itself and also against other countries such as North Korea and Vietnam. But that basic security situation is now qualitatively different and vastly better for China. The Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia today is much weaker relative to China than it once was. Moreover, China now possesses nuclear weapons, ICBMs, nuclear powered missile submarines, and other military capabilities which prevent even the U.S. from launching any direct attack against it. As Chen Zhou puts it, “China’s security environment on the whole is favorable, and there is no instant danger of large-scale foreign aggression against China.”[5]

So what new political goals have now come to the fore, to serve as the primary determinant of the changing Chinese military strategy? Of course further strengthening of defenses against attack by other imperialist countries is still important, as is the long time goal of recovering Taiwan. But the new central goal added to these is that of economic development. Chen Zhou writes that reform and development now affects the overall national security. This is because “Reform and development is now at a critical stage and the contradictions and problems affecting social harmony and stability are increasing. China’s economic dependence on the overseas markets is increasing, so the economic security is facing greater risks.”[6] As Metcalf summarizes it, “The reader can see that, for Chen, security and development seem to be merging into one issue.”[7]

For Chen Zhou and the entire Chinese ruling class, the perceived interests of the state have changed and broadened:

“China’s national defense always puts the state’s sovereignty and security in the primary position, and always takes guarding against and resisting aggression, stopping armed subversion, defending the state’s sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security as the basic tasks. With the changes of the times and the development of the nation, the security interests and the development interests have been interwoven, the interests of one’s own country have been closely linked with the interests of other nations, the gravity center of interests have [sic] shifted from survival to development, the form of realizing the national interests has extended from domestic to international, the scope of the national interests has extended from the traditional territorial land, seas, and air to the maritime, space, and electromagnetic domains…”[8] [Emphasis added.]

Metcalf sums this up: “In other words, the new stage of development has caused the merging of development concerns and traditional territorial security concerns, and this has pushed China’s state security interests offshore.”[9] Chen Zhou also states:

“The armed forces need to cope with traditional security threats, and also to cope with non-traditional threats; need to safeguard the state’s survival interests, and need to safeguard the state’s development interests; need to safeguard the homeland security, and also to safeguard the overseas interests security; need to safeguard the overall sate interests of reform, development, and stability, and also need to safeguard world peace and promote common development.”[10] [Emphasis added.]

Chen Zhou further states: “The military capability is the core of the state’s strategic capability and should be able to be extended to wherever the state’s interests develop to.”[11]

In short, the Chinese military is being changed and “modernized” so that it can more easily operate in other countries where Chinese economic interests are at stake. This is straightforward imperialist thinking and strategy. If this isn’t yet clear enough, let’s quote some more of this new Chinese military strategy:

“Today while the Chinese economy is increasingly merging into the global economic system and the state interests are continuously extending outward, China’s national defense will assume a more active and open posture in moving into the outside world, will preserve the state interests in a broader sphere of domains beyond the limits of territory and sovereignty, and will provide military support and guarantee for the development interests.”[12]

And again:

“Development and security constitute an organic unified entity, in which development is the foundation for security, and security is the guarantee for development. Being the strong backup for the nation’s security and development, national defense should strive to effect the combination of safeguarding both the security interests and the development interests. With China’s connection to the outside world changing from a less close condition to a close condition, China’s influence on the international community and the external obstruction that China will be facing will rise side by side, so the domestic security will more heavily influence the international situation, and the international security will more deeply influence the domestic situation as well. National defense should coordinate the domestic situation and the international situation… …with the pace of ‘stepping out’ being quickened, the issue of protecting the overseas interests is getting increasingly prominent. National Defense should, from the high plane of economic globalization’s development and safeguarding the state’s economic security, effectively raise the capability of protecting our country’s overseas interests, and ensure the protection of the overseas interests security while guaranteeing homeland security.[13] [Emphasis added.]

Hmmm. “Stepping out,” this Chinese imperialist military strategist calls it. That used to mean going on a romantic date; now it apparently means the imperialist exploitation of the world, backed up when necessary by military force!

Chen Zhou goes on to state that “With China’s full involvement in the process of economic globalization, the state’s development interests will unavoidably go beyond the scope of the country’s territory and will certainly be extended to other countries and regions.”[14] But he is at pains (like any other imperialist ideologist) to try to justify this and explain why, in China’s case, it will be done in the “common interests” of all the countries involved. This reminds us of Japanese imperialism’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” claim of the 1930s. Imperialists always claim that their predations are in “everybody’s best interests”.

But what about China eventually setting up foreign military bases to maintain control of its developing economic empire, the way that U.S. imperialism does? These are also being planned and pre-justified. While claiming that China will never pursue a Western-style policy in this regard, Chen Zhou states in another article:

“Therefore, though we resolutely oppose ‘neo-interventionism’ that ‘puts human rights above sovereignty,’ we cannot negate the overseas use of military for any defensive and humanitarian purposes. We must reserve our right to carry out legal ‘intervention’ or ‘interference’ when the nation’s core overseas interests are being seriously jeopardized.”[15]

And adds the following, indicating that China will indeed seek to establish foreign military bases:

“As for whether or not military bases should be established in overseas areas, this is something related to our country’s independent peaceful foreign policy and defensive national defense policy, and is also restricted by the national and military conditions, the comprehensive national power, and the path of development of our country… These conditions and characteristics and the fact that our military’s strength are [sic] not yet commensurate with the requirement of the missions determine that we should act within our capacity in safeguarding our overseas interests, deal with issues case by case, and make steady advances… Even when we become really powerful in the future, we will still not establish a global network of military bases on a large scale like some countries do…”[16]

In other words, China will start with just a few foreign military bases, and see how many more become “necessary”.

Michael Metcalf, the U.S. military analyst who brought this strategic imperialist thinking by the Chinese ruling class and military to public attention makes an additional quite valid point. It is true that China does not yet have any foreign military bases, and it is true that China has not yet engaged in any foreign imperialist wars (at least in the direct way that the U.S., or even Britain and France have done in recent decades). Metcalf describes China today as the land of the “not yet”. He says:

“If we choose to see current China’s activity as no more than an add-on to last year’s activity, we run the risk of missing the early stages of fundamental changes as well as the risk of seeing the future goals as merely additions to past goals… Thus, to fully appreciate present Chinese behavior, it must be seen from the perspective of the future at which it aims. I believe that Chen’s explanation of the 2006 Defense White Paper gives us that goal: a very powerful China active in the international arena, using its military strength to further and protect its interests and diplomacy, and with a series of military bases abroad to support those military missions. In other words, they intend imperialism with Chinese characteristics.”[17]

Actually, from the Leninist point of view, China has been a capitalist-imperialist country for quite some time already, but it is true that the military aspect of this imperialist nature is still developing. Chinese military interventions in support of Chinese imperialist investments around the world have not been necessary so far (except on token levels) because of the existence of the world imperialist system wherein the U.S., with the support of a few other imperialist countries such as Britain and France, has been handling most of the war work. But China is not content with this arrangement and figures that it will be able to pull in a greater and more secure share of the world’s wealth if it starts to rely more on its own military interventions to support its ever expanding imperialist economic penetration of the world.

However, we’ll let Michael Metcalf continue with some of his summary:

“The center of gravity of China’s state interest has changed from China’s survival to China’s development. Therefore, the primary mission of China’s military is no longer China’s survival and territorial security but now is protecting and expanding China’s developmental interests, wherever those interests might be located. This mission will require a much greater military force than was required when mere survival and territorial defense formed the core of China’s state interests… So, the core of China’s state interest has changed from mere survival to development—and this is a major event. It is a qualitative change and not a mere quantitative change. China has crossed a threshold.

“Not long ago it was possible to reach a loose consensus on what military force China would require and develop. When survival was the primary objective, people’s war could provide defense against a conventional invasion of China but not against a nuclear attack. Once China deployed a small but reliable nuclear force, China had assured its survival…. With development as the new core of state interest, the only limit to China’s military needs will be the limit of China’s developmental interests. But development interests seem to be of a type that constantly expands. Or is China of such a nature that one day it will declare that its development has reached its desired limits?

“Unless one can predict the limit of China’s development goals, one cannot predict the limit of China’s military requirement. China plans to develop a military force commensurate with its economic status, with most analysts assessing that its status will surpass that of the United States by earlier than mid-century. But will China then stop? At present its military development lags behind even its current requirement. Therefore, for a very long time China’s military development will be racing not only to catch up to its current requirement but also to prepare for future requirements that have no foreseeable limits.”[18]

Indeed, for a rising imperialist power, especially one contending with an existing imperialist power possessing a powerful military machine, there is no such thing as having too much military strength!

Thus we see that “imperialism with Chinese characteristics” is still just imperialism. No matter how much red lipstick you smear on a pig’s lips, it is still … just a pig. And even if it is still only a young pig (from the military intervention standpoint), it is rapidly growing up to become a very wild and dangerous imperialist boar.

*     *     *

China has continued releasing its “defense white papers” in the years since 2006, but the later ones neither add much, nor show any significant changes in China’s official views about the role and strategy of its military. If anything the more recent white papers have been couched in more abstract and less revealing terminology.[19]

However, someone might suppose that since China has not yet followed through on some of the key military goals and plans it outlined in earlier defense white papers, and in commentaries on them in Chinese military journals, that perhaps China does not really intend to implement them. In particular this question might be raised about the earlier discussions suggesting that foreign military bases could well be established at some point. As far as we know, no such foreign Chinese military bases have yet been established, though there are Chinese military attachés in many countries. Nevertheless, there have been continuing signs that they are definitely still being considered and even planned for.

In 2013 the small country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa actually publicly offered China the option of establishing a military (probably naval) base in that country. The U.S., France and even Japan (!) already have bases there.[20] It is not yet known if China will actually establish a base there.

There have also been news reports over the past couple years that Pakistan has requested that China build its first overseas naval base there, and that Seychelles has made such a request as well. There was even a rumor that Iran would like to provide a small island in the Red Sea to China for a naval base. True or not, these reports and rumors are instructive and part of a growing pattern.[21]

There is continuing discussion of the “need” for such overseas bases in the Chinese media. The map below, from a Chinese government newspaper in 2013, shows 18 possible locations for PLA naval bases to protect China’s “energy line” in the Indian Ocean area. Besides Djibouti Port, the locations suggested are: Chongjin Port (North Korea), Moresby Port (Papua New Guinea), Sihanoukville Port (Cambodia), Koh Lanta Port (Thailand), Sittwe Port (Myanmar), Dhaka Port (Bangladesh), Gwadar Port (Pakistan), Hambantota Port (Sri Lanka), Maldives, Seychelles, Lagos Port (Nigeria), Mombasa Port (Kenya) Dar es Salaam Port (Tanzania), Luanda Port (Angola) and Walvis Bay Port (Namibia).

Figure 20.1: Chinese Media Discussion of Proposed Chinese Bases[22]

Chinese Media Discussion of Proposed Chinese Bases

It is, of course, unlikely that China would receive permission from all these countries to create naval bases there at the present time, or even that it would immediately like to do so. Still, media reports like this do illustrate the serious thinking going on in China today about the need to establish foreign military bases, and the likelihood that at least some of them will be established fairly soon.


[1] The only people who are even still partially fooled by the claim that China is “socialist” are those who are so benighted and confused that they believe that having many state owned enterprises (SOEs) is the “same thing” as socialism. However, if the state is controlled by the bourgeoisie acting in its own class interests, then the existence of any state-owned or nationalized corporations actually means there is a state capitalist sector of the economy, which is not real socialism by any stretch of the imagination. State capitalist corporations are those owned and controlled by the bourgeoisie as a whole (as a class), as opposed to “private” corporations which are owned by individual groups of capitalists. Revisionists, however, are always prone to confusing state capitalism with socialism.

  In China, moreover, the SOEs largely operate as if they were private corporations, and state ownership does not prevent such operation—and in many cases enhances it. State ownership does not exempt SOEs from their focus on capitalist market focus and the perpetual pressures for greater enterprise profitability. On the other hand, the Chinese state very actively gives general direction to (or “interferes in”) the whole economy, including both SOEs and private corporations. But this sort of partial merger of the bourgeois state with the corporations is a general feature of capitalism in the modern imperialist era, and applies to every single capitalist country to one substantial degree or another.

[2] Michael Metcalf, Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics? Reading and Re-reading China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, Discussion Paper number 16, NI Press (of the National Intelligence University), Washington, D.C., September 2011. This 74 page paperback volume can be ordered in printed form via Amazon.com, but it is also available free in PDF format at: http://www.ni-u.edu/ni_press/pdf/Imperialism_with_Chinese_Characteristics.pdf

[3] China became a member of the WTO on Dec. 11, 2001. The U.S. and other dominant members of the WTO insisted on many concessions by China and even substantial changes to its internal economic laws and structure, which is why the negotiations dragged on for so many years. In the early 1980s China began to open up its economy to foreign investment (at first just in Special Economic Zones), and signed a number of regional trade agreements. China obtained observer status with GATT (the predecessor to the WTO) and in 1986 began its efforts to join that organization as a full member. The U.S., Europe and Japan insisted that China become essentially a complete capitalist market economy, on major tariff reductions, and on changes to its industrial policies before it was allowed to join. These changes forced China to considerably revise its basic economic strategy and policies, and meant that China would have to agree to the existing rules of global capitalist trade and competition even though it had no part in making those rules. The ruling class in China decided to take a chance on doing this, and this bet has paid handsomely for them (from a bourgeois perspective!).

  Since joining the WTO China has become much more deeply integrated into the world capitalist economy. The U.S. and other older imperialist countries have benefitted tremendously from China’s entrance into the WTO and its more general full entrance into the world imperialist system. But capitalist China has benefited the most, and has emerged as a very dangerous capitalist-imperialist competitor to the U.S. and other imperialist countries.

[4] Dr. Chen Zhou is a researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, War Theory and Strategic Studies Department, and according to Michael Metcalf is “one of the most well-known PLA writers on Chinese military matters”. [Metcalf, op. cit., p. 7.]

[5] Chen Zhou, “An Analysis of Defensive National Defense Policy of China for Safeguarding Peace and Development”, in Michael Metcalf, op. cit., p. 34.

[6] Chen Zhou, quoted in Michael Metcalf, op. cit., p. 12.

[7] Ibid., p. 12.

[8] Ibid., pp. 13-14.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Ibid., p. 14.

[11] Ibid., pp. 14-15.

[12] Chen Zhou, quoted in Michael Metcalf, op. cit., p. 15.

[13] Chen Zhou, ibid., pp. 41-42.

[14] Ibid., p. 42.

[15] Chen Zhou, quoted in Michael Metcalf, op. cit., p. 19.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Michael Metcalf, op. cit., p. 20.

[18] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[19] One of the most recent official defense white papers is entitled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces”, issued in April 2013 by the Information Office of the PRC State Council, online in English at: http://eng.mod.gov.cn/TopNews/2013-04/16/content_4442750.htm

[20] “Djibouti Welcomes China to Build a Military Base”, an English translation of an article on the Chinese-language website of the Global Times, posted on March 11, 2013. http://www.chinaafricaproject.com/djibouti-welcomes-china-to-build-a-military-base-translation/

[21] “PLA Navy to build overseas military bases?”, Defense Statecraft website, March 25, 2013, at : http://defensestatecraft.blogspot.com/2013/03/pla-navy-to-build-overseas-military.html (accessed Feb. 18, 2014).

[22] Original map printed circa March 2013 in the International Herald Leader, a Chinese state-run newspaper, together with a commentary advising the PLA Navy on where to build overseas naval bases in order to protect the Chinese energy line in the Indian Ocean area. Posted on the Defense Statecraft website (see link in previous endnote).

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