22. Inter-imperialist contention between the U.S. and China

It is true that the United States is trying to surround China and “contain it”. It is true that the U.S. is seeking to strengthen its allies which surround China—including Japan and India—and further encourage their already strong inclinations to expand their own military strength and more strongly contest China’s economic and military penetration of their areas.[1]

What we have here is a familiar scenario of a rising imperialist power trying to break out of its original restricted sphere, and a reaction by existing imperialist (and sub-imperialist or expansionist) powers to try to prevent or contain this rising new competitor. The same thing happened with the rise of Germany in Europe first in the late 19th century and then again in the mid-20th century, with the rise of Japan in the Pacific in the 20th century, and with the rise of Soviet social-imperialism in the second half of the 20th century. The world has seen this situation before!

Inter-imperialist contention is inevitable, economically, ideologically, politically and militarily. The growing belligerence of China, and the corresponding growth in re-energized arrogance in the U.S., Japan and India, and other countries, is simply an illustration of imperialist logic at work in the world today.

And this inter-imperialist contention and belligerence, between China and the U.S. and its allies, will inevitably get much worse over time.

An interesting question to consider is why this contention and hostility between China and the U.S. “bloc” has not already become qualitatively worse! One reason for this is that the U.S. was focused for more than a decade on its so-called “War on Terror” as the primary means of recasting its military alliances (which were originally set up as part of the anti-Soviet Cold War struggle).

A neoconservative movement began festering within the U.S. ruling class in the 1990s, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. This exemplified a rising new belligerence within the U.S. bourgeoisie, and a feeling of “triumphalism” after the collapse of their arch-enemy, the social-imperialist Soviet Union. These “neocons” called for wars in the Middle East, including a war to replace Saddam Hussein in Iraq with a more compliant U.S. puppet. And they also called for a much more confrontational policy towards China and much stronger military support for the Taiwan regime.[2]

When the new George W. Bush Administration first came to power in early 2001 this neoconservative belligerence came to power with him. They already recognized rising China as a serious new worry for the existing world imperialist system led by the U.S. (and which they wanted to see dominated much more by the U.S.!) This new administration quite clearly aimed to sound the alarm of a new “Cold War” challenge from China. A May 2001 report in Newsweek stated:

“The main target of the new doctrine is Beijing, not Moscow. A core group of administration officials—led by Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz—believes that now is the time to raise the American military profile in Asia while China is still too weak to respond. Or, as one senior administration official put it, ‘China is not yet a great power but is clearly going to be.’”[3]

But then the 9/11 al Qaeda attack occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C. The U.S. ruling class—ever opportunistic!—seized upon this horrific but rather isolated event to launch imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more generally its international open-ended “War on Terror” largely focused against Islamic countries and peoples. But this meant that the planned increased confrontation with China, and the developments toward a new Cold War with China, had to be put on hold. The neocons projected an early and easy triumph in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then they could turn their attention to Iran, Syria, and North Korea—and finally back to the adversary they feared as the most strategic threat over the long term, China.

However, the U.S. imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have failed for the U.S. Despite the massive military efforts and the expenditure of many trillions of dollars, the wars have dragged on and on, for well over a decade already. (Officially the U.S. war in Iraq was finally declared over in late 2011, but the insurrection continues and the situation is very unstable and has been heating up again recently. And many U.S. troops remain in the region.) And the unity of the “coalition forces”, in both funding the wars and providing troops, has gone from unstable to having serious and widening cracks.

This U.S. preoccupation with Afghanistan and the Middle East has given Chinese imperialism a major breathing space to expand its economic penetration of the world within the framework of the current world imperialist system, and with only limited and often clumsy U.S. efforts to obstruct or slow down this Chinese expansion. Witness China’s winning of the largest Iraq oil contracts after years of the U.S.-led war!

However, in the background there has been a growing alarm within U.S. ruling class think tanks and ideological circles about this rapid Chinese advance. They see in almost a panic that China will replace them quite soon as the largest economy in the world. They see China’s international financial resources and strength grow by leaps and bounds while their own financial situation and government budget deficits become ever more serious. They watch in a cold sweat as China rapidly expands its military spending and strength, year after year. China is rising and the U.S. is declining in an overall way, and the U.S. ruling class is desperately worried about this continuing trend.

The U.S. bourgeoisie has generally recognized by now that it has to take some major actions to try to reverse this present international trend running against them. They know they need to wind down their current unaffordable wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan—though this is proving very difficult for them to do. They know they need to seek ways to outflank China in their international economic struggle.

One such economic effort at present is the so-called “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP), which is a free trade zone they are pushing for the U.S.[4] and all the other countries on the Pacific Rim except for China! (I.e., China is the obvious target here.) [5] This is an example of how the U.S., as well as China, is now engaging in policies which will likely eventually lead to the realignment of countries and the formation of two contending economic/political/military blocs within the world imperialist system (and maybe even eventually into two more or less separate imperialist alliances!).

There is also growing U.S. and other international economic struggle against China within the WTO.[6]All the major imperialist powers which are part of the WTO actually violate its rules and cheat on a regular basis (e.g., through “dumping”—selling goods in foreign markets at below cost in order to steal market share; via the use of export subsidies; promising military aid in exchange for contracts granted to its own corporations; illegal techniques such as bribery; and many other such methods). And this is especially true of the U.S. Consequently the huge difficultly for the U.S., Europe and others in trying to penalize China for such transgressions is that China is an expert at playing tit-for-tat; it invariably turns around and invokes WTO rules against similar transgressions by its accusers! This has made the U.S. in particular somewhat “gun shy” about trying to invoke WTO rules against China. And this explains in part why the bigger thrust of U.S. economic struggle against China now takes the form of attempting to create free trade associations with other countries but excluding China.

But while the U.S. is working to set up free trade zones excluding China, China in turn is fighting back in various ways. It is considering attempting to join the TPP if the U.S. is unable to stop it from doing so (and because it probably feels it will win out within that organization’s rules and requirements just as it has already been winning out within the rules of the WTO). And secondly, China is—in the same fashion as the U.S.—working to set up its own free trade associations that exclude its primary opponent! For example it is promoting its own free trade zone with the ASEAN group of countries.[7]

Similarly, China is seeking to set up some other economic/political/military alliances in opposition to the U.S. and its close allies. One important effort in this direction is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with China and Russia at its core, but also involving other countries including a number in central Asia.[8] Related to this is a very recent proposal by China to set up a new “Silk Road Free Trade Zone” including China and the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In addition, this central Asian free trade zone may possibly include Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Iran![9]

Economic struggle between the U.S. and China takes many other forms as well. The U.S., for example, frequently blocks or tries to block moves by Chinese corporations to buy companies in the U.S. (and sometimes companies in other countries too) using mostly phony excuses such as “national security”. But China has many ways of harming U.S. economic interests in turn.

Recently, for example, China has started cracking down on U.S. and other foreign corporations (especially pharmaceutical giants) operating in China for engaging in bribery and other illegal activities.[10] Somewhat humorously, western apologists for these companies have defended them by claiming that “this is the way things are done in China”, and that it is “unfair” for the Chinese government to only crack down on foreign corporations for doing what all big companies have to do there! There might even be some truth to that charge, since corruption in China is very widespread. But even if there is, it only shows yet another way that the Chinese ruling class has of favoring its own locally based corporations and harming the economic interests of foreign countries.

“Playing fair” is not something that any imperialist country does when it doesn’t have to! And in response in part to what seems to be the growth of Chinese “discrimination” against foreign corporations, the Economist magazine has been pushing what it calls its “Sinodependency index”, to warn Western investors about the various vulnerabilities of American corporations especially, which may depend “too much” on profits from their operations in China.[11]

And China does have a huge economic clout internationally, and with regard to the U.S. in particular. Because China is so important in funding U.S. fiscal and trade deficits, in many respects China has the upper hand when it comes to economic struggle between the two countries. This conditions or limits the U.S. freedom to attack or restrict China.

Still, economic, political and military contention between the two imperialist powers is definitely growing.

President Obama made the U.S. ruling class necessity to shift its geopolitical focus very clear near the end of 2011 when he announced the U.S. “rebalancing” effort, or “pivot”, to Asia and the Pacific.[12] Part of what this geographic “pivot” involves is shifting more U.S. military forces out of the Middle East and Afghanistan and repositioning them in the Pacific around China. In June 2012 Leon Panetta, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, said that by 2020 about 60% of U.S. combat ships would be deployed off of Asia (up from about 50% already).[13] And as part of this pivot there has already been the deployment of additional U.S. military forces in Australia and Singapore, for example. While Obama claims this overall redeployment of forces, which has only just gotten underway, is not directed at China, anybody with any sense knows better.[14]

What we are really talking about here is the serious launching—after a long delay, and still slowly at first—of a new “Cold War” type rivalry, this time directed at China.

Of course the Chinese ruling class recognizes this full well. But they are confident because they know that their country’s economic and military power vis-à-vis the U.S. is rising rapidly.

The way the Chinese bourgeoisie portrays the world situation since the collapse of the Soviet Union is that there has been a “unipolar world” which has been dominated by the United States. But they promote their challenge to the dominant hegemonic position of the U.S. as part of creating a “multipolar world”.

However, from our perspective of the current existence of a single world imperialist system this could also be put differently: What has been a multipolar world dominated by this single world imperialist system (albeit with the U.S. as its biggest individual hegemonic power and exploiter) may well be starting to developing into more of a bipolar world with strong tendencies for this world imperialist system to split in two—with one part led or dominated by the U.S., and the other part led or dominated by China.

The Chinese leaders seem to tacitly agree with this; they have recently begun referring to China as the world’s “second superpower”.[15] American observers too are taking more and more note of China’s rising clout: “China has a lot more power militarily, diplomatically and economically than it did in the past and it can tell countries like the UK and US to back off in a way it couldn’t before,” says Perry Link, a professor at the University of California Riverside and well-known establishment expert on China.[16]

How does the ruling Chinese bourgeoisie itself express its central goal in the world?

Xi Jinping, China’s new President and leader of the (so-called) Chinese Communist Party, is now frequently referring to what he calls the “Chinese dream”. But by this he means not primarily aspirations for individual wealth, but rather for the further revival of a powerful Chinese nation (which in turn promotes great private wealth). Xi has explicitly said that this Chinese dream includes both a “dream of a strong nation” and a “dream of a strong army”.[17] “He is falling back on nationalism, talking about making China the No. 1 superpower in the world,” said Zhang Lifan, a Communist Party historian with ties to the leadership.[18]



[1] However, it should also be kept in mind that there are plenty of contradictions between the U.S. and Japan and even more so between the U.S. and India! For one discussion of this see “So near, and yet…: America and India remain so far apart on so many issues”, Banyan column, the Economist, June 29, 2013, p. 40. And while the U.S. is encouraging Japan’s military growth, it is also highly critical of Japan’s growing glorification of its imperial wars in the 1930s and during World War II! [See: “The U.S. Needs to Rebuke a Japanese Ally”, Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 24-March 2, 2014, p. 8.]

[2] See the Wikipedia article on neoconservatism, in the section on the 1990s, online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoconservatism

[3] John Barry, “A New Pacific Strategy: Washington is evolving a deterrence theory for China”, Newsweek, May 7, 2001.

[4] However, the Obama Administration is having a very difficult time getting this agreement OK’d even by its own Congress—which in this period of growing economic and political difficulties for the U.S. is more divided than ever! [“American Trade Policy”, Economist, Feb. 22, 2014, p. 8.]

[5] The official U.S. government website promoting this TPP free trade grouping is at: http://www.ustr.gov/tpp

[6] The U.S. has the most frequent trade rows with China. But they frequently occur between Europe and China as well. One recent example was described in “EU-China trade—Outlook: cloudy”, the Economist, June 8, 2013, pp. 74-75.

[7] See for example the article, “The China-ASEAN ‘Diamond Decade’”, ASEAN Briefing website, Sept. 9, 2013, online at: http://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/2013/09/09/the-china-asean-diamond-decade.html

[8] The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was formed in 1996, and now has six full members. It has military as well as political and economic aspects to it. In 2006 the Russian Foreign Minister claimed that increased threats of “terrorism, extremism and separation” made necessary increased coordination of the armed forces of the SCO member states. In 2005, 2007 and 2009 China and Russia teamed up for large-scale war games. [See: http://www.cfr.org/china/shanghai-cooperation-organization/p10883 ] At the 2007 SCO summit (years before the BRICS Development Bank was launched in 2013), the Iranian Vice President said that the SCO “is a good venue for designing a new banking system which is independent from international banking systems.” [Mehr News Agency, Oct. 31, 2008.] In 2009 China announced plans to provide $10 billion in loans to SCO member states to shore up their economies during the global financial crisis. These things suggest that even if the BRICS alliance itself fails, there are other possibilities for setting up alternative institutions to the IMF and World Bank.

[9] See: “China Proposes New Silk Road Free Trade Zone”, by China Briefing, Sept. 17, 2013, online at: http://www.china-briefing.com/news/2013/09/17/china-proposes-new-silk-road-free-trade-zone.html

[10] See: “Corruption: China Turns the Screws on Multinationals”, Bloomberg Businessweek, c. Sept. 20, 2013, pp. 16-17. Another of the many articles on this topic, this one focusing on the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and its bribery and misdeeds in China as well as on the general Western excuse that corruption is endemic in China, is “GlaxoSmithKline in China: Bitter Pill”, the Economist, July 20, 2013, p. 56.

[11] “The Sinodependency index: Declaration of Chindependence: For an American multinational, is exposure to China still a good thing?”, the Economist, July 20, 2013, p. 64.

[12] “The Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia”, The Foreign Policy Initiative, Dec. 13, 2011, video and text summary online at http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/obama-administrations-pivot-asia

[13] “Military diplomacy: Not so warm and fuzzy”, Economist, June 9, 2012, p. 49.

[14] “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalancing’ Toward Asia”, Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2012, online at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42448.pdf

[15] Jamil Anderlini, “How long can the Communist party survive in China?”, Financial Times, Sept. 20, 2013, p. 7, online at: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/533a6374-1fdc-11e3-8861-00144feab7de.html

[16] Ibid.

[17] “China: Power and patriotism: Reaching for the Moon”, Economist, Dec. 21, 2013, p. 68.

[18] Barbara Demick, “China’s Xi Jinping appears more Maoist than reformer so far”, Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2013, online at: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-china-xi-20130608,0,2308743.story [Of course the claim here that Xi Jinping is any sort of “Maoist” is totally absurd, and demonstrates a very bourgeois understanding on the part of the reporter as to what “Maoism” actually is.]


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