Whilst headlines around the latter part of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 might have often focused on such issues as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, or the devastating crisis in the Eurozone – as important as these issues doubtlessly are, relatively less attention has been focused on an even more important issue, one with potentially calamitous consequences for all of humanity.
This is the ever increasing and ever more overt hostility of US imperialism, presently fronted by the Obama administration, towards the socialist People’s Republic of China. Whilst talk of dialogue and cooperation, which was always essentially cynical and hypocritical, is now widely appreciated to be little more than lip service, the determination to confront China on every front and on every issue increasingly defines the US policy agenda.
As part of this, considerable efforts are being made to scale down and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least to redefine and refocus them in ways that are less costly to the US in terms of blood, treasure and prestige. Far from being a sign that US imperialism is somehow becoming less dangerous, less reactionary, less predatory or less bellicose, this is but preparation for a possible conflict that would be far more dangerous and bloody, namely one with China.
Although all this is predictably ignored and dismissed by most of the left and what passes for an anti-war movement in Britain and the imperialist heartlands more generally, in fact, Obama, a carefully branded and packaged creation and tool of US finance capital, clearly outlined this orientation in his meticulously stage-managed presidential campaign, albeit topped with a thin coating of peace promises, which predictably proved sufficient to lull the gullible.
Substantial sections of the US ruling class had grown increasingly disturbed by the fact that George W Bush’s post 9/11 obsessions with Iraq, Afghanistan and al-Qaeda had increasingly led US imperialism down a cul de sac, weakening it and allowing China to rise, its economy to develop rapidly, and its relations and influence to expand greatly in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the countries of the former Soviet Union, all at the expense of the United States and of imperialism generally.
A key part of this intensified anti-China campaign is the attempt to revive and strengthen the USA’s position in the Asia-Pacific region and to construct a series of alliances from India to Australia.
The last two months of 2011 saw intense efforts in this direction, with the strategy and intentions clearly set out by Obama in three high profile regional initiatives in November – his speech at the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Honolulu, Hawaii; his visit to Australia and especially his speech to parliament in Canberra; and his participation (the first such by a US president) at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
APEC in Hawaii
Obama used the APEC gathering to demand that China take action on a range of economic and trade issues or face possible retaliation.
Speaking to US corporate leaders there, he declared that Washington’s message to China was “we want you to play by the rules” – the rules of course being those of the capitalist order, largely devised by the United States and designed to ensure US hegemony. He warned that, “where we see rules being broken, we’ll speak out and, in some cases, we will take action”.
Obama again insisted that China take action to allow its currency the RMB to revalue more rapidly. Claiming that the Chinese currency was undervalued, he said: “That disadvantages American business; it disadvantages American workers. And we have said to them that this is something that has to change.”
Obama also identified protection of intellectual property rights and access to government contracts as major issues on which China had to take action. Referring to patents and copyrights, he declared: “For us not to get the type of protection that we need in a marketplace like China is not acceptable.”
Elsewhere at the APEC summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao responded to Obama’s remarks by defending his country’s protection of intellectual property rights and correctly insisting that the high US trade deficit was not caused by the value of the RMB, but by structural problems in the US economy. He said that a new mechanism for global economic governance was needed that increased “the voice of emerging markets and developing economies”.
But, as important as these bilateral economic disputes are, more fundamentally, the Obama administration is engaged in a far-reaching shift in foreign policy aimed at challenging China’s growing economic and political influence in the Asia Pacific region.
Outlining this reorientation in a speech just before the APEC summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that in the twenty-first century, “the world’s strategic and economic centre of gravity will be the Asia Pacific”. She said that with the pull back of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the US had reached a “pivot point” that should allow it to “lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise – in this [Asia Pacific] region.”
Then Obama underscored the shift in his speech to the business leaders: “The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay… there is no region in the world that we consider more vital than the Asia Pacific region… across the board, whether it’s on security architecture, whether it’s on trade, whether it is on commerce, we are going to prioritise this region.”
The Obama administration’s focus at the APEC meeting was to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the key regional trade framework. The nine TPP dialogue members – the US, Singapore, Chile, Australia, Peru, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam – met and signed a broad declaration of support for the proposal.
The TPP was originally a limited agreement to lower trade barriers between four small regional economies – Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. It came into effect in 2006. After the Bush administration indicated initial US interest in 2008, the Obama administration has sought to fashion TPP as a means of dictating the framework for trade within the region.
The goal of the TPP framework is to gradually abolish tariffs on imports into all member countries and at the same time take action on a range of non-tariff issues. These include tougher measures to protect intellectual property rights, greater access to government procurement contracts and rules for the conduct of state-owned enterprises – all of which are measures on which Washington is pressing Beijing and which would, if implemented, further undermine the socialist foundations of the Chinese economy. (And as the same undoubtedly applies to Vietnam, only more so, considering the far smaller size and weaker state of its economy, its participation in this US initiative is surely all the more regrettable.)
China, which already has a number of major free trade agreements, including with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), has questioned the relevance of the TPP plan to developing countries. Tensions over the issue were evident at the APEC gathering.
When Chinese officials complained that their country had not been invited to join, US deputy national security adviser Mike Froman shot back: “TPP is not something one gets invited to. It’s something that one aspires to. It is up to them to determine whether they are ready to consider the high standards that are required of a TPP member.”
The terms of the TPP proposal are, however, deliberately designed to be unfavourable to China and are viewed as the means for Washington to seize the initiative from Beijing on regional trade. Obama described TPP as “a seed” for a broader set of agreements. In other words, while the countries currently involved carry little economic weight, accounting for just six percent of total US trade, Washington is hoping to compel more major Asian economies to sign up on its terms.
Writing in the Australian Financial Review, commentator Ben Potter explained: “Chinese leaders don’t have to be paranoid to get a sensation that Washington is trying to circle them with its wagons and allies… The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, with its emphasis on labour, the environment, reciprocal access to government procurement and intellectual property protections sought by the US, as well as rules against currency manipulation and favouritism of state-owned enterprises, couldn’t have been better crafted to exclude China.”
Obama in Australia
Proceeding from Hawaii to Australia, Obama spelled out his anti-China plans with even greater clarity. At a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the two leaders announced that the American military would boost its operations in the north and west of the vast country. The country’s Northern Territory and its capital city Darwin, which is closer to Indonesia than to Australia’s main southern cities, will be developed into a major US staging base.
From 2012, 200 to 250 US marines will train for six months of the year in the Northern Territory. By 2016-2017, the training will involve an entire marine air-ground task force of 2,500 troops. The rotation of forces in and out of the territory will be the justification for the establishment of large-scale logistical facilities and supply depots that could support a far bigger deployment.
The Tindal air base to the south of Darwin will be regularly used by the US Air Force, with more frequent training in the Northern Territory by B-52 long-range bombers. US warships and submarines will make increased visits to Western Australian naval ports as they intensify their operations in the Indian Ocean. The agreements, while widely anticipated, mark a major escalation in US-Australian military cooperation within the framework of the 60-year-old ANZUS military alliance.
Only four countries were definitely briefed prior to the announcement: New Zealand, which is the other member of ANZUS with Australia and the US; Indonesia, which will see far greater US military activity in its waters and airspace; India, with which Washington is steadily building military ties; and China. The US also reportedly informed Japan and south Korea, its two main military allies in North East Asia.
There is no doubt in the region that China is the target of the increased US military operations from Australia. In his comments at the press conference, Obama declared that the US welcomed the rise of China, but then added that “with their rise comes responsibility,” which included playing “by the rules” of being a world power. Such remarks highlight Washington’s determination to ensure that China abides by the “rules” as laid down by the US – that is, by a world order dominated by US imperialism and its economic and strategic interests.
The deployment of American troops to northern and western Australia, along with a heightened naval and airforce presence, will put the US in a better position to dominate the critical sea lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, through which a large proportion of world trade passes. This includes the majority of China’s exports and imports, and the Middle Eastern oil supplies that are essential to the Chinese economy.
The New York Times noted that the decision would “restore a substantial American footprint near the South China Sea, a major commercial route – including for American exports – that has been roiled by China’s disputed claims of control.”
Obama’s parliament speech
The context for all this was clearly laid out in Obama’s 17 November speech to the Australian parliament, the day after the announcement of the new US military base at Darwin. The Commander-in-Chief of US imperialism stated:
“As it has been to our past, our alliance is indispensable to our future. So, here, among close friends, I’d like to address the larger purpose of my visit to this region – our efforts to advance security, prosperity and human dignity across the Asia Pacific.
“For the United States, this reflects a broader shift. After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific. In just a few weeks, after nearly nine years, the last American troops will leave Iraq and our war will be over. In Afghanistan, we’ve begun a transition so Afghans can take responsibility for their future and so coalition forces can draw down. And with partners like Australia, we’ve struck major blows against al Qaeda and put that terrorist organisation on the path to defeat, including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden…
“We’ve made hard decisions to cut our deficit and put our fiscal house in order – and we will continue to do more. Because our economic strength at home is the foundation of our leadership in the world, including here in the Asia Pacific…
“As President, I’ve therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends…
“Now, I know that some in this region have wondered about America’s commitment to upholding these principles. So let me address this directly. As the United States puts our fiscal house in order, we are reducing our spending. And yes, after a decade of extraordinary growth in our military budgets – and as we definitively end the war in Iraq, and begin to wind down the war in Afghanistan – we will make some reductions in defence spending.
“As we consider the future of our armed forces, we have begun a review that will identify our most important strategic interests and guide our defence priorities and spending over the coming decade. And here is what this region must know. As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in U.S. defence spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.
“My guidance is clear. As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region. We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace. We will keep our commitments, including our treaty obligations to allies like Australia. And we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century. Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in this region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.
“Indeed, we’re already modernising America’s defence posture across the Asia-Pacific. It will be more broadly distributed – maintaining our strong presence in Japan and on the Korean peninsula, while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia. Our posture will be more flexible – with new capabilities to ensure that our forces can operate freely. And our posture will be more sustainable – by helping allies and partners build their capacity, with more training and exercises.
“We see our new posture here in Australia. The initiatives that the Prime Minister and I announced yesterday will bring our two militaries even closer. We’ll have new opportunities to train with other allies and partners, from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean…
“We see America’s enhanced presence in all the alliances we’ve strengthened. In Japan, where our alliance remains a cornerstone of regional security. In Thailand, where we’re partnering for disaster relief. In the Philippines, where we’re increasing ship visits and training. And in south Korea, where our commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea will never waver.
“Indeed, we also reiterate our resolve to act firmly against any proliferation activities by north Korea. The transfer of nuclear materials or material by north Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies. And we would hold north Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.
“We see America’s enhanced presence across Southeast Asia. In our partnership with Indonesia against piracy and violent extremism, and in our work with Malaysia to prevent proliferation. In the ships we’ll deploy to Singapore, and in our closer cooperation with Vietnam and Cambodia. And in our welcome of India as it ‘looks east’ and plays a larger role as an Asian power.
“At the same time, we’ve re-engaged with regional organisations. Our work in Bali this week will mark my third meeting with ASEAN leaders, and I’ll be proud to be the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit. Together, we can address shared challenges, such as proliferation and maritime security, including cooperation in the South China Sea.
“Meanwhile, the United States will continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China. All of our nations have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China – and that is why the United States welcomes it. We’ve seen that China can be a partner, from reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to preventing proliferation. We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation. We will do this, even as continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people…
“History teaches us – the greatest force the world has ever known for creating wealth and opportunity is free markets. So we seek economies that are open and transparent. We seek trade that is free and fair. And we seek an open international economic system, where rules are clear and every nation plays by them.” (Emphasis added)
We make no apologies for quoting from Obama’s speech at length. It sets out with great clarity the dangerously aggressive and war-mongering strategy of US imperialism, something it is vital that the working class and anti-war movements be cognisant of.
Particularly, it establishes beyond all doubt that the claimed withdrawal from Iraq and the announced plans to supposedly withdraw from Afghanistan by no means make Obama a ‘dove’ or a force for peace. They are actually integral to a huge and overt military build up in the Asia Pacific region, which, despite token hypocritical words to the contrary, is overtly aimed at China, and also at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and which aims to mobilise as many countries as possible, in the region and beyond, against these two socialist countries.
This is the context, too, of US imperialism’s interventions in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where it is doing its utmost to push Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, in a provocative anti-China direction.
Speaking recently in the Philippines, where the Aquino administration has aggressively staked its claim in what it now unilaterally calls the West Philippine Sea, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in November: “Let me say, the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you.”
Faced with the reality of a policy that is in every way directed against China, Obama’s talk of a “cooperative relationship” with Beijing is so much hypocritical and transparent cant.
And the same must be said of his talk of the “universal human rights of the Chinese people”. The Chinese people only began to enjoy any human rights after the victory of the Chinese revolution led by the Communist Party in 1949. In stark contrast, and over the same period, the US imperialists have massacred millions in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They supported and backed the massacre of a million people in Indonesia and of hundreds of thousands in East Timor. And they have been the most ardent supporter and puppet master of just about every brutal fascist and authoritarian regime in the region.
What this specious talk of human rights is really about is revealed in the next part of Obama’s speech – free markets. For US imperialism, there is no greater freedom than the freedom of capital – US capital in particular – to super exploit and to extort surplus value from working people. China and the DPRK seek to constrain and put limits on that “right” and ultimately to suppress it altogether. It is this above all that dictates US imperialism’s implacable hostility towards them.
East Asia Summit in Bali
The three-day East Asian summit held on the Indonesian island of Bali was dominated by Obama’s participation and his attempts to corral Asian countries into an anti-China coalition. The US president met with Indian and Filipino leaders, pressed for greater US influence in the South China Sea, and announced closer US ties with Myanmar (Burma), a long-time Chinese ally in the region.
Meeting with Filipino President Benigno Aquino III, Obama publicly backed the Philippines in its stand-off with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea and praised US ties with the Philippines: “We have a 60-year alliance that assures that we are looking out for each other when it comes to security.”
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton announced that Washington would give the Philippines a second Coast Guard cutter to bolster its naval strength.
Furthermore, the US and Vietnam held joint naval exercises last July, and a US Navy vessel called at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval base the following month – for the first time since US troops fled the country in 1975.
The US intervention in the South China Sea disputes had began last July, when Hillary Clinton declared at an ASEAN meeting in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, that the United States had “a national interest” in ensuring “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.
According to the New York Times, Obama addressed the East Asia Summit after other leaders had spoken, putting Washington’s firm stamp on the region. After repeating the empty claim that the US was not taking sides, he declared: “We have a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea specifically – as a resident Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region.”
In response, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated China’s stance that the summit was not the forum to discuss the issue, reiterating the Chinese view that it should be discussed solely among the countries concerned. He also refuted the US claim that it was only concerned about “freedom of navigation,” declaring “that China goes to great pains to ensure that the shipping lanes are safe and free”.
Clinton visits Myanmar
Another facet of the offensive to deepen US influence in mainland Southeast Asia is the US campaign to woo the new, nominally civilian government in Myanmar (Burma) away from Chinese influence and its independent stance, under a hypocritical cover of promoting democracy.
Last year the Myanmar government allowed the National League for Democracy of pro-Western opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run in parliamentary by-elections and released a number of political prisoners. It also cancelled a high-profile Chinese dam project that would have provided much-needed electricity to both countries.
On 18 November, from Air Force One, Obama phoned Suu Kyi and discussed US-Myanmar ties. He claimed to see “flickers of progress” in Myanmar, adding: “If Burma fails to move down the path of reform, it will continue to face sanctions and isolation. But if it seizes this moment, then reconciliation can prevail.”
In line with this approach, Clinton commenced a visit to Myanmar on 1 December – the first visit to the country by a US Secretary of State since before the 1962 military coup.
The three-day visit featured prominent meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and a great deal of hypocritical hype about American support for “democratic rights”. The real aim of Clinton’s visit, however, was to further the Obama administration’s concerted campaign to undermine the influence of China throughout Asia.
In pointed comments before arriving in Myanmar, Clinton told an aid conference that developing countries should be “smart shoppers” and be wary of taking assistance from donors that were more interested “in extracting your resources, than in building your capacity”, empty words that cynically ignore the fact that China does more in the way of “capacity building”, be it in terms of infrastructure, health or education, in the developing nations than all the imperialist powers combined.
Clinton arrived in Myanmar with a list of demands, including greater political freedom for the pro-imperialist opposition led by Suu Kyi; an ending of the protracted conflicts with the country’s ethnic minorities; inspections of the country’s limited nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency; and an end to its cooperative relations with the DPRK.
In return, Clinton predictably offered very little. “We are prepared to go further if the reforms maintain momentum. But history teaches us to be cautious,” she said, adding that “we are not ready to discuss” lifting sanctions. Nor is the US even proposing to establish full diplomatic relations with the country. Clinton indicated only that the US would no longer block financing from international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and will support the expansion of UN development grants for health care and small businesses.
Relations between Australia and India
Also of significance are the US-manipulated strategic relations between Australia and India. One day before Obama arrived in Canberra on 16 November, Australian Prime Minister Gillard announced that she would move at her Labour Party’s upcoming national conference an amendment to the party’s platform to allow uranium sales to India.
While Gillard claimed the timing was coincidental, her announcement dovetailed with Obama’s concerted drive to undercut China’s regional economic and political influence. The Australian government’s ban on uranium sales to India had been a significant obstacle to closer strategic collaboration between the US, India and Australia.
In an interview with the Australian Financial Review, US ambassador to Canberra, Jeffrey Bleich, commended a proposal for US-India-Australia trilateral strategic cooperation, contained in a report jointly published in November by think tanks in the US, Australia and India – the Heritage Foundation, the Lowy Institute and the Observer Research Foundation.
“The US was enthusiastically involved in trying to establish the four-way strategic dialogue: India-Japan-Australia and the US. I think to the extent that a three-way would allow us to advance all our interests, then we would certainly be interested,” Bleich declared.
The report, Shared Goals, Converging Interests: A Plan for US-Australia-India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, covers a range of issues, but focuses on military cooperation on “maritime security” in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, now regarded by the Pentagon as one operational theatre. The report notes India’s ‘Look East’ policy, involving a naval build-up to “enable India to project power into the Asia Pacific”, and the importance of a greater US presence in Australia as “a building block for trilateral cooperation in the Indian Ocean”.
The report points to the fostering of closer bilateral and multilateral collaboration between US allies, in addition to existing ties with Washington. Joint security declarations include: Australia-Japan (2007); Japan-India (2008); Australia-India (2009) and Australia-South Korea (2010). In addition, the US, Australia and Japan have established a formal “trilateral dialogue” on security matters. All this is taking place under the hypocritical banner of uniting supposedly “liberal” or democratic powers against an unstated but unmistakable target, namely China. In this context, the ending of the Australian ban on uranium sales to India assumed great significance and was almost immediately followed by the India visit of Australian defence minister Stephen Smith.
New Pacific Commander
Finally, in an ominous end to the year, on December 28, Obama nominated Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear as the new commander of the US Pacific Command.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locklear will replace Admiral Robert Willard as head of the Hawaii-based command, the largest of the US military’s Unified Combatant Commands, which covers an area stretching from the waters off the west coast of the United States to the western border of India.
The Chinese news agency Xinhua pointedly noted: “Locklear, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, is currently commander of US Naval Forces Europe, commander of US Naval Forces Africa, and commander of Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy. He directly commanded the operation in Libya, which eventually removed Muammar Gaddafi from power.”
In a December 23, year-end feature article (‘Obama administration’s Asia pivot strategy sows more seeds of suspicion than cooperation’), Xinhua further reported:
“‘The United States is now signalling an intention to move back toward the pre-9/11 strategic focus on a rising China. That focus places a premium on explicitly balancing against and constraining Chinese power and influence across the region,’ wrote Michael Swaine, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a recent article.
“Meanwhile, the US strategic shift was also motivated by fears about China’s challenges to the US status as the dominant power in the world, although China has made it clear that it has neither the strength nor intention to vie with the United States for dominance.
“The decade-long anti-terrorism campaign, which diverted the US attention and resources to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has fuelled the perception of the US decline as the sole superpower, especially when it is suffering from a prolonged economic downturn and a worsening debt crisis.
“Obviously, the US Asia pivot strategy doesn’t bode well for China-US relations, already soured in 2011 by a series of US provocative moves, including its announcement of a massive arms sale package to China’s Taiwan in September.”
The US anti-China campaign can only be expected to intensify in the coming years. The working class and all anti-imperialists have a duty to respond with an intensified struggle and a call for:
Hands off China!