US imperialism stokes war in the South China Sea

With imperialism gripped by its worst ever crisis of overproduction, events from Greece, through Ukraine and the Middle East, to East Asia confirm again and again the Leninist thesis that imperialism means domination and leads inexorably to aggression and war – a fact that is only accentuated the deeper and more thoroughgoing the crisis becomes.

In recent years, China has become the world’s second biggest economy. It is increasingly a pole of attraction, and an alternative, for many other countries, from Russia to Venezuela to South Africa, and even for many imperialist powers, as witnessed by Britain’s recent decision to join the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a move rapidly followed by numerous other close US allies, but one which met with fury in Washington. (See article in Proletarian, No 65, April 2015).

In the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the east European people’s democracies, and the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, the US proclaimed more brazenly than ever that its goal was nothing short of unrivalled global hegemony. A Pentagon report leaked to the New York Times in March 1992 asserted that “America’s political and military mission in the post-cold-war era will be to insure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territory of the former Soviet Union…The classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behaviour (sic) and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy.” (‘US strategy plan calls for insuring no rivals develop’, by Patrick E Tyler, 8 March 1992)

It is within this overall context that US imperialism is increasingly pressurising the People’s Republic of China on a whole range of fronts, from international trade agreements to cyberspace. But it is currently in the South China Sea where the US is behaving in the most brazenly provocative fashion, creating a very real danger of an armed clash, something which, if it transpired, could lead to unpredictable, even catastrophic consequences.

Territorial disputes have existed in the South China Sea, involving China and a number of its neighbouring countries, for many years, but the region was essentially tranquil until, in 2010, as part of the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’, which aims to curtail the rise of China, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, at a regional conference in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, that the US had a “strategic interest” in ensuring “freedom of navigation” in these waters – something which, needless to say, no regional power had threatened. In fact, it is above all China that relies on freedom of navigation in the region, and especially through such key sea-lanes as the Straits of Malacca, to secure its vital imports of energy and raw materials, as well as for its exports.

Since Clinton’s speech, the US has abandoned any pretence of neutrality, attempting to construct regional alliances against China, challenging the legitimacy of China’s claims and engaging in a massive military build-up in the area, edging closer and closer to China’s sovereign territory in the process.

On 12 May 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US was considering deploying military aircraft and warships within 12 nautical miles of territory claimed by China in the disputed Spratly Islands, specifically targeting islands where China has engaged in reclamation work, dredging sand from the sea-bottom to expand the land mass of rocks and shoals it controls in the South China Sea. The provocative nature of US activity can be seen from the fact that Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also have military and civilian forces stationed on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam and Taiwan, like Beijing, are also actively engaged in reclamation activity. But China is the sole and exclusive target of Washington’s verbal rebukes and military posturing.

The total land mass reclaimed by China – for the purposes of legitimate infrastructure development related not least to search and rescue and other humanitarian relief operations – amounts to two square kilometres, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative run by the US think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). This is the equivalent of approximately two golf courses.

The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous US defence department official as stating: “Ultimately no matter how much sand China piles on top of a submerged reef or shoal … it is not enhancing its territorial claim. You can’t build sovereignty.” With these words, this spokesperson for US imperialism makes clear that they will not allow small matters like material reality to stand in the way of the course they have set, namely escalated confrontation with People’s China.

On 31 March, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, denounced China’s reclamation activity in the South China Sea as the construction of “a great wall of sand.” On 22 April, the CSIS published an article calling on Washington to have a US Navy ship ” transit within 12 nautical miles of one of these reclaimed features“.

With a view to defusing the tensions stoked by Washington, China offered the United States and other countries joint use of its facilities in the South China Sea for humanitarian rescue and disaster relief. On 30 April, Chinese Naval Admiral Wu Shengli extended this offer to his US counterpart, Admiral Jonathan Greenert. Wu added that Chinese activities “will not threaten freedom of navigation and overflight“. However, US State Department acting deputy spokesperson Jeff Rathke said the US was “not interested” – and then called on China to reduce tensions in the region! In a commentary entitled ‘US gambit risks conflict with China’, Andrew Browne wrote in the Wall Street Journal that ” the US is contemplating an option fraught with danger: limited, but direct, military action“.

Such a confrontation had already nearly occurred in the waters immediately outside the 12-nautical mile radius of the reclaimed land. On 11 May, the USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship on a “freedom of navigation” patrol, was closely followed by the Yancheng, a Chinese navy guided-missile frigate. The USS Fort Worth radioed the Yancheng to claim that it was in international waters. If a confrontation had occurred within the territorial waters of the islands claimed by China and the Chinese forces had not backed down, there could have been a military showdown between two heavily armed gunboats. Such a clash could all too easily spark a far wider war between two nuclear-armed powers, something fraught with catastrophic consequences.

Responding to Washington’s intended deployment, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated: “The Chinese side advocates the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, yet this freedom definitely does not mean that foreign military vessels and aircrafts can enter one country’s territorial waters and airspace at will. China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, avoid taking any risky and provocative actions and safeguard regional peace and stability.”

The Beijing-based Global Times was less circumspect, stating, ” although war is the last thing they want to see, both nations are actually considering the possibility“.

An editorial in the newspaper called on Washington to ” keep in mind that China is a major power with nuclear weapons, and there is no way that US forces can take reckless actions in the South China Sea “.

The US response has been to step up its aggressive posturing. On 20 May, the TV channel CNN was invited to send its news team to accompany a US P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft on a reconnaissance mission near Chinese-controlled islets. Their report made clear that such operations routinely take place and provoke Chinese warnings – eight in this case – even without entering the 12-mile limit. The CNN report claimed that “China’s alarming creation of entirely new territory in the South China Sea” was part of ” a broader military push that some fear is intended to challenge US dominance in the region“.

US surveillance flights as well as naval patrols have become routine since January, but the presence of a news team for the first time, providing breathless coverage of the flight, along with the unprecedented release of video footage, was clearly aimed at stoking war fever against China among US and international public opinion.

The US sought to further up the ante with the approach of the Shangri-La Dialogue, held over the last weekend of May. Shangri-La is an annual defence-related forum held in Singapore under the auspices of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). In recent years, it has been the setting for some fierce Sino-US exchanges.

Speaking in Hawaii days before the dialogue, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, calling on China to cease its land reclamation activities, which he insisted were for military purposes, declared:

“There should be no mistake about this. The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world.”

In other words, under the pretext of “freedom of navigation“, the US navy and air force will continue to provocatively intrude into Chinese territorial waters even at the risk of conflict.

On 30 May, Carter repeated the same threat at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Branding China as the “source of tension” in the region, he demanded “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation” in the South China Sea, adding: “We also oppose the further militarisation of disputed features.”

During question time following Carter’s speech, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo challenged his accusations against China, calling them “groundless and not constructive“. He pointed out that “freedom of navigation and overflight” had never been at issue in the South China Sea and insisted that China’s land reclamation was legitimate and justified. Carter brushed aside these comments, falsely declaring that the US was doing nothing new in the South China Sea.

During the conference, Carter further condemned China for supposedly being “out of step with international rules and norms” and declared that he was “personally committed” to the next phase of the US military “rebalance“, aimed at encircling China. The Defence Department, he said, ” will deepen longstanding alliances and partnerships, diversify America’s force posture, and make new investments in key capabilities and platforms “.

He continued: “The Department is investing in the technologies that are most relevant to this complex security environment, such as new unmanned systems for the air and sea, a new long-range bomber, and other technologies like the electromagnetic railgun, lasers, and new systems for space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones.”

Carter emphasised that the US would “bring the best platforms and people forward to the Asia-Pacific”. These include “the latest Virginia-class [nuclear] submarines, the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, the newest stealth destroyer, the Zumwalt, and brand-new carrier-based E-2D Hawkeye early-warning-and-control aircraft .”

Having outlined this dangerous military build-up, Carter went on, apparently without a trace of irony, to declare that the US opposed ” any further militarisation of disputed features” in the South China Sea – a reference to two small mobile artillery guns that the US claims China has placed on one of the islets.

While Washington has worked hard to draw regional countries to its side, clearly some are prepared to not simply play the US game but rather are aghast at the very real prospect of conflict. For example, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein warned: “If we are not careful it would escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time, if not our history.”

However, no such compunction has been displayed by the Philippines, which has positioned itself as the most loyal and servile US ally in the region and the most aggressively hostile to China.

On 1 June, speaking to a gathering of Japanese businessmen in Tokyo, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III outrageously compared China’s actions with those of Nazi Germany against Czechoslovakia, repeating almost verbatim comments he made in a February 2014 interview with the New York Times.

However, the only real comparison to be made with Nazi Germany is US imperialism’s unceasing quest for global hegemony, a quest that increasingly has China, as well as Russia, in its sights and which therefore carries with it the terrible prospect of a third, nuclear world war.

The working class movement and all anti-imperialists throughout the world have an absolute duty to stand resolutely alongside the People’s Republic of China in its just struggle against US imperialism and in defence of its sovereignty, independence and the hard-won gains of the Chinese people.

In this context, at its Congress held in November 2014, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (CPGB-ML) passed the following resolution:

Defend the People’s Republic of China against US-led imperialist aggression

This congress notes that US imperialism today openly takes the People’s Republic of China as its main potential and strategic adversary. Hence the US war drive against China, as well as Russia, is a fundamental aspect of the contemporary world situation and many localised conflicts and crises need to be viewed against this strategic background.

This congress believes that it is the US war drive against China that lies behind the proclamations by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of a so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ – a policy that is being aggressively pursued by US imperialism.

Congress notes that as part of this ‘pivot’, US imperialism is increasingly attempting to mobilise as many neighbouring countries, and Asian-Pacific countries in general, as possible to oppose, harass and encircle China.

Congress believes that it is in this context that US imperialism has aggressively and increasingly intervened in the territorial disputes among some Asian countries concerning the South China Sea, thereby seeking to turn bilateral issues into an international crisis so that they might fish in troubled waters.

This congress notes that US imperialism rolled out this approach with a speech by Hillary Clinton at an international conference in Hanoi, where she declared that the US had a national interest in maintaining the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea – this despite the fact that no Asian nation has ever threatened such freedom of navigation.

This congress believes that the most important feature, therefore, of the disputes in the South China Sea is the US drive to war against socialist China and hence China’s need and right to take whatever steps are necessary in its self-defence.

Congress notes that China has consistently maintained that any disputes among the neighbouring countries of the South China Sea region can and must be resolved peacefully by means of bilateral negotiations, excluding outside interference, and that, pending a final settlement, the countries concerned should cooperate to develop and utilise natural resources for mutual benefit.

This congress supports this principled and fair position of the People’s Republic of China.

In contrast to this, congress notes that US imperialism has promoted policies of division and confrontation, instigating and extending its backing, in particular, to the Philippines, as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, Vietnam.

This congress considers the current discord between China and Vietnam to be particularly regrettable. China and Vietnam are both socialist countries under the leadership of the communist party. Both the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions were mighty and heroic struggles against imperialism, which greatly inspired working and oppressed people throughout the world.

Congress expresses its sincere hope that any disputes among socialist countries be resolved peacefully and amicably on the basis of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism, and that the socialist countries should always cooperate closely in the anti-imperialist struggle and for the defence and building of socialism. Any discord among the socialist countries can only benefit our common enemy.

This congress calls on all the Asian countries and peoples to reject imperialist ‘divide and rule’, to resolve any disputes peacefully and to unite in struggle against the common enemy of all socialist and oppressed nations.

This congress renews our party’s consistent defence of the People’s Republic of China against US-led imperialist moves towards aggression and war.

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