Recent trade disputes and standoffs in the South China Sea have put the spotlight on U.S.-China relations. As tensions continue to mount between these rival empires, people are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of a possible third world war. Both of these countries are drastically expanding military spending, as are other imperialist powers around the world. A new nuclear arms race has also begun, as the so-called great powers rush to be the first to develop new weapons capable of vaporizing cities and destroying all human life. The people of this country face many questions today, including what sort of struggle must be waged against World War III by activists and revolutionaries in the U.S.
In the United States much of the political discourse is trapped in a debate between those supporting Trump and those opposed to him, but both the Democratic and Republican parties show remarkable consensus on foreign policy issues. At the same time, voices opposed to a future world war—and ongoing proxy wars—remain weak and dispersed. This situation must change to prevent a catastrophic and apocalyptic global war. Understanding rising global tensions, in particular between the U.S. and China—a rising global and imperial power—is essential to plotting a path out of this madness.
The risk of World War III should be understood as a major threat to the interests of working people. In the end, the capitalist class of leading powers like the U.S. find it hard to squeeze enough wealth out of workers, whether by machinery or management tactics, to feed their never-ending greed. Shareholders in corporations—dominantly represented by the super-rich, and not by small-time investors in the market—demand an ever increasing return on their investments, returns they need in order to remain dominant in their struggle to outmaneuver competitors.
At the same time, managerial and technical innovations in business are quickly copied, leaving it hard for today’s magnates to retain their current power and advantage over their rivals. Correspondingly, competition by foreign powers for world markets is growing increasingly intense. Increased hardships for the masses at home follows from this, as social services are cut and employment opportunities and wages do not keep up with rising costs of living.
As these problems at home add up, pressure increases for a showdown abroad between imperialist powers. The capitalists don’t want a war as long as their power relative to their rivals is increasing. But faced with a choice between power and loss of power, they always quickly settle for using the blood of the masses in attempts to secure new markets and global dominance. These are the laws of history under our present system.
Historically, we in the U.S. have repeatedly been duped when “our” ruling class has attempted to sell us on the merit of a new war. The conservative “think-tank” the Brookings Institute gloated in 2003 that “The Iraq war validated a basic rule of American politics: the American public closes ranks in times of national crisis. In the prolonged march to war, the public was divided and ambivalent about the wisdom of invading Iraq rather than relying on continued United Nations weapons inspections [the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was later revealed to have been fabricated in the rush to war—Red Star]. Most of those doubts evaporated once the bombs began falling. And the surge of patriotism not only boosted public support for President Bush, but extended beyond the White House to raise optimism about the country’s institutions and American society as a whole.”1 Once the military operations against Iraq began on March 19, 2003, support for the war surged from 58 to 72 percent. Support for President George W. Bush surged at the same time to 71 percent. Similarly in 1991, support for a war with Iraq jumped from 55% to 80% immediately after troops were deployed.
As outrage about the lies perpetuated to justify the war piled up—in particular outrage over the fact that the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was fabricated—opposition to the war began to mount. However, large protests against the war effort generally fizzled out following the election of President Obama. Many in the anti-war movement were duped by his empty promises that he was opposed to the Iraq War and would end it once elected. Instead he expanded war, military spending, and drone strikes.
The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still ongoing. And yet, these disasters—and the significant horror inflicted upon the peoples in these countries as a result—may look minor compared to the war currently being planned by the ruling classes of the world’s leading powers. Those in charge of the establishment in the U.S. are already thinking about how to get us to support a new world war.
Their current plan to prepare for World War III involves massive increases to military spending—to be paid for by taxing the poor and borrowing from the future—and the elite of this country need to drum up support for the war preparations and the corresponding spending increases. As the U.S. military corporation RAND stated in a recent report: “[The Department of Defense] may not be able to secure the necessary resources or be given the leeway to change how it does business or to redirect its investments without broader public acceptance that the chance of warfare with Russia and China is likely enough to merit additional preparation.”2 Current U.S. military spending is about $750 billion a year, though it is well above $1 trillion a year when including debt payments for past military funding.
Military spending has ballooned and the ruling elite of this country only plan to increase it further as they prepare for World War III.
Frustration with almost two decades of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have dampened the U.S. public’s enthusiasm for the next war. However, most Americans are currently being inundated with the idea that all attention must be devoted to the 2020 presidential elections. These elections are framed as the most important decision that Americans will have to make. The people of this country remain generally unaware that all presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, have supported the ongoing war efforts and increased military spending. Despite claims that elections are a chance for Americans to exercise their democratic freedoms, there is not a single candidate who supports reducing military spending and halting preparations for World War III.
In order to see through the lies that we are being sold, we must study the actual political and military situation, understand the underlying dynamics of the new arms race and war preparations, and find a way out of this mess for the people.
In Lenin’s 1916 text, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he maps out the interrelation between economic and military competition between imperialist powers. Economic competition between large global powers reflects an ultimately antagonistic struggle between rival imperialist powers to dominate peoples, resources, and markets, in an attempt to control the lion’s share of the world’s capital. It is a struggle which cannot be resolved peacefully, because of the fundamental interest of the capitalists to control an ever greater share of productive activity, and correspondingly to extract a greater share of the wealth produced by the sweat and blood of the working peoples of the world.
Imperialist countries in the modern era dominate other states through economic, diplomatic, political, and military means. Ultimately this situation is very harmful for people in an imperialist country as well as for the masses of people who become victims of its wars, sanctions, and deceit abroad.
The masses in the United States and other similar imperialist countries like China are constantly told to blame their problems on countries and peoples abroad. In fact the root cause of their hardships is the monopoly on power in their respective countries by the super-rich. The masses must work for fractions of the wealth they create on the job. They are made to trade in their meager earnings to landlords who charge exorbitant rents. And their ability to receive decent services such as healthcare, education, or simply to breathe fresh air are constantly threatened by the interest of the rich to increase their profits. The working people in imperialist countries share an interest with the working people of the world to overthrow this system of capitalism and imperialism.
Revolutionary defeatism, a principle outlined by Vladimir Lenin, describes the interest of the masses to oppose the ruling class of their own country in a period of inter-imperialist war, and organize in favor of the defeat of their own country. This is because defeat can prove favorable to revolutionary advances of the people, advances that require the people to overthrow the ruling class of their country, and replace this rule with democracy for the masses. This sort of democracy should be understood as a change from our present system which is only provides democracy for the capitalists and exercises a capitalist dictatorship over the masses. In a revolutionary society, the tables will be turned, and there will be democracy for the masses and dictatorship over the capitalists, preventing them from waging a counter-revolution and reinstating their oppressive rule.
Currently, the U.S. is a dominant imperialist power, and exercises enormous control over many of the world’s markets and peoples. The economies of many nations in the world are in debt to U.S.-controlled organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These international institutions saddle countries with debt and force neoliberal development policies on them which cut social services and ensure that a larger section of the profits made in the countries will flow to U.S. corporations.
The U.S. supports dictatorships throughout the world, such as the Saudi monarchy. These relationships are favorable to the interests of U.S. multinational corporations and help to facilitate the corporate plunder of whole peoples. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and related departments are regularly used to intimidate, threaten, and assassinate leaders of foreign states when they step out from the under the thumb of U.S. domination. The U.S. has supported scores of coups against foreign governments which are not in line with U.S. interests, included coups against democratically elected regimes, such as in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), and Chile (1973) to name just a few. At present, the U.S. has been working to support the overthrow of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, by appointing Juan Guaidó as “acting president” with an announcement by Donald Trump this past January 23.
The Pivot to the Pacific has led to large-scale redeployment of U.S. troops to the Pacific from other areas around the world.
U.S. imperialism evolved with the rise of capital interests in the United States, and in the wake of WWII the U.S. became the dominant imperialist power in the world. The relationship of the military to the economic rise of the U.S. is spelled out in many military texts. As the publication Counterpunch stated, “The glossy brochure [for the U.S. military’s Space Command’s Vision for 2020] explains that, in the past, the Army evolved to protect U.S. settlers who stole land from Native Americans in the genocidal birth of the nation. Like the Vision for 2020, a report by the National Defense University acknowledges that by the 19th century, the Navy had evolved to protect the U.S.’s newly-formulated ‘grand strategy.’ In addition to supposedly protecting citizens and the constitution, ‘The overriding principle was, and remains, the protection of American territory…and our economic well-being.’ By the 20th century, the Air Force had been established, in the words of the Air Force Study Strategy Guide, to protect ‘vital interests,’ including: ‘commerce; secure energy supplies; [and] freedom of action.’”3
Despite the U.S.’s leading global position, it is actually declining in power relative to other imperialist countries, in particular China. A few decades of failed military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have taken their toll on the U.S.’s dominance. In addition, rampant U.S. media coverage of the growing threat of Chinese theft of U.S. “trade secrets” and Trump’s 2018 tariffs against Chinese manufacturers reflects the U.S. ruling elite’s deep concern that Chinese corporations are intruding on the turf of U.S. corporations. This concern extends far beyond the Trump regime. The idea of a “Pivot [from the Middle East] to the Pacific” was a guiding principle under the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spelled out the reasons for this shift in a 2011 article.4
The falling fortunes of the U.S. ruling class—relative to other global powers—can be seen in part as a result of the incompetence that comes from decades of global dominance. This incompetence is visible across the board, from failed U.S. infrastructure projects, to continued fracturing in both major political parties, to decadent spending on military policies that fail to secure U.S. interests abroad. Since 2000, the U.S. military has promoted a doctrine known as “full spectrum dominance” which is defined as “The cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment, which includes cyberspace, that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.” The idea is that the U.S. should enjoy an overwhelming advantage over its rivals on every front such that it is impossible for them to defeat the U.S. anywhere or at anytime.
Recently this strategy has been rebranded as “OverMatch,” but the basic idea remains the same: be so far ahead of their rivals on every front that their rivals have no partial advantages which they can leverage in asymmetrical warfare. The strategy is a reflection of arrogance and decadence of a bloated ruling class in a stage of decline. It is an impractical strategy, as it leads to a tendency to treat secondary threats as primary ones, and hence to over-prepare in certain sectors at the expense of others. Instead of accepting the reality that their rivals will obtain superiority on some fronts, the U.S. ruling elite is spending money hand over fist—money which they extract from the poor people of this country via taxes—in a vain attempt to “OverMatch” their rivals on every front, an attempt which can only fail.
After the coup in 1976, the counter-revolutionaries seized power and abandoned the socialist policy of self-sufficiency. They threw China into the capitalist markets and began to accumulate wealth and power globally.
The Rise of China as an Imperialist Power
China is a rising capitalist imperialist power, with global assets around the world, and a GDP of over $12 trillion (in comparison the U.S. GDP is $19 trillion). Back in 1949 the Communist Party of China led a revolution which overthrew the corrupt U.S.-backed government of Chiang Kai-Shek and created a revolutionary society. The newly founded People’s Republic struggled for almost 30 years against the system of global imperialism and capitalism. However, following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the revolutionary society was overthrown.5 After this coup, the new leaders of the country openly promoted capitalist development and pro-imperialist policies, despite continuing to call their country “socialist.”
In the last few decades, China has aggressively increased capital investment aboard, and used military and diplomatic pressures to increase control over foreign markets. The implications of this shift are unmistakable. The country reversed the course it was on before 1976, of serving the interests of the masses of its people, to treading a path oriented towards securing wealth by hook or by crook for its wealthiest 1% through struggle for control of the world’s markets. In a world that has long been entirely divided up by the world’s capitalist classes—something Lenin remarked was the case by the turn of the 20th century, marking the advent of the era of capitalist-imperialism—this means the ruling elite in China committed itself to a future of capitalist competition with rival imperialist powers. The Chinese elite have come into an increasingly sharp struggle for dominance with U.S. business interests (as well as those of other imperialist powers) as they work to secure control of resources, markets, and people.
The military implications of this trends were spelled out in a 2006 white paper written by a Chinese military researcher, Chen Zhou who stated, “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 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.”
This quote shows how the Chinese ruling elite have pursued an imperialist policy of investing abroad to secure control of markets, resources, and people. In conjunction with this, they have been working hard to expand all facets of their military and intelligence operations to crush people’s movements and do battle with rival imperialist powers.
The Chinese military has conducted a large number of combat drills, including joint exercises with Russia, simulating and preparing for war with the U.S. in the South China Sea.
The Chinese military’s global footprint is far less extensive than that of the United States. China’s first foreign military base was only opened in Djibouti in 2015, compared to the U.S. which maintains over 800 bases, many of which the military admits it does not need. Despite this, China and Russia are engaged in a fast-moving arms race with the United States. This arms race has also has led to a series of proxy wars, stand-off, skirmishes, and run-ins between these rival imperialist blocs. For example, the Chinese are building a number of militarized islands in the South China Sea, and the U.S. has conducted a series of “Freedom of Navigation” operations that have led to tense face-offs between these rivals navies. Relatedly, in the Syrian War, the U.S. and their allies killed around 300 Russian mercenaries which they claimed had attacked them.
The U.S. imperialists enjoy a number of significant advantages that come with having been the dominant global power for nearly half a century, but the Chinese state and military have been outmaneuvering the U.S. on a series of fronts. In comparison to the U.S., the Chinese state has been able to choose its battles more carefully, and to chip away at regions previously thought to be firmly in the U.S. camp. The Chinese military build-up in the South China Seas is one example of this. The Chinese military has flexed its muscle in gaining territorial possessions for military use, and in challenging the U.S. navy and U.S. allies. The U.S. has been unsuccessful in using international institutions and the threat of military force to deter the Chinese military buildup in the region. Philip S. Davidson, the four-star admiral in charge of the Indo-Pacific Command recently stated that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”
According to a report by the RAND corporation, “Although the military balance in the western Pacific still favors the U.S., this is shifting as China invests a major share of its growing military budget into ‘anti-access/area-denial’ capabilities, like anti-ship missiles, designed to strike U.S. forces in the region. Moreover, although the U.S. spends about three times what China does on military capabilities, China can concentrate on the western Pacific, whereas the U.S. faces threats elsewhere, such as Russia, Iran and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).”6 In short, the conflict in the South China Sea is a point at which the Chinese ruling elite can and have achieved a degree of local superiority over the United States, despite U.S. delusions of maintaining supremacy in every sector, as expressed in its strategy of “OverMatch.”
Understanding the Chinese-U.S. Conflict in the South China Sea
Naval disputes between China and the U.S. are just one element of the conflict between the two states; this conflict also has diplomatic and economic aspects. In addition, the conflicts of the two countries are best both understood in relationship to competition between other significant global powers—Russia in particular. However, the conflict between China and the United States, and in particular in the area of naval disputes, can help clarify the larger situation. This includes clarifying China’s military and territorial aspirations, the seriousness with which the U.S. ruling class is now responding to threats to its influence in the region, and the likelihood that the current status-quo in the region will not last far into the future.
China has built scores of island military installations in the South China Sea (including 20 installations in the Paracel islands and 7 in the Spratly Islands), often by reclaiming land on top of reefs where sand and cement have been used to reinforce land for construction. At least three of these sites include airfields.
The South China Sea is located between Vietnam and the Philippines. One third of global shipping passes through the area, most of it sailing through the Strait of Malacca. China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, have been disputing ownership of these strategic waters for decades. In addition to being an important area to control—as the power which controls the South China Sea could theoretically restrict their adversary’s merchant and military vessels in a time of conflict—the sea is also known to hold billions of dollars worth of gas reserves.
In the beginning of April, 2019, a showdown occurred on the Thitu Island, one of the Spratly Islands (called Kalayaan by the Phillipines and Nansha by the Chinese), in which several hundred Chinese ships surrounded the island. This followed the February construction of a new “beaching ramp” by the Philippines to facilitate the distribution of construction equipment to the island, in particular to repair the island’s runway. The island is also host to several military garrisons used by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and has a population of about one hundred.
Chinese ships at the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands dredging sand to create a military installation on top of the reef.
China has repeatedly used the strategy of surrounding islands in the south China seas with layers of naval, administrative, and fishing vessels to effectively siege the islands, preventing the distribution of water, food, and other supplies to military personnel. This multi-level strategy of encirclement was referred to as a “cabbage strategy” in 2013, when the Chinese military used it to encircle another island in the Spratly Chain, the Huangyan island. Afterward this showdown, the Huangyan Island was effectively occupied by China, but not without remaining a point of tension. On March 5, 2019 the U.S. military flew a B-52 bomber near the island. In January 2018, the U.S. Navy sailed a guided-missile destroyer to within 12 kilometers of the island. On September 30 2018, the USS Decatur had sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs (also in the Spratly Islands) and was greeted by a Chinese destroyer that crossed within 45 yards of its bow, resulting in a near-collision. This sequence of tit-for-tats has been repeated many times in this and other regions.
Ever-increasing Chinese claims on territory previously used and occupied by the Philippines has led to anger in the Philippines. Last year, on June 12, 2018 the news site Rappler reported that several militant groups stormed the Chinese embassy in the Filipino city of Makati following reports that Filipino President Duterte favored plans for joint development with China over the contested islands.
At that protest, Anakbayan (a revolutionary group in the Phillippines) Secretary General Einstein Recedes stated “Today is #Hindipendence day. [hindi means “no” in Tagalog, one of the main languages of the Philippines] Freedom remains an illusion under the helm of a cheap dictator-wannabe who shamelessly kowtows to foreign superpowers like China and U.S., and wields terror and violence against the Filipino people. We condemn Duterte’s inaction amidst Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea depriving Filipino fishermen of their livelihood. We condemn Duterte’s burdening Filipinos with high taxes and other conditionalities for onerous Chinese loans funding his corrupt infrastructure program.”
However, following the Chinese encirclement of the Thitu Island this past April, Duterte seemingly changed his tune—at least for the moment—on the matter, stating “Let us be friends, but do not touch Pagasa Island [the name used in the Philippines for Thitu] and the rest. If you make moves there, that’s a different story. I will tell my soldiers, ‘Prepare for suicide mission.’” The arrival of two Russian destroyers and a tanker in the Philippines capital of Manila on April 8th subsequently caused alarm in the West that military tension around the island was growing to global proportions.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (4th from left) shakes hands with Russian Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov (3rd from left) onboard the Russian anti-submarine navy ship Admiral Tributs in Manila on January 6, 2017.
So what does all this amount to? Is it simply a ramp on a pile of sand, followed by rounds of chest-thumping, all signifying nothing? If only this was the case. While there is an unequal development of tensions in the South China Sea, and war is not likely to break out in the near future, we can see the situation as proof that the current balance of imperialist powers in the region and wider world is about as permanent as a sand castle facing a rising tide.
If Duterte follows through on his threat to go to war with China, the Philippines would not stand a chance on its own against the Chinese military. All attention would be on the U.S.’s decision about whether or not to come to the defense of its ally, and if so, how and to what extent. The interests of working people will depend on whether or not cool heads prevail to prevent escalation of a conflict. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the typical response from the U.S. military can be seen in their decision to repeatedly fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the islands which the Chinese military has wrapped tightly in its “cabbage” matrix of fishing nets, administrative vessels, and naval ships. And if the U.S. reacts with more force than its usual flyover, China will be under pressure to prove that its “anti-access/area-denial” missiles and related infrastructure are not simply for show. There is a possibility that these tensions can be temporarily deescalated and powder keg temporarily defused. But can this very unstable status-quo continue for years to come?
The logic of imperialism would lead us to believe that we must choose between one side or the other in this stand-off. This typically leads to those living in one imperialist power supporting “their own” ruling class and believing “its side of the story,” while the people of the opposing power do the same. And this confusion is not limited to paid advisors of the state and ruling-class ideologues. In Europe during the lead up to World War I, much of the international revolutionary movement was thrown into confusion over this question. In the end various nominally revolutionary groups and parties in the Second Communist International, chose to support “their own” ruling classes and militaries in the World War. The one notable exception was the Russian Bolshevik Party who stayed true to their principles, and under Lenin’s leadership they were able to use the crisis of the world war to lead a revolution which freed the people from the yolk of the Tsar and his Russian capitalist allies.
In the 1917 October Revolution the Bolsheviks led the Russian people in storming the Tsar’s Winter Palace. After overthrowing the Tsar, they withdrew the country from WWI and began the hard work of transforming the country into a socialist society for the people.
From the perspective of the people, it does not matter which imperialist power wins a world war, as any outcome means the masses lose. In the competition between empires—which inevitably leads to war—the only solution is for the people to struggle to create a society free from dominance by competing imperialist thugs and their servile lackeys. At present there are a number of revolutionary movements in the world, including large scale movements involving millions of people in the Philippines and India in particular.
But we in the United States have our work cut out for us. Both major parties in our country are entirely committed not only to the idea that U.S. imperialism is a good thing, but also to the idea that they must further the interests and global influence of the empire. If we remain trapped in the logic of “lesser-evilism” and channel our energies into the fantasy that the Democratic candidates for President are a real alternative for the people, then we will fall into the trap of largely forgetting about the wider world and the incredibly destructive role that U.S. imperialism plays in it. This trap encourages us to leave such questions for a “more opportune time” while also bombarding us with the imperialist myth of American Exceptionalism.
Right now there is an urgent need to unite with the oppressed masses of the world to fight in the life and death struggle to eradicate imperialism from the face of the earth. Already the powers that be and their countless apologists in U.S. universities and media are beating the war drum, be it in response to Russian interference in “our democracy” (?!), or Chinese threats on American values (what more threat is there to our values than the corporate plunder and brutal exploitation perpetuated day after day by our own homegrown plutocrats?). We must unite with all people sincerely opposed to imperialist wars and struggle against the global death-spiral that the super-powers have set in motion.
For more on this history see: http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/article/72/CRpaper-Final.pdf ↩︎