Capitalist states, whether they are defending local or regional economic and politico-military interests or seeking global hegemony, must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate their strategic interests, their alliances, and the threats that they confront.
For American imperialism, in the waning days of World War Two, before the atomic bombs led to Japan’s surrender, it seemed apparent that while Stalinist Russia was militarily essential if Germany and Japan were to be defeated, the outcome of the war raised the prospect that Russia might dominate large parts of both Europe and Asia, and thereby become a threat to the putative global hegemony of the U.S. The occupation of the Eastern half of Europe by Russia, and the danger that with powerful Stalinist parties in Italy and France too, the Western half might be brought into the orbit of Moscow, whether by elections or conquest, as well as the conviction that Mao was a puppet of Moscow, and that his “revolution” in China would extend Russian domination to much of Asia in the face of weak and declining European colonial powers, led Washington to adopt a strategy of containment of Russia, that included the Marshall plan, the formation of NATO, and two land wars in Asia (Korea and Vietnam) before the strategy of American imperialism was dramatically changed in the early ‘70’s by Kissinger and Nixon, with a Sino-American alliance that ultimately led to the collapse of the “Soviet Union” in the early ‘90’s. For the next twenty years, while the economic, financial, and political institutions of an American led economy based on globalization were put in place, the world-wide hegemony of the U.S. appeared unassailable. When Putin ascended to power in Russia, determined to confront the U.S., and reverse what he termed the greatest “catastrophe” of the twentieth century (the collapse of the “Soviet Union”), “armed” with an economy based on oil and gas, with which to rebuild Russia’s military might and geo-political reach in the borderlands of the old Soviet Union (the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine), and the Middle-East, where its close relations with the Assad regime in Syria, then with Iran, and now with Erdogan’s Turkey as well, meant that the strategy of American imperialism continued to focus on Europe and the Middle-East, as it had since the end of World War Two.
However, in the interim, the global economy had significantly changed, and while Russia’s economic decline, masked for a time by oil and gas, and its then skyrocketing prices, seems irreversible, China’s dramatic rise as the second economic power in the world, helped by the U.S. and its own economic, financial, and trade policies, created a new economic, political, and military powerhouse, even as it shifted global economic power away from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region, potentially constituting a new and very real challenge to American global hegemony on the part of China. While the Obama
administration was confronted by an economic and financial crisis as it took office in January 2009, the new president was also pushing for what he termed a “pivot to Asia” in American policy, a dramatic strategic shift of emphasis by American imperialism from its traditional focus on Europe and the Middle-East to an increasing focus on Asia and the danger represented by Chinese imperialism — a danger that was not simply economic, but political and military as well.
The rise of China has reshaped the inter-imperialist chess board in South-East
Asia, as old enemies of the U.S. like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, join old friends of the U.S. like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, in responding to Chinese territorial claims in the East China and South China seas. And the growing reach of the Chinese navy, is not just threatening neighboring states, but raising alarm bells all the way from India to Australia. Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” with its increasing strategic focus there, including Obama’s projected Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which China was explicitly excluded was to have been the new lynchpin of what the President hoped would be a centerpiece of a reorientation of American foreign policy. Add to this mix the apparent unwillingness of Beijing to reign in North Korea, even as the prospect of its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by Pyongyang that could not just blanket East and South-East Asia, but potentially reach the U.S. too, gave an urgency to this shift of emphasis on the part of the Obama administration.
That same focus on the Asia-Pacific region, has now appeared to continue with the new Trump administration, revealing new fault lines within the capitalist class over foreign policy and the strategic interests of the U.S. While Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 election campaign raised doubts about Obama’s projected TPP, and was clearly a hawk with respect to Russia in both Eastern Europe and the Middle-East, and the grave threat to American interests represented by Putin, which she continued to view as the necessary focus of American global strategy, Trump’s own apparent minimization of the threat represented by Putin, and emphasis on the danger represented by China indicates a strange continuity between the strategic orientation of Obama and Trump. So, while traditional Republican hawks like McCain and Graham and liberal or “progressive” Democrats like Pelosi and Schumer sound the danger represented by Putin, and focus on the Ukraine, Syria, and NATO, Trump’s own focus on the danger of China continues to echo themes championed by Obama for the past eight years. Even very provisionally, we need to explore the sharply different emphases represented by what seem to be real debates within the capitalist class and its state over the strategic focus to pursue.
It is important to also recognize that a focus on the danger represented by China does not mean that military conflict between Washington and Beijing is either inevitable let alone close, or even that the complex and mutually important economic, financial, and trade relations between the U.S. and China will be broken. Both economies today are so interdependent – in contrast to the U.S. And Russia during the cold war – that such a conclusion would be unwarranted. While war is not on the immediate agenda, tensions between Washington and Beijing are intensifying, and the strategic focus of each is increasingly on the other. China may indeed still be decades away from constituting a significant military challenge to American dominance in Asia, but the potential threat is already there, the flash points between Washington and Beijing will only grow, and debates (and divisions) within the American capitalist class and its state, over the strategic orientation to pursue will only intensify in the coming years.