China, the US and imperialism

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Chinese soldiers prepare to demonstrate their capability to US joint chiefs

In the first in a new series, Adrian Budd examines the changing power balance between China, the US and regional competitors — and how this fits with the Marxist theory of imperialism.

The nuclear stand-off between the US and North Korea focused eyes on Asia in 2017. Despite their differences, including over sanctions, the US and China have cooperated over North Korea’s nuclear programme and have a common interest in attempting the impossible of stabilising global capitalism. But they also have rival interests and China’s rise is the key long-term issue facing US power.

The US remains the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power, reinforced by a global alliance system. Trump’s “America first” strategy is based on the fanciful notion that other countries have taken advantage of the US. China is Trump’s chief culprit — he fulminates against China’s “rape [of] our country” while his chief trade negotiator, Peter Navarro, is the author of the 2011 book Death by China.

China’s stupendous economic expansion is relatively recent and Mao’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, including mutual respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in others’ internal affairs, were recognition of China’s earlier relative weakness. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, also recognised relative weakness, arguing that China should not take the lead but “lie low and bide your time”. But while cooperation remains a key component of China’s strategic approach (underpinning, for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s joint efforts to combat terrorism and separatism), Deng’s words imply that China might ultimately challenge the US and its regional allies.

China is no longer weak. US strategists have obsessed over China for two decades, seeking to contain it while preparing to fight wars against it. Their fear, echoed by Hillary Clinton, is what academic international relations calls the “Thucydides trap” — the conflict between rising and dominant powers. The rising power (Athens for Thucydides, China today) inevitably demands greater influence as the dominant power (Sparta, the US) wanes. This is a recipe for conflict, in which minor skirmishes can spiral out of control. Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf says that Trump magnifies these concerns as the US unmakes the world that it made. He asks of many states “would it not be wiser they wonder to move closer to China?” (31 May 2017).

The Chinese and US forms of capitalism differ, but each operates within a global system of economic competition and geopolitical rivalry between states (for political influence, markets, control over strategic minerals, etc). War may not be permanent, but preparation for war is. The world has changed since 1914, but the perspective of inter-imperialist rivalry developed by Lenin and Bukharin during the First World War remains key to understanding contemporary global instability.


China is militarily and economically weaker than the US, and is cautious about appearing to project power internationally, particularly against US interests. But its power has increased and been mobilised, particularly in Asia, to foster greater dependency on China itself. In response, the US has reinforced its presence in Asia, including Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011. This has exposed US weakness elsewhere (notably Syria and Ukraine), but the US has sought to strengthen its alliances against China.

One illustration of China’s growing economic power can be found in UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2017. This showed that Chinese investment in Africa, long dominated by Western imperialism, was $36 billion in 2016 against the US’s $3.6 billion, Britain’s $2.4 billion and France’s $2.1 billion. As in the Cold War, one form that the rivalry in Africa may take is proxy wars, but rivalry here pales against that in the South China Sea.

China has long pursued a “good neighbour” policy in Asia with the intention to “lie low” and not destabilise the regional geopolitical environment on which its economic rise depends. Yet by 2010 China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi responded to complaints about its assertiveness in the South China Sea by saying that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”. China increasingly behaves like other big capitalist countries.

China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, where most of the neighbouring states have rival territorial claims, has since increased dramatically. This sea is one of the world’s most strategically significant seaways, carrying one third of global maritime trade, and has major oil and gas reserves. China has asserted “indisputable sovereignty” over all the South China Sea’s islands and maritime rights over the waters within its claimed maritime boundary (the “nine-dash line”) which runs close to its southern neighbours’ coasts and embraces most of the sea. Since 2009 there have been naval skirmishes with many regional states, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as the US.

In September 2015 China’s president Xi Jinping claimed that China had “no intention to militarise” the area. But it has moved rapidly to build artificial islands around disputed outcrops and transformed them into military bases, including runways, ports, missile bases and radar outposts. These will allow China to monitor other states’ activities, patrol sea lanes and project maritime power into areas where the US has been the dominant power since 1945. China is preparing for full military control of the South China Sea. The scale of the transformation is monumental, with most of the land reclamation work occurring within the last five years.

In July 2016 a tribunal convened under UN maritime law ruled against China’s territorial claims and the militarisation of disputed territories. The case was brought by the Philippines, but following Chinese economic promises it has since gone silent on the matter. The US response was to insist that China accept the “three halts”: to land reclamation, infrastructure building and continued militarisation. But, confirming both the inadequacy of international law without a higher authority to enforce it and Marx’s argument that “between equal rights force decides”, there has been no noticeable halt. The US and its allies have not tried to enforce it, implying a US recognition of its inability to change China’s behaviour and an acceptance, for now, of the emerging Chinese hegemony in the region. But inter-imperialist rivalry is not limited to Asia.


In May 2017 over 100 countries sent delegations to Beijing to discuss China’s belt and road initiative, championed by Xi Jinping as a contribution to his “Chinese dream” for the “great revival of the Chinese nation”. It involves huge infrastructure and transport projects across Eurasia (high speed trains, ports, roads, and pipelines) to link China with the rest of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and Europe. Expensive failures have already been reported, but deeper integration with these countries would improve access to markets, raw materials and energy and provide investment outlets for Chinese capital facing declining profitability at home.

The New Silk Road initiative is not a purely economic affair, but of potentially huge geopolitical significance. If successful, it would increase China’s influence and help build a China-centred Eurasian trading bloc that could challenge the Trans-Atlantic core of the world system and have a potentially significant impact on US control of the seas.

China has already hugely increased its influence over the world’s major ports, including in the areas covered by the initiative. In 2000 only six of the world’s largest 50 ports were either Chinese owned or had a Chinese investment, but by 2015 the figure was 28. The purpose is primarily economic but Chinese strategists calculate that port facilities can easily double as military installations.

The New Silk Road initiative extends deep into Europe, where China has signed a “16+1” agreement with East and Central European states interested in technology transfer and investment. But the core EU states are suspicious of China’s attempts to use the “16” as a base to strengthen Chinese firms’ competitiveness in a range of advanced technologies at the expense of EU firms. The competitive tensions within the EU are likely to multiply around this initiative in the future.

Imperialism flows from capitalism’s economic dynamic, but it is heavily armed. China faces the US Navy’s seventh fleet, a deadly force headquartered in Japan comprising 70 to 80 ships, 140 aircraft and 40,000 personnel. This fleet regularly carries out some 100 joint exercises a year with China’s neighbours. US arms spending dwarfs China’s, but the respected Stockholm Independent Peace Research Institute’s figures show that in 1989 US arms spending was 30 times greater than China’s, ten times greater in 2000, but less than three times as great in 2016. And as China’s military power grows so others react — a destabilising regional arms race is developing and in 2012 Asia spent more on arms than Europe for the first time in modern times.

It is an expression of capitalism’s socially regressive and destructive nature that the more the Asian economies integrate with the world economy the more these states spend on arms. In 2013 India became the largest foreign buyer of US arms, having become the world’s largest arms importer in 2010. Vietnam has recently bought an advanced submarine fleet from Russia, which has armed most of the states bordering the South China Sea. Taiwan is planning its own submarine fleet. The list is far from exhaustive.


Across Asia ruling classes are under the twin pressures of the gravitational economic pull of China and established military ties to the US. Thus, while Australia remains committed to its alliance with the US, it has increased defence cooperation with China and remained neutral on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Australia’s position is not unrelated to the fact that in 2016 its exports to China totalled A$93 billion and to the US only A$21 billion. The contradictory pressures are unlikely to recede and will shape the rivalries in the region for the foreseeable future.

The East China Sea is no less dangerous than the South. Aside from the North Korean nuclear issue, a key flashpoint was the deployment of the US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile shield system in South Korea in March. Ostensibly aimed at deterring North Korea, it also weakens the effectiveness of China’s ballistic missiles and reinforces the US’s anti-China alliance in north east Asia. China meanwhile has routinely tested Japan’s submarine defences over recent years, and its military modernisation includes development of naval forces capable of “far-sea defence” beyond the first and second island chains behind which US power has sought to pin it. This is the strategic aim of the Chinese navy for the 21st century and increases the possibility of clashes with the US.

Militarisation has been accompanied by an intensification in state-supported nationalism. The antagonisms between China and Japan are well known, and were replicated after South Korea’s THAAD deployment: South Korean goods were boycotted, and South Korean firms pressurised in China, while tourism to South Korea was discouraged. The intensity of nationalism ebbs and flows, as states try to both protect domestic legitimacy and use diplomacy to position themselves more favourably within the shifting balance of international forces. But nationalist demonising remains a permanent and dangerous feature of inter-imperialism.

All of the above demands an explanation for Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) three days into his presidency in January 2017. It differentiated him from Obama, for whom the TPP was a flagship policy and central to the Asian pivot. But it risked weakening US influence in Asia: as US strategists have remarked, if the US is not central to the writing of the rules shaping Asia-Pacific economic relations, China will step in.


The TPP involved 12 Pacific Rim countries in a neoliberal project to deepen their inter-dependence via complex trade rules and tariff cuts, including their elimination by 2025. Ratification could have slowed China’s regional economic influence and enhanced US strategic leverage. Furthermore, US interests in key economic sectors were protected while weaker economies adjusted to US demands.

China’s leaders were delighted with US withdrawal and have proposed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to replace TPP (although inter-imperialist rivalry means that Japan has also proposed an alternative). Trump’s withdrawal was widely criticised as a strategic blunder, but there is a logic behind it that is only available to the world’s pre-eminent power. US alliances in Asia will not unravel as a result of a decision not to proceed with a step beyond existing neoliberal arrangements, such as WTO rules. Indeed, by acting on his “America First” campaign message to satisfy his supporters (at least rhetorically, as it is doubtful whether new manufacturing jobs will be created), he may force weaker allies to accede more readily to future US demands. Nevertheless, China’s regional power may well be enhanced by the decision.

The rivalries between the world’s ruling classes reveal the irrationalism of a system based on profit and competition, and its devastating consequences for the working class. The world’s major imperialist powers (today including China) could sharply reduce poverty and the scourge of disease. Instead they produce weapons, and with them the terrible consequences of their possible use. This possibility is amplified as these states whip up nationalism, vilify enemy states and people, and blame others for problems that they, as capitalist states, create for their own societies.

China remains weaker than the US, to which falls the lion’s share of the responsibility for global rivalries and its pathologies. But, far from aiming to overthrow the global system on which it is dependent, or the global power of the US, it seeks advance within existing arrangements. It is increasingly confident of such advance, albeit still relatively cautious, but its focus remains primarily regional. Yet it cannot but challenge US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific as the balance of imperial power slowly moves in its favour.

China’s growing power may attract those on the Western left for whom the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They are mistaken. As other articles in this series will show, China’s competitive relations with other capitalist powers have produced environmental degradation as well as the strong possibility of a new and devastating economic crisis. But they have also provoked working class struggle and demands for democratisation. It is these struggles, not a choice between this or that imperialist ruling class, that hold the key to a better world and the end of inter-imperialist rivalry.

Adrian Budd lectures on international relations at London South Bank University and is the author, with Jane Hardy, of “China’s Capitalism and the Crisis”, in International Socialism 133 (2012)