Sean Ledwith looks at military tensions between China and the US

The apocalyptic scenario of military conflict between the two pre-eminent titans of the geopolitical system has been raised by recent events in the East China Sea. Last month, China announced the activation of an Air Defence Identification Zone around the area, conspicuously focused on the disputed Diayou/Senkaku/ islands (the territorial dispute between China and Japan is reflected in their competing names for the islands).

The ADIZ requires all incoming non-Chinese aircraft to maintain two-way radio communication and supply regular positional information. The zone extends hundreds of miles into the region, nudging similar arrangements by South Korea and Japan.

The belligerent response of the US was to dispatch two B-52 bombers-armed with nuclear warheads-straight through the zone in open defiance of the Chinese protocols.

Obama’s Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel was unapologetic about the incursion and underlined Washington’s commitment to upholding the Japanese claims in the area:

“We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region. This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.
The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the US – Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

Beijing responded in kind and deployed its state-of-the-art SU-30 and J-11 jet fighters to patrol the ADIZ. The Chinese denied their action was an escalation of the tension and presented the operations as routine. The potential for cataclysmic miscalculation has been underlined, however, by similar over flights of the Chinese zone carried out by Japanese and South Korean military aircraft, no doubt with active encouragement from Washington.

When nationalisms collide

Japan’s diplomatic partnership with Washington can be traced back to its post-WW2 occupation by the US. Prior to that, Japanese militarist expansion in the first half of the twentieth century had incorporated annexation of the Diayou/Senkaku islands, in defiance of imperial China’s historic claim. Although they are uninhabited and only about 7 square miles in size, the islands are situated on a major geopolitical fault line of the Pacific region. China’s economic lifeline is the shipping lane to the Middle East adjacent to the islands.

The East China Sea is also the site of extensive oil, gas and fishing reserves that the two countries are eager to dominate. Last year the Tokyo government purchased three of the islands from their private Japanese owner, which Beijing interpreted as an act of provocation. Shortly after, Chinese protesters invaded one of the islands and tried to plant their national flag. The ejection of this protest sparked mass anti-Japanese rallies in Chinese cities along the coast. The remarkable aspect of these huge demonstrations was that they were an unprecedented example of Beijing authorising popular protest. The Chinese ruling class was cynically exploiting nationalism as a means of buttressing their own support on the territorial dispute-and providing a distraction for the mounting frustration of their own working class.

War games

Cynical manipulation of xenophobia has also been a card played by the Tokyo elite, however 12 months ago, Shinzo Abe won the Japanese election on a platform of reversing the country’s long-standing demilitarised status and explicitly re-asserting its claims to the Diayou/Senkaku chain. Abe’s ‘new nationalism, ‘as he has branded his rebooted conservatism, has provoked concern from regional neighbours who grimly recall the last bout of Japanese expansionism in the 1940s. A South Korean newspaper has characterised Abe as:

one of the most right-wing politicians in Japan in decades… Buoyed by the nationalist mood sweeping Japanese society since Abe took the helm of the once-pacifist nation, [right-wing politicians] are increasingly regressing to a militarist path … As a result, the political situation of north-east Asia is becoming shakier than ever.”

War games

Abe’s bellicosity is also evident in his response to the current crisis in the East China Sea and his willingness to collaborate even more closely with US military power. US Vice President, Joe Biden has scheduled a visit to regional allies, timed to coincide with an extensive sequence of joint American-Japanese military manoeuvres known as AnnualEx 2013, nominally premised on ‘the defence of Japan’.

These war games involving 23 ships and 20 000 personnel are taking place off the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, a stone’s throw from the newly-created ADIZ. The potential for tragic error in the area with such high-tech showboating on display would not be without precedent. In 2001, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter in the South China Sea, killing its pilot and provoking a tense but peaceful diplomatic standoff. A similar event in the current climate might not be so easy to defuse.

Pacific pivot

China and the US are both currently undergoing a strategic re-positioning in the Pacific, informed by mutual wariness and concern not to be militarily out-muscled by the other. The latter’s re-alignment is founded on the vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’, first outlined by Hillary Clinton in 2011 and re-affirmed by Obama last year. This is posited on a re-deployment of US military strength from the Middle East to the Pacific, partly springing from recognition among influential sections of the Washington elite that defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be assimilated into geopolitical thinking. Hagel announced earlier this year that the US would:

Allocate 60 percent of its overseas-based forces to the Asia Pacific—including tactical aircraft and bombers from the continental United States…. rapidly deployable, self-sustaining forces—such as submarines, long-range bombers and carrier strike groups—that can project power over great distance. [T]his region will see more of these capabilities as we prioritise developments of our most advanced platforms to the Pacific.”

It is no coincidence that this mini-conflagration has arisen shortly after Washington attained a breakthrough in the long-running attempt to bring Iran to heel with its nuclear programme. The Pacific pivot has also been the hidden agenda behind regular US sabre-rattling over North Korea’s alleged nuclear threat.

A similar shift of strategic emphasis is apparent in the thinking of the ruling class in Beijing. One of the most significant outcomes of last month’s Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party was the creation of a new National Security Council, modelled on its American counterpart according to many commentators. This is designed to facilitate more streamlined decision-making and enable President Xi Jipeng to respond more rapidly to unexpected turns in foreign policy, for example the current crisis over the Diayou/Senkaku islands. According to Isaac Stone from the ‘Foreign Policy’ website, this is a case of ‘Imitation is the securest form of flattery.’

Beijing has also displayed its growing willingness to confront US regional power by the launch last year of its first aircraft carrier, the ‘Liaoning’, along with a commitment to construct another four in the future. While, in itself, this would be no match for Washington’s eleven equivalent vessels, American commanders will also have noted with alarm the Chinese development of a new range of anti-ballistic missiles, nicknamed ‘carrier killers‘.

The road to war?

None of the above, however, entails that military conflict between China and the US is imminent or even inevitable. There are several mitigating factors that make such a scenario unlikely in the foreseeable future. Most prominent of these is the symbiotic economic relationship between the two powers. China currently holds over $3 trillion of currency reserves and has become integral to the global capitalist economy over which the US still presides.

The latter’s stumbling effort to recover from the 2008 crash is significantly dependent on Chinese loans to sustain federal deficit spending. Likewise Beijing requires American consumers to keep buying the vast outflow of exports from China to compensate for its own stubbornly depressed domestic consumption. This mutual dependence may be enough to forestall catastrophe for a while. However, it is equally vital to consider that China and the US are both best understood primarily as imperialist states – albeit with contrasting historical paths – and, as such, are locked into a system of global economic competition in which economic rivalry is often ultimately resolved in the military sphere. The only sure path to avert disaster is an international anti-war movement which includes oppositional forces in China and the US in a common effort to prevent their ruling classes dragging the world into a nightmare conflict.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters