Monday 4 July 2016, by
Russian President Vladimir Putin has concluded a state visit to China, designed to cement closer ties. The two countries confront provocative steps by the US to isolate them and an American-led military build-up in both Eastern Europe and the Asia Pacific.
Speaking on Saturday, Putin said the relations between Russia and China had “the character of an all-embracing and strategic partnership.” Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that he and Putin had “decided that the more complicated the international situation, the more determined we should be guided by the spirit of strategic cooperation and the idea of eternal friendship.”
While not naming Washington, the two leaders voiced concern over increasingly “negative factors” affecting global security. “Some countries and military-political alliances seek decisive advantages in military... technology, so as to serve their own interests through use of or threatening the use of force in international affairs,” a joint statement declared.
Putin and Xi specifically criticised the “unilateral deployment of anti-missile systems all over the world” and insisted that such weaponry was being placed in Europe and Asia under false pretences. The US has deployed anti-ballistic missile systems to Eastern Europe and East Asia on the pretext of countering so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.
In reality, the Pentagon’s positioning of anti-missile systems close to China and Russia is a key element of its preparations for fighting a war against the two nuclear armed powers. Far from being defensive, this weaponry is designed to counter any Russian or Chinese missiles that survived a devastating US first nuclear strike.
The Financial Times reported on Friday that the Chinese and Russian militaries held a five-day computer simulation last month to test, for the first time, a joint response to a ballistic missile attack. The exercise, according to the Russian defence ministry, “was not directed against any third country,” but no one was in any doubt that the “aggressor” in the simulation was the United States.
Russian analyst Vasily Kashin said the exercise demonstrated “a new level of trust” between the two countries. “The ability to share information in such a sensitive area as missile launch warning systems and ballistic missile defence indicates something beyond simple co-operation,” he told the newspaper.
As part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Russia and China have engaged, along with various Central Asian countries, in a widening range of military exercises. Russia also supplies China with some of its most sophisticated weaponry.
Nevertheless, while Russia and China are being driven together by common concerns about US aggression, tensions remain.
During his visit, Putin said: “Russia and China stick to points of view which are very close to each other or are almost the same in the international area.” However, both countries have economic and strategic interests in Central Asia, which they are pursuing through competing plans—China through its One Belt, One Road strategy and Russia through its proposal for a Eurasian Economic Union.
Putin emphasised there should be a “converging” of the two national development strategies, in large part because Russia is in no position to compete with China’s planned outlays of tens of billions of dollars to construct transport, pipeline and other infrastructure connecting China with Europe via land and sea. As a concession, China is in discussion with Russia about an agreement to provide loans for a high-speed rail link between Moscow and the city of Kazan.
Putin was also keen to consolidate trade and investment with China. During his 2014 visit to Shanghai, he signed a massive $400 billion gas deal to supply China that followed a $270 billion oil contract with China the previous year. Russia has turned to China in response to sanctions imposed by the US and its European allies to punish Moscow over its annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, most of these framework accords have yet to result in firm contracts, amid ongoing haggling about details, particularly price.
Chinese lenders have agreed to a $12 billion loan to help fund the Arctic Yamal LNG project and limited Chinese investment has started to flow into Russian mining projects and agriculture. However, Boris Titov, chairman of the Russian-Chinese Committee of Peace, Friendship and Development, complained in an email to the Bloomberg website: “The Chinese take a long time to decide. All the big banks are afraid of how sanctions may affect them, since they’re part of the international payments system.”
The collapse of world energy prices has had a huge impact on the Russian economy. According to World Bank estimates, it will again shrink this year—by 1.6 percent—before recovering next year. Russian-Chinese bilateral trade has plunged by 28.6 percent from $95.3 billion in 2014 to $68.6 billion in 2015—in part as a result of falling prices, but also because of the marked slowdown in the Chinese economy.
Energy accounts for two thirds of Russian exports to China. In May, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest supplier of crude oil to China for the third month in a row.
Putin and Xi reportedly sealed a raft of agreements during the visit, including the sale of stakes in a number of Russian projects to Chinese firms, an oil supply contract and joint investments in petrochemical projects in Russia.
Rosneft, Russia’s leading oil producer, agreed to the China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina) taking a 40 percent stake in its planned petrochemical complex VNHK in Russia’s far east. The two companies also signed for Rosneft to supply ChemChina with up to 2.4 million tonnes of crude oil over the coming year.
Frictions between the two countries will undoubtedly continue over economic and strategic matters, but the two countries are being driven closer together by fears of the growing danger of war posed by the United States.
In a provocative move directed against China, the US Navy dispatched two huge nuclear-powered aircraft carriers—the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Ronald Reagan—to engage in three days of military exercises in the Philippine Sea—adjacent to, but not in, the South China Sea. The vessels and their accompanying strike groups of cruisers and destroyers carry 12,000 sailors and 140 military aircraft.
The war games, which finished yesterday, involved long-range strikes as well as sea surveillance, air defence drills and defensive air combat training. Rear Admiral John Alexander, commander of the USS Reagan carrier strike group, boasted: “No other navy can concentrate this much combat power in one sea … It was truly impressive.” While the navy neither confirms nor denies the presence of nuclear weapons, both aircraft carriers are capable of carrying them.
This massive show of force took place as the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is due to rule in coming weeks on a US-backed challenge by the Philippines to Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The judgment, which is expected to favour the Philippines, will become the starting point for Washington to ramp up its aggressive campaign against so-called Chinese “expansionism” and “bullying” of its neighbours.
An unnamed American official told the New York Times the message of the exercises was unmistakable and the timing was deliberate. Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conference yesterday that the war games provided “a terrific opportunity for us just to do some high-end war-fighting and training.”
Richardson declared that the rare exercises, involving two carriers, aimed at signalling the US commitment to its regional allies. Then, in a thinly-veiled warning to China, he added: “For anyone who wants to destabilise the region, we hope that there is a deterrence message there as well.” The exercises followed last week’s “Malabar” war games in the same waters involving the US, Japanese and Indian navies—again to practice “complex, high-end war-fighting.”
While Washington routinely accuses Beijing of “expansionism,” the US has deliberately stoked up tensions over the South China Sea disputes during the past five years as a means of driving a wedge between China and its South East Asian neighbours—particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. The US focus on the South China Sea is part of its broader “pivot to Asia” and military build-up throughout the Asia Pacific to subordinate China and ensure continued American hegemony in the region.
The US has mounted an increasingly strident campaign over the past year against China’s land reclamation activities and “militarisation” in the South China Sea. The US Navy has dispatched destroyers on three occasions within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits surrounding Chinese-controlled islets—provocations that could result in a military clash, either accidently or by design.
The Obama administration has declared that the US has “a national interest” in ensuring “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, highlighting the extensive trade that passes through its waters. In reality, China has never threatened “freedom of navigation” and indeed relies on these sea lanes to import energy and raw materials from Africa and the Middle East.
Washington’s real concern is to ensure “freedom of navigation” for its warships in areas immediately adjacent to the Chinese coastline, including sensitive naval bases on Hainan Island. The Pentagon’s AirSea Battle strategy for war on China envisages a massive air and missile attack on the Chinese mainland, supplemented by a naval blockade to cripple the Chinese economy.
The Pentagon is already preparing to escalate its operations in the South China Sea following The Hague ruling, suggesting that China could declare an Air Defence Identification Zone over the area or begin land reclamation activities in the Scarborough Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines. Beijing has declared that it does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction and will not abide by its ruling.
Speaking yesterday on a panel discussing the next moves after The Hague ruling, Andrew Shearer, an analyst with the Center for Strategy and International Studies (CSIS), declared that “the current carrier deployment is a good step” but was not enough. He suggested that the US military must shift into “deterrence mode” for the next six months to block any moves by China. Fellow panelist Amy Searight declared there was “no easy solution” if China started reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal.
The CSIS has been the preeminent think tank of the US “pivot,” working closely with the Pentagon and the Obama administration on the military build-up and strategy in Asia. In March, two CSIS analysts published “a Scarborough Contingency Plan” that involved close collaboration with the Philippines and a public warning to China that the US would intervene if Philippine ships or aircraft came under attack. The plan’s final step involved sending Philippine warships to physically block Chinese dredging operations, with US navy assets “in position over the horizon to signal that they would be prepared to intervene.”
Under Washington’s Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines, completed earlier this year, the US military has access to five Philippine bases, including an airfield directly adjacent to the South China Sea. In April, the US and the Philippine militaries held their annual Balikatan exercises, which involved the USS Stennis carrier strike group and focussed on operations in the South China Sea. Last week, the US navy sent four sophisticated Growler electronic attack aircraft and 120 support personnel to the Clark Air Base in the Philippines to patrol airspace and sea lanes in the region.
Speaking at yesterday’s CNAS conference, Admiral Richardson, chief of naval operations, boasted that the US navy was expending “a lot of intellectual energy” in determining ways to counter and disrupt Chinese activities in the region—from China’s land reclamation to its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) weapons designed to keep US forces out of waters immediately adjacent to its mainland. “We’ve got a lot of studies going on right now, [and] by the July-August timeframe, we are going to have a lot of exciting ideas,” he said.
If Richardson’s comments are any indication, the Pentagon is preparing a series of reckless provocations that go well beyond the “freedom of navigation” operations that have already taken place. The result will be a further heightening of the risk that a small incident, whether deliberate or not, could escalate into conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers.
American, Japanese and Indian warships are currently engaged in week-long “Malabar” war games in the western Pacific, described by the US Navy as “complex, high-end, war-fighting exercises” designed to increase the ability of the three navies to operate together. The target is clearly China, which has its own naval vessels shadowing the operations.
The Pentagon has committed the USS John C. Stennis and the vessel’s entire carrier strike group, comprising four other surface ships and a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine, to the exercise. India has sent two stealth frigates, a guided-missile corvette and a fleet-support ship, while Japan has sent its huge helicopter carrier—in effect, an aircraft carrier under another name.
Washington has mounted an increasingly strident propaganda campaign since early 2015, condemning China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea as “expansionist” and “militaristic.” In reality, the US has recklessly exploited longstanding territorial disputes to try to drive a wedge between China and its South East Asian neighbours, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. The US Navy has on three occasions dispatched destroyers within the 12-nautical mile territorial limit around Chinese-controlled islets in the South China Sea.
Sharp divisions over the issue within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were on display this week during an ASEAN meeting in China. The gathering adopted a joint statement voicing “serious concern” over rising tensions in the South China Sea. While not naming China or going beyond previous statements, it was something of a diplomatic embarrassment to Beijing on its home soil. Hours later, ASEAN retracted the statement. Undoubtedly, countries more closely aligned with China had second thoughts.
The Malabar exercises are taking place in the Philippine Sea—that is, in waters to the east of the Philippines, rather than in the South China Sea itself. Nevertheless, the presence of a large fleet of warships within striking distance of the Chinese mainland is provocative.
A Chinese navy surveillance vessel has been tracking the USS Stennis during the exercise, according to the US navy. Japanese officials claimed that a separate Chinese intelligence gathering ship yesterday sailed into Japanese territorial waters near Kuchinoerabu Island and issued a complaint to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo. Last Thursday, a Chinese frigate sailed within the 24-nautical mile zone around disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Malabar began as a bilateral naval war game involving the US and India in 1992 but has expanded since 2014 to include Japan as a permanent partner. Last July, US Assistant Defence Secretary Robert Scher suggested that other countries, particularly Australia, become involved on a regular basis. The current exercise is one of the largest ever and involves anti-submarine warfare, air-defence drills and search-and-rescue operations.
The expansion of military exercises like Malabar is part and parcel of the US “pivot to Asia” and military build-up throughout the Indo-Pacific region in preparation for war with China. Over the past five years, Washington has sought to consolidate a network of military alliances and strategic partnerships, as well as basing arrangements, such as those in Australia and the Philippines, to effectively encircle China.
Naval power is central to the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle strategy for war with China. These plans involve a massive air and missile assault on the Chinese mainland from bases, ships and submarines in the western Pacific, supplemented by a naval blockade aimed at strangling the Chinese economy. Washington regards India, as well as Japan and Australia, as central to these war preparations.
The broader strategic implications of the Malabar exercises were outlined in a Wall Street Journal article entitled “US, India, Japan begin to shape new order on Asia’s high seas.” It noted that “the US has been working to deepen strategic ties with India and to encourage New Delhi to play a more active role, not just in the Indian Ocean, but also in the Pacific, as China’s rise shifts the regional balance of power.”
The three countries have already begun a trilateral ministerial dialogue, with their foreign ministers meeting last year. Unlike Japan, India is not a formal US military ally. However, in Washington last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signalled India’s close integration into US war preparations. A joint statement by Modi and Obama foreshadowed increased military cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region in all “domains ... land, maritime, air, space and cyber.”
While consolidating alliances and partnerships throughout Asia, the US is also engaged in a massive build-up and restructuring of its military presence in the region. An article published yesterday by Stratfor, a think tank closely aligned to the US military and intelligence establishment, highlighted plans by the US navy to increasingly integrate its 3rd Fleet with its 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan.
Until now, the 3rd Fleet has primarily been focussed on the eastern and northern Pacific but is increasingly being deployed to the western Pacific—that is, areas adjacent to the Chinese mainland. The USS Stennis and its strike group, while nominally under the command of the 3rd Fleet, is completing six months of operations deep inside the western Pacific. In April, a Surface Action Group, comprising three destroyers, from the 3rd Fleet began a seven-month deployment in the same broad region.
After making clear that the naval restructuring was aimed against Beijing, Stratfor concluded: “As the US and other navies across Asia increase their patrols during a period rife with maritime disputes, Washington seems convinced that for its patrols to have the desired effect, they must be backed by the combined might of the US fleets in the Pacific.”
What is involved is nothing less than the preparations for war. The two fleets account for more than two thirds of the US combat vessels and include approximately 200 ships and 1,200 aircraft. Moreover, tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea are set to escalate in the coming weeks, as the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is due to hand down its ruling on a US-backed Philippine legal challenge to Chinese claims.
The US naval incursion yesterday within the 12-nautical-mile limit of territory claimed by China in the South China Sea was a deliberate and reckless provocation that threatens to trigger a far broader conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers.
No credence should be given to Washington’s claims that it is simply exercising its rights under international law to “freedom of navigation.” Unlike China, and many other nations, the United States has not even ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it insists it is upholding. Once again, US imperialism has concocted a pretext to pursue its militarist agenda—in this case, maintaining its hegemony in Asia and subordinating China to US economic and strategic interests.
Speaking at a congressional hearing yesterday, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter made clear that the US acts as a law unto itself and that the so-called Freedom of Action operations will continue. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” he declared. “There have been naval operations in that region in recent days and there will be more in the weeks and months to come.”
Ian Storey, a strategic analyst at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, underlined the seriousness of the Pentagon’s use of the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen to enter the contested waters. “They’ve gone in heavy. There is not much else heavier than that except an aircraft carrier,” he told the Guardian.
In fact, the US navy had two aircraft carriers not too far away. The USS Theodore Roosevelt had just left the Middle East to resupply in Singapore, adjacent to the South China Sea, and the USS Ronald Reagan is based in Japan.
The decision to risk war by challenging China was made by a war cabal in the US military and foreign policy establishment that operates without any democratic accountability, behind the backs of the American people, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the war policies of the government. For months, top officials of the US Pacific Command have been waging a public campaign denouncing Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea. Insofar as Obama was involved at all, it was to give the final stamp of approval for the operation.
Speaking to the Financial Times, retired US admiral James Stavridis pointed to the broader objectives, declaring that the US was determined “not to cede international waters off China to an emerging regional power.” Washington is not only unwilling to cede an inch to Beijing, it has engaged in an aggressive diplomatic, economic and military strategy, known as the “pivot to Asia,” aimed at reducing China to a semi-colonial status.
The US has deliberately inflamed dangerous flashpoints such as the South China Sea to provide an excuse for its military build-up throughout the region and to drive a wedge between China and other territorial claimants in East Asia. Having ignored longstanding maritime disputes in the area for decades, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provocatively declared in mid-2010 that the United States had a “national interest” in securing “freedom of navigation” through the disputed waters.
Over the past five years, Washington has transformed what were minor territorial disputes into a casus belli for war against China, encouraging and assisting the Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, to challenge Chinese claims. This diplomatic offensive has gone hand-in-hand with new basing arrangements with Australia and the Philippines, the strengthening of defence ties throughout the region, and military redeployments to ensure that 60 percent of US naval and air assets are located in the Indo-Pacific by 2020.
Yesterday’s dispatch of the USS Lassen into Chinese-claimed waters is the first phase of Pentagon war plans to counter what it claims is China’s tactic of Anti-Access/Area Denial. Such operations are part of a broader AirSea Battle strategy that envisages a devastating air and missile assault on the Chinese mainland if China retaliates.
Behind the US war drive is the deepening crisis of world capitalism. The American ruling class is responding to its own weakened global position by resorting ever more recklessly to military might in order to undermine its rivals, while at the same time deepening its assault on the democratic rights and living standards of the working class at home.
Even as he warned of further actions in the South China Sea against China, US Defence Secretary Carter declared yesterday that the US would step up its war in the Middle East by allowing American troops to engage in fighting on the ground. Moreover, Washington’s provocations in Asia take place at the same time as NATO forces prepare for confrontations with Russia in Eastern Europe. The whole world has been placed on a hair trigger that could be tripped by an incident, intended or unintended, in virtually any part of the globe.
While its response is largely defensive in character, the actions of the Chinese regime are utterly reactionary. Organically incapable of making any appeal to the working class in China or internationally, the bureaucratic apparatus in Beijing, which represents the interests of a tiny ultra-wealthy layer of oligarchs, resorts to militarism and the whipping up of Chinese nationalism, thus heightening the danger of war. An editorial in the hawkish state-owned Global Times yesterday called on the Chinese leadership to “prepare for the worst” and show the White House that it “is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region.”
More and more, the world situation resembles the lead-up to World War I and World War II. In an interview in September 1938, on the eve of the Munich conference, Leon Trotsky explained the objective logic of events that was leading to conflict. “It is possible that this time, too, diplomacy will succeed in reaching a rotten compromise. But it will not last long. War is inevitable and moreover in the very near future. One international crisis follows another. These convulsions are similar to the birth pangs of the approaching war. Each new paroxysm will bear a more severe and dangerous character,” he said.
In its statement “Socialism and the Fight against Imperialist War” published in July 2014, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) explained that the same fundamental contradictions of capitalism—between global economy and the outmoded nation state system on the one hand, and socialised production and the private ownership of the means of production, on the other—were driving the world to war. “Another imperialist bloodbath is not only possible; it is inevitable unless the international working class intervenes on the basis of a revolutionary Marxist program,” it warned.
The ICFI statement outlined the political basis for the building of an anti-war movement of the international working class. “All the great issues confronting the working class—the growth of social inequality, the resort to authoritarian forms of rule—are inseparable components of this struggle. There can be no fight for socialism without a struggle against war and there can be no fight against war without a struggle for socialism. Imperialist war must be opposed by the working class, leading behind it the youth and oppressed masses, on the basis of a socialist program: the fight to take political power, expropriate the banks and major corporations and begin the task of constructing a world federation of workers’ states.”
One year on, that task takes on new urgency. At its very centre lies the necessity of building the ICFI as the revolutionary leadership required to lead this struggle. WSWS