By Yanis Iqbal
On 6 October, 2020, foreign ministers of USA, China, Australia and Japan gathered in Tokyo to participate in the second Quad security dialogue, a strategic forum aimed at containing China. The Quad initiative first began in May 2007 with a meeting between the US, Japan, India and Australia in the Philippine capital Manila. In its preliminary years, the Quad did not explicitly espouse the objective of countering China’s rapid development and only aimed at maintaining regional security. Since the intensification of USA’s new cold war against China, the Quad grouping has coagulated as an organizational tool for American imperialism in the Indo-Pacific and now, it visibly aims at containing China.
The anti-China tint in the current Quad dialogue was discernible from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s vilification of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which has spearheaded China’s exponential economic growth. In an interview he gave just before the security dialogue, Pompeo aggressively said: “If one bends the knee each time the Chinese Communist Party takes action around the world, one will find themselves having to bend the knee with great frequency. So we have pushed back in a serious way with my diplomatic counterparts. Our military has been very active in the region, ensuring that we have a presence so that we can ensure that there is, in fact, a capacity for a free and open Indo-Pacific.” On the role of the Quad countries, more specifically, he stated: “once we’ve institutionalized what we’re doing, the four of us together, we can begin to build out a true security framework, a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us.”
From Pompeo’s alarmist declarations and future plans for the Quad grouping, it is quite evident that the US wants to utilize the four countries as a counter-offensive campaign against China and convert it into an “Asian NATO” for consolidating Indo-Pacific American hegemony. The rough contours of this imperialist strategy are outlined in Pompeo’s opening remarks at the Quad meeting where he stated: “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion. We’ve seen it in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits.”
US Imperialism in the South China Sea
USA’s attempts at over-powering China in the Indo-Pacific with the help of the Quad countries are firmly situated in the structural framework of a new cold war. Through this new cold war, the US is trying to imperialistically debilitate China’s socialist market economy and halt the country’s development of techno-productive forces. While the US cloaks its Indo-Pacific anti-China strategy in the rhetorical ragbag of insipid liberalism, it is important to remember that the American empire’s policies are always guided by imperialist objectives. We are seeing the orchestration of such imperialist campaigns in the South China Sea (SCC), particularly, where maritime disputes between China and various Southeast Asian countries have been exploited by the US to buttress its hegemony.
In 1947, Kuomintang-ruled China had demarcated its territorial claims in the South China Sea with an eleven-dash line on a map. The claim – which was recognized by the US at that time – covered the majority of the area which China regained from Japan after World War II, encompassing about 90% of the South China Sea, including areas claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. In 1953, the CCP-led government removed the portion encompassing the Gulf of Tonkin, simplifying the border to nine dashes. To this day, China invokes the nine-dash line as the historical basis for its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The disputes between Southeast Asian countries and China in the SCC remained relatively inaudible until 2010 when Hillary Rodham Clinton – at that the US Secretary of State – innocuously declared, “The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” While Clinton’ statement may seem harmless, it was a thinly-veiled proclamation of the “pivot to Asia” strategy which signaled that the American empire was now turning its gaze to Asia and wanted China to acquiesce to USA’s overriding imperialist aims. To take an example, Clinton’s special emphasis on “freedom of navigation” reeks of imperialism because for more than 100 years, the developed nations invoked the “freedom of navigation” to dominate Chinese trade. American and British gunboats controlled China’s Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl rivers and coastal waters where they patrolled up to 1,300 miles inland. It was in 1949 with the Chinese Revolution that the People’s Liberation Army got rid of all foreign forces and their battleships from its rivers.
America’s economic ambitions in Asia were further crystallized in a speech given by former President Barack Obama on 17 November, 2011, to the Australian parliament wherein he announced: “as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [Asia Pacific] and its future…we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region. We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace…Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
Ever since the initiation of the “pivot to Asia” strategy, the US empire has constantly tried to gain a foothold in the region and its involvement in the SCS dispute is another imperialist effort to do so by containing China. After the Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy, we have President Donald Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” initiative which has the same objective of curtailing China’s development and asserting US dominance. An integral component of this new strategy has been a renewed focus on the SCS with the aim of thwarting China – Southeast Asia dialogue and instead, opting for strong-arm tactics. On 13 July, 2020, Pompeo issued a statement where he identified the SCS as an important element of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy: “The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today we are strengthening U.S. policy in a vital, contentious part of that region — the South China Sea…In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes.”
Behind Pompeo’s empty phrases, one can observe the cold belligerence with which the US wants to maintain its hegemony. The concept of “freedom of the seas”, for instance, is not a harmless term and has its roots in patently imperial and expansionist aims. It was instituted in 1919 with Woodrow Wilson’s issuance of Fourteen Points at the end of World War I which established the US as the Restorer of the global capitalist order. Since the Fourteen Points were aimed at aiding American economic expansion, they had to incorporate new rules favorable towards the consolidation of a new empire. One such rule was “freedom of the seas”, expressed in point number II of Wilson’s 1919 statement of principles which read: “Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war”. The concept of freedom of the seas primarily benefited the US since it had the largest trade industry and exploited open trade policy to penetrate other countries’ economies. Therefore, beginning with post-World War I restoration in 1919, America already took advantage of freedom of the seas by employing policies that were intended to benefit its incipient empire. Currently, USA is again trying to use freedom of the seas to re-lay the firm foundations for a unipolar world order. Criticizing the US’s repeated usage of the freedom of the seas as an imperialist tool, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying has stated: “The Chinese side advocates the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, yet this freedom definitely does not mean that foreign military vessels and aircrafts can enter one country’s territorial waters and airspace at will. China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, avoid taking any risky and provocative actions and safeguard regional peace and stability.”
Contrary to Pompeo’s rhetoric about “peace and stability” in the SCS, it is increasingly becoming clear that what American wants is sheer dominance in the region. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) report entitled “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas: Background and Issues for Congress” explicitly outlines the imperialist goals behind USA’s renewed militarism in the SCS. As per the report, US goals in the SCS include: “maintaining and enhancing the U.S.-led security architecture in the Western Pacific”, “maintaining a regional balance of power favorable to the United States and its allies and partners” and lastly, “preventing China from becoming a regional hegemon in East Asia”. The report also expresses worries regarding the construction of Chinese bases in SCS and states: “Chinese domination over or control of its near-seas region could complicate the ability of the United States to…operate U.S. forces in the Western Pacific for various purposes, including maintaining regional stability, conducting engagement and partnership-building operations, responding to crises, and executing war plans; and prevent the emergence of China as a regional hegemon in its part of Eurasia.”
Since USA’s involvement in the SCS dispute is primarily motivated by imperialist factors, the country has not hesitated to use overtly coercive measures to discipline China into submission. In July 2020, David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told the following to a Washington think-tank when asked if sanctions were a possible US response to Chinese actions in the SCS: “Nothing is off the table … there is room for that. This is a language the Chinese understand—demonstrative and tangible action”. In just a month after Stilwell’s intimidatory statement, the US began imposing sanctions and restrictions on certain Chinese State-Owned Enterprises and executives for what it termed as “malign” activities in the SCC.
The use of “demonstrative and tangible action” against China is a part and parcel of USA’s imperialist strategy which was defined as the following in a White House document titled “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China [PRC]”: “When quiet diplomacy proves futile, the United States will increase public pressure on the PRC government and take action to protect United States interests by leveraging proportional costs when necessary.” In addition to sanctions, USA has also used militarism in the SCS as a method to leverage proportional costs from China.
The US Navy carried out Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) near China’s islands and reefs in the SCS five times in 2018. In 2019, the figure grew to eight, an increase of 60%, and the operations were conducted twice in May and November respectively. In addition, the US Navy’s FONOPs showed a clear sign of retaliatory belligerence. For example, when China denied the request for a US naval warship to visit Qingdao Port, the guided missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer carried out a FONOP near Spratly Islands right on the following day. The number of American troops’ close-range reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea has also doubled since 2009 to reach nearly 2,000 sorties and large-scale military exercises have increased by 30% to nearly 100 times a year. These figures are gigantic when compared to China’s defensive military deployment which is being overhyped by the media. To take an example, the total tonnage of Chinese naval vessels has just reached 1/3 that of the US Navy.
Mass Hysteria against China
On 31 August, 2020, Dr. Stephen Burgess, a professor of international security studies at the US Air War College, published an article where he wrote: “If Washington does not act more assertively, its allies and partners will increasingly question US credibility and become more susceptible to China’s influence campaign.” Therefore, in order to increase US credibility, Burgess proposes a strategy of direct military action which “would involve the US Navy, backed by the US Air Force, selectively countering China’s aggressive maritime maneuvers by shadowing Chinese vessels and working with the navy and coast guard of its ally—the Philippines—to block attacks on Philippine fishing fleet, forces, and oil-and-gas research vessels and platforms, particularly around Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys and Reed Bank… If this way fails to pause China’s behavior and bring Beijing to the negotiating table, the next step would be for the US Navy to back the Philippines Navy and Coast Guard as they push back Chinese forces around Pag-asa and secure the area, ending Chinese pressure there… the ultimate step would be US support of Philippine forces as they take back rightful control of Scarborough Shoal, which could provoke China to escalate.”
Burgess’ article is an indicator of the extremely violent and frenzied atmosphere being created by the US administration against China. Through the use of alarmist and scare-mongering statements, USA has tried to whip up mass hysteria against China so that militarist tactics can be used against the country. Instead of allowing China and other concerned nations to resolve their disputes in the SCS through dialogue, the US has imperialistically surrounded the region with warships and framed the entire issue through a highly polarized, cold war prism. The world needs to immediately take cognizance of US militarism in the SCS and disallow the country from using other nations as geo-strategic chess pieces in the new cold war against China.