Will the U.S. start a war in the South China Sea?

August 31, 2018

Trump is escalating conflicts in many parts of the world, but the left can’t lose sight of the one — with China — that could overshadow them all, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

ON AUGUST 18, between a tirade against CNN and MSNBC and a defense of trade tariffs, Donald Trump tweeted:

All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China. But in the end, if we are smart, tough and well prepared, we will get along with everyone!

Actually, you don’t have to be a fool to wonder how to make sense of Trump’s contradictory and confusing posture toward Russia. Trump did, after all, hold an off-the-record conversation with the head of state of a historic U.S. adversary and went against his own intelligence services’ findings about Russian interference in U.S. elections.

But months before the meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Trump approved a weapons sale package to Ukraine designed to arm it against a more aggressive Moscow. And at the same time, Trump has derided NATO, the historic vehicle by which the U.S. and its European allies have countered Russia militarily.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Pacific
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Pacific (Z.A. Landers | flickr)

There are a number of foreign policy areas that have gotten more attention than what is happening between the U.S. and China.

These include the Trump administration’s reversal of the U.S. posture toward Iran under Barack Obama. The latest step is the creation of an Iran Action Group in the State Department, led by hawk Brian Hook — who was the National Security Advisor to arch-hawk John Bolton when Bolton was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush.

Then there’s North Korea: Last year, Trump was talking about the “annihilation” of the country — this year, he met with Kim Jong-un and pursued negotiations.

But amid the twists and turns, there remains a constant in the background: Rising tensions and an arms race between the U.S. and its allies in Asia and the Pacific on one side, and China on the other. The left should pay attention, because contrary to Trump’s tweet, the aim of U.S. empire is not to “get along with everyone.”


INDEED, WHATEVER moves away from armed conflict the U.S. is making on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere should be understood as strategic, and with an eye toward the long arc of U.S. empire. Those strategies aren’t only concerned with challenges facing U.S. power in the present, but also in the future.

Increasingly, Washington has been preoccupied with preventing China from challenging U.S. primacy on the world stage — and it has been preparing to fight China should such a challenge become more threatening in the future.

Trump’s tariff-imposing rampage — he has ordered additional taxes on goods imported from China, along with various other competitors and historic allies, whose friendships with the U.S. are increasingly in question under Trump — is one part of the preparations.

Setting aside Trump’s rants about the U.S. being “taken advantage of” by China’s “very unfair” trade practices, there is reason for people at the helm of the U.S. empire to be concerned about China as an economic force — and a growing contender for regional political power with global ambitions.

At the moment, China is moving forward with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a comprehensive plan to create land and sea trade infrastructure across Asia, Europe and Africa.

The China-oriented international network involves billions of dollars in investment for ports, railways and roads, and is meant to cement a set of economic relationships between China and other states — and a new position for the country on the world stage.

Most significantly, BRI creates pathways for trade and investment that would be an alternative to those dominated by the U.S. — as well as cut the U.S. out of the Chinese-created infrastructure.

BRI goes hand in hand with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is based in Beijing and finances major construction projects in Asia and the Pacific. The AIIB, of which dozens of Asian countries are members, poses a financial alternative to the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and therefore also represents a political challenge to the Washington-centered economic order.


AT THE same time, China is taking more of an assertive stance as a political and military power in the Pacific region.

The South China Sea is the site of several territorial disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia over several sets of islands. In recent years, China has built up small reefs in the area into artificial islands that can host military facilities.

Building the islands to extend China’s claim to territorial control in the region is leading to regular confrontations as the various nation-states with competing claims negotiate the contested waters with military vessels and aircraft.

Despite the fact that it has no claims to the disputed islands, the U.S.’s military patrols and reconnaissance near the islands are challenging China and agitating relations between the two powers.

The arms race in the region is striking. While international arms sales were down or steady in most regions of the world in 2017, they increased in Asia and Oceania by 3.6 percent since 2016, and by an alarming 59 percent since 2008. The region was second only to the Middle East when it came to weapons purchases last year.

Most of the recent growth in military spending in the region comes from China, which ranks number two in the world — second, of course, to the U.S.

But the U.S., which sells more weapons than any other country, is taking measures to arm its allies and build new military alliances in the region. This includes the Obama administration’s decision in 2016 to lift a ban against selling weapons to Vietnam — which is reported to have signed a deal for $94.7 million in arms purchases from the U.S.

States in the region have their own reasons to see growing Chinese power as a threat, and the U.S. is happy to arm and encourage them in the hopes of countering Beijing’s influence. Japan and India, for example, would prefer that they call the shots in Asia, and their ability to do so is clearly threatened by China’s rise.

Thus, the two governments have embarked on new efforts in economic, political and military cooperation in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and military assertiveness. In addition to holding joint trainings, the Japanese air force will be present as “observers” in an upcoming joint training between the U.S. and Indian air forces.


BUT THE United States isn’t just rallying and arming China’s neighbors against it. It is joining the arms race on its own behalf. At the beginning of August, Congress passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — the military budget — and Trump signed it shortly after.

Arming U.S. empire to the tune of an incredible $717 billion, the NDAA embodied the U.S. outlook toward an ascendant China (and Russia) through what it funded.

The NDAA fully funds the Air Force’s new long-range stealth B-21 bomber and pays for 77 orders of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. It appropriates funds for 13 new warships, including a new aircraft carrier and a ballistic missile submarine.

In addition to being expensive — the F-35 is the most expensive weapons system in history — these war machines are notable for the kind of warfare they prepare the U.S. for.

A submarine isn’t particularly useful in waging asymmetrical battle against forces like ISIS or al-Qaeda, which have been the U.S.’s enemies during the “war on terror.” But building up the Navy and Air Force with these high-tech warplanes and ships definitely prepares the U.S. for a conflict with other naval and air powers — chiefly China.

In this way, the military budget is the latest example of a reorientation of U.S. empire — mostly agreed upon by the White House, Pentagon and Congress — away from “counterterrorism” and toward rival states.

The involvement of Congress — and the Democratic Party — is crucial for understanding the power play that the U.S. ruling elite is pursuing.

The Trump administration spelled out its concern with the rise of China with typically belligerent language in its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents. The latter document reads, “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions.”

Whatever its other conflicts with the White House, Congress is in complete agreement with this orientation, and it’s willing to put its money where its mouth is. In fact, the military budget that Congress passed for next year goes even further than Trump requested — it approves the purchase of three more naval ships than the Pentagon asked for, for example.

Likewise, the U.S. moves today under Trump were preceded by the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” which was meant to refocus the U.S. state’s attention on the Asia-Pacific region by locating more ships, planes and personnel there, as well as shoring up old alliances in Asia and building new ones.

Would-be President Hillary Clinton personally announced that policy and pushed for it using what she called “forward deployed diplomacy.” As Secretary of State, she made many trips to the Pacific to build on the U.S.’s political and military alliances in the region.

People on the Korean Peninsula and beyond have been inspired by the prospect of a long-overdue end to the Korean War. The Trump administration’s willingness to negotiate and even float the reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea have come as pleasant surprises. Trump himself has framed his friendliness toward Vladimir Putin as part of an effort to ease and demilitarize tensions between the two men’s respective states.

But we should greet any moves by Trump — particularly any announced with a claim of making “peace” — with eyes wide open.

It is important to remember the history of U.S. violence in Asia and its investment over many decades in building an architecture of nuclear destruction — directed at Russia, but threatening all planetary life — after the Second World War. That infrastructure remains operational today.


AS WE recognize that past and present of U.S. violence, it is important to pay attention to the frightening future of armed conflict with China that the U.S. is currently laying the basis for.

At the same time, China hardly poses a political alternative to a world ruled by power and violence.

As it extends its reach deeper into Asia — particularly Muslim-majority countries in Central and South Asia through the BRI — it is waging a brutal crackdown on the Muslim population within its own borders. In the name of “fighting extremism,” China is threatening to demolish mosques and detain untold numbers of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in its Xinjiang Province.

Resistance to those attacks is emerging, as will resistance to the exploitative labor practices, displacement and environmental destruction that are wrapped up in the BRI. There are also movements against U.S. militarization in the region that come in waves — particularly in South Korea and Okinawa.

The challenge for the international left will be building support for these efforts as we campaign against nationalism and argue for solidarity across borders. The rising tensions in the Pacific underscore the urgency to fight for a world free of exploitation and war.

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