The Eagle & the Dragon: Rising Militarism in Asia Pacific

The lingering economic crisis of the global capitalist system is now intensifying geopolitical struggles and social conflicts all over the world. Imperialist states, led by the U.S., are becoming ever more aggressive in capturing and controlling more territories as sources of raw materials and low-cost labor, as captive markets and supply routes, and as launching pads for projecting military force overseas.

Resurgent powers such as Russia and China are joining the fray and threatening U.S. hegemony.

As the capitalist system plunges deeper into crisis, militarism – or the reliance of states on military means to achieve the purposes of domestic governance and international relations – is on the rampage in every continent today.  The Asia-Pacific is at the center of this turbulence.

The contrasting trajectories of the U.S. and China signify a historic shift in the global balance of power: from unipolar dominance to a multipolar world order.

But the contradiction between a dominant imperialist power (US) desperately seeking to preserve its primacy and an emerging imperialist power (China) trying to sustain its rapid expansion and exert greater influence in shaping a new world order according to its interests is now the greatest destabilizing factor in the world.

The intensifying inter-imperialist competition between the U.S. and China, conflated with historic rivalries and conflicts among regional powers, is now fuelling the most drastic escalation of militarism in the Asia-Pacific since the Vietnam War.

From a unipolar to a multipolar world

The expansion of China’s sphere of influence is seen by many as a direct threat to the international economic and political order dominated by U.S. imperialism.

In one of its periodic futuristic reports, “Global Trends 2025”, the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts that, “Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States’ relative strength—even in the military realm—will decline and U.S. leverage will become more constrained.”

Historian Alfred McCoy (2010) writes, “Under current projections, the United States will find itself in second place behind China (already the world’s second largest economy) in economic output around 2026, and behind India by 2050.”

China is now the main mover behind the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega-regional trade deal that includes the 10 ASEAN member states along with six of its major trading partners China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India. If concluded, the RCEP will cover half of the world’s population, 38% of the world economy and nearly 30% of the world’s trade volume. More significantly, RCEP excludes the U.S. and is in fact China’s counterpoint to the US-led Transpacific Partnership that has been recently shelved by the Trump administration.

China’s military modernization program has become more focused in recent years on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.

In the course of China’s integration into the global capitalist system, the U.S. developed a symbiotic economic relationship with it. U.S. firms use China as a low-wage factory floor while the U.S. is China’s biggest export market. China uses its vast foreign exchange reserves to purchase U.S. treasuries, thereby financing U.S. deficit spending. Therefore the U.S. has adopted a dual policy of (economic) engagement and (military) containment towards China. This policy is now leaning towards increasing hostility.

For the most ardent defenders of U.S. global hegemony, the rise of China – along with Russia and other potential “peer rivals” – is cause for alarm and require a more aggressive response. One of Pentagon’s think-tanks, the Heritage Foundation, puts this in historical context: “Since the founding of the American republic, Asia has been a key area of interest for the United States for both economic and security reasons. In the subsequent more than 200 years, the United States has worked under the strategic assumption that it was inimical to American interests to allow any single nation to dominate Asia.”

As it magnifies the alarm over China’s expansionism, the U.S. is lining up and mobilizing its allies in the region to support its bid to contain China. Among these allies are Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.

Dress rehearsals for war

The U.S. Pacific Command initiated 175 bilateral and multilateral military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region in 2015, up from 160 in 2014. These joint exercises are not only increasing in frequency, but also diversifying in terms of the types of operations. They now include ground warfare, aerial warfare, maritime warfare, anti-missile warfare, special operations, as well as electronic and cyber warfare.

These military exercises, many of them conducted on an annual basis, serve to ”normalize” a perpetual state of war and war preparedness among countries in the region, even those not involved in these drills. These exercises along with provocative U.S. air and sea-based surveillance and patrol activities near Chinese borders and the Korean peninsula raise the risk of armed skirmishes that may even escalate to nuclear war.

For example, the US and South Korea launched their largest-ever military exercise on the Korean peninsula last March 2017, soon after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that “nothing is off the table” in dealing with North Korea. This military exercise, involving more than 320,000 military personnel backed by the most advanced US air and naval power, simulates scenarios for the use of US anti-missile assets and special warfare forces “decapitating” North Korea’s leadership and taking down the country’s nuclear weapons (Jun-suk 2017). It is not unreasonable for North Korea’s leadership to think that the country’s nuclear weapons is the only deterrent they have to an actual invasion or attack as the US did in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

A head-on collision between the US and North Korea has the potential to drag China into the conflict and plunge North East Asia with the rest of the world into a nuclear war. China has a treaty of mutual aid and cooperation with North Korea. To diffuse tensions, China called on North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a halt to the US-South Korean “Foal Eagle” military exercises but this was immediately dismissed by the Trump administration.

‘War on terror’

Aside from containing China and isolating North Korea, the imperialist powers led by the U.S. are also targeting non-state actors in the region who the U.S. military refers to as “violent extremist organizations” (VEOs) or simply “terrorists”. These include jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Daesh in West Asia; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah in Southeast Asia.

The U.S. war on terror does not only go after “terrorists”. Revolutionary movements fighting for national liberation, self-determination or socialism such as the Communist-led New People’s Army in the Philippines, the Naxalites in India, and the Organisasi Papua Merdeka in West Papua are also branded as “terrorist” organizations and targeted by state forces in counterinsurgency campaigns.

This is where the militarist agenda of imperialist powers and local ruling elites in the Third World align. According to the 2009 counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine of the U.S. security establishment, fighting insurgent groups require an “enemy-centric approach” as well as a “population-centric approach.” This means defeating insurgent groups militarily but also robbing them of popular support. In practice, state forces also target individuals or groups that they perceive as directly or indirectly supporting the insurgency through their activities and advocacies.

As a result, many unarmed activists, grassroots organizations, communities, churches, madrasas, schools and social movements that are openly critical and actively opposing government corruption, ineptitude or policies that favor foreign capital and local elites at the expense of the masses are also tagged as “extremists” or even “terrorists.” They are demonized in state propaganda and become victims of violent and extra-legal tactics of state forces such as surveillance, harassment, torture, assassinations, abductions, forced evictions and even massacres. State forces sometimes form and train paramilitary groups or even pseudo-revolutionary groups to do this dirty work. Counterinsurgency therefore becomes a way of attempting to stifle dissent and quash people’s resistance.

Solidarity and fightback

In the face of escalating wars and militarization in the Asia Pacific and the world, there is an urgent need to raise public awareness, strengthen solidarity and multiply actions against militarism, imperialist wars of aggression and intervention.

There is a need to establish and strengthen links among progressive anti-war groups, and between anti-war groups and resistance movements in countries under attack. There is a need to build a global anti-war and social justice movement that opposes militarism and wars of aggression; respects the right to self-determination of oppressed peoples; and supports various forms of resistance to imperialist aggression and intervention.

The upcoming conference, “Solidarity and Fightback: Building Resistance to US-led War, Militarism and Neofascism”, organized by the International League of Peoples’ Struggles and the International Women’s Alliance is an important initiative in this regard. This will be held in Toronto, Canada on August 5-7, 2017.

In particular, it is necessary and strategic to mount a global campaign to dismantle the global network of U.S. bases and rescind agreements that allow U.S. forces access to military facilities of other countries. The Asia Pacific region is host and victim to some of the biggest and most strategic of these bases including those in Japan, Korea, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, Diego Garcia as well as in Guam and Hawaii. Linked to this is the call for a moratorium on military exercises conducted by the U.S. together with its allies in the region.

As neoliberalism plunges deeper into crisis, militarism and wars are being promoted and intensified throughout the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. The US’ economic decline and China’s growing economic and military strength are forcing US imperialism to adopt a more belligerent attitude towards China. Economic and military arrangements long thought to be stable are being reconfigured. A multipolar world is being born. Contradictions among the imperialist powers are creating more cracks in the hegemonic order which patriotic forces in the third world can use as a breathing space to maneuver and push for independent foreign policy and self-determined development. This can help lay down conditions that will pave the way for prosperity and peace founded on justice.

Paul Quintos is the research coordinator of the International League of People’s Struggles. This article is an excerpt from “Militarism and Democracy in Asia Pacific” (2017) published by the Asia-Pacific Research Network.