Sharpening frictions between the rulers in the U.S. and China were revealed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, held in Papua New Guinea Nov. 17-18. It became a platform for the U.S. capitalist class and its close allies, from Australia to Japan, to advance moves to push back against Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
Vice President Mike Pence and Chinese President Xi Jinping gave speeches reflecting the hardening rivalry between Washington, the world’s still dominant but weakening imperialist nation, and Beijing, the main emerging capitalist economic and military force in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. As the old capitalist world order is being ripped apart, the rulers of smaller nations in the region are being forced to choose sides or try to wriggle between the two.
An op-ed in the Nov. 18 Australian said, “The U.S. has made a naval commitment to Australia’s immediate region not seen since World War II: a warning to China that its days of easy gains against a distracted Western alliance should be over.”
For the first time in APEC’s 25-year history, the assembled capitalist leaders failed to reach agreement on a final communiqué, however bland. Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, the summit chair, said the deep rift between “the two big giants in the room” on trade and investment was responsible. Washington reportedly demanded condemnation of Beijing’s “coercive and predatory” trade practices.
Pence cited President Donald Trump saying that China has “taken advantage of the United States for many, many years.” And that “those days are over.”
“Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific,” Pence cynically asserted. This ignores the bloody history of U.S. imperialism — and its close allies like Australia — from World War II through the Korean and Vietnam wars to the conflicts in Central Asia and the Middle East today.
He repeated the White House’s long list of charges against Beijing, from industrial espionage to theft of “intellectual property” to its military buildup, throwing in “concerns about human rights” for good measure.
Rivalry over riches of the Pacific
Attacking Beijing’s territorial claims and expanding military outposts on islets in the South China Seas, Pence said Washington would continue to “uphold the freedom of the seas and the skies.”
While in Port Moresby for the APEC summit, Pence announced Washington would be joining Canberra in the redevelopment of a Papua New Guinea naval base on Manus Island. The planned expansion would open the base to even the largest U.S. aircraft carriers. This slammed the door on a bid by Beijing to develop the deep-water port. Situated off PNG’s northeast coast, it offers a commanding sweep of the approaches to the South Pacific.
At the same time, Beijing is deep in negotiations with the Samoan government over bankrolling the redevelopment of the port at Asau.
The U.S. rulers view control over the western Pacific’s markets and resources as the biggest gain they made in the second imperialist world war.
On his way to the APEC meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a strengthening of military and economic ties between the long-time U.S. allies, Japan and Australia. He was the first Japanese leader to visit Darwin since the bombing of that northern Australian city by Japanese aircraft in 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Washington hits Beijing’s expansion
As he spoke to APEC delegates Nov. 17, Pence attacked the Chinese rulers’ signature Belt and Road Initiative. The plan spans 70 countries across Asia to Europe and Africa. Its goal is a series of huge infrastructure projects led by Beijing to open up capitalist development while shortening transport costs and times for goods made in China.
The Belt and Road Initiative involves loans to developing countries, whose repayment is secured by significant territory and infrastructure acquisitions for Beijing in case of defaults. Pence said the unsustainable loans saddled smaller nations with a “sea of debt.”
While true, coming from a spokesman for the number one imperialist power, this was another staggering piece of hypocrisy. The U.S. capitalist rulers have plundered every corner of the globe for decades.
Xi responded to the U.S. vice president by appealing to globalist aspirations against “unilateralism.” He said APEC should “firmly uphold the rule-based multilateral trading system and say no to protectionism.” The capitalist rulers in China continue to take advantage of World Trade Organization status as an “underdeveloped country,” to warrant Beijing’s state protectionism, even though the last three decades of capitalist development have turned eastern China into an industrial powerhouse.
Xi denied Beijing’s rail, road and port infrastructure loans were a trap. He said the growing export of Chinese capital was just to share “opportunities with the world to seek common development.”
The capitalist rulers of the U.S., Japan and Australia announced a trilateral partnership in July to invest in infrastructure projects to counter Beijing in the Asian-Pacific region. This includes a massive power and internet cabling project in Papua New Guinea, the underdeveloped former Australian colony.
Trump and Xi are due to meet at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires at the end of November. Much more is at stake than a trade war.
The U.S. rulers and their allies are fighting a rear-guard action against a Chinese state capitalist powerhouse whose moves to claw its way to top dog in the Asia-Pacific are making progress.
The real question for working people — in the Pacific region and beyond — is which class will rule in the new world being forged. Will the superrich who live by exploiting our labor stay on top? Or will the working class fight to take political power out of their hands and transform ourselves and society in the interests of the toiling majority.