Spartacist Canada No. 181
U.S., Japanese Provocations in East China Sea
For Unconditional Military Defense of Chinese Deformed Workers State!
The following article is adapted from Workers Vanguard No. 1041, 7 March, newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S., section of the International Communist League.
U.S. military provocations have come in rapid succession since last November, when China declared an air defense identification zone over waters in the East China Sea, requiring planes passing through that area to declare their identities and flight paths and to maintain radio contact. Within days of the zone’s declaration, Washington sent two B-52 bombers, well known as nuclear-capable aircraft, through the zone unannounced. Japan and South Korea quickly followed with provocative overflights. On December 5, an American guided missile cruiser almost collided with a Chinese warship as the U.S. conducted close surveillance of Chinese naval exercises. In a January hearing on policy in Asia, House Democrats and Republicans alike declared that the U.S. could not tolerate Chinese military “coercion.” Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry toured Asia warning that Chinese actions posed the risk of military conflict.
Hawkish Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has seized on the establishment of China’s air defense zone to accelerate his country’s rearmament, stepping up the frequency of air patrols, increasing its military budget and planning a new base in the East China Sea near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. A major obstacle to the Japanese rulers’ exercise of military force are the constraints on overseas combat codified in Article 9 of the constitution imposed by the U.S. following World War II. Now Abe is seeking to change this by reinterpreting the constitution to allow military deployment under the guise of protecting allies.
Jacking up the rhetoric, on January 22 Abe declared that heightened tensions between Tokyo and Beijing were similar to the conflict between Germany and Britain in the run-up to World War I. Two weeks after Abe’s tirade, Philippines president Benigno Aquino chimed in, calling on the major powers to support his country’s maritime claims against China and drawing an analogy to the 1938 decision by France and Britain to refrain from going to war against Hitler’s Germany over its occupation of the Sudetenland.
Countering the imperialist outcry, the Chinese government has pointed to the simple fact that the U.S. and Japan, along with some 20 other countries, had established such air defense zones long ago. We defend Beijing’s establishment of the air defense zone as part of our military defense of the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state. Our article “U.S./Japanese Imperialists: Hands Off China!” (WV No. 1036, 13 December 2013) underscored that “it is crucial for the international proletariat—particularly in Japan and the U.S.—to oppose imperialist provocations” over the East China Sea.
China’s air defense zone covers the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a cause for great saber rattling from both the U.S. and Japan. However, our article contradicted our stance of unconditional military defense of China against imperialism by restating a false assertion that had appeared at other times in our press: “In general, the question of the ownership of these uninhabited rocks and islets does not in itself pose defense of the Chinese deformed workers state.”
Chinese control of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is a key component of the military defense of China, even more so in the context of recent imperialist provocations. This cluster of uninhabited islands, about 100 miles northeast of Taiwan and 250 miles from the coast of the Chinese mainland, constitutes a link in a strategically important military perimeter called the first island chain, which runs from the Southeast Asian coast and the Philippines up through Japan. Numerous military sources make clear that in the event of a direct confrontation with China, the U.S. projects establishing a naval blockade based on the first island chain, aiming to close off shipping lanes and prevent Chinese naval forces from breaking out into the Pacific Ocean. U.S. forces based on the island chain would be used to launch strikes on China’s eastern seaboard, the main engine of the country’s economy. China aims to develop sufficient force to maintain its own barrier along these same islands so that it could prevent U.S. forces from approaching its coast.
Our military defense of China and other deformed workers states is not based on the particular policies the Stalinist rulers may be pursuing. The International Communist League’s “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998) explains:
“Our position flows from the proletarian class character of these states, embodied in the collectivized property relations—nationalized property, planned economy, monopoly of foreign trade and banking, etc.—established by social revolutions that destroyed capitalism. Despite the bureaucratic deformations of these states, our defense of them against the class enemy is unconditional, i.e., it does not depend on the prior overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracies, nor does it depend upon the circumstances and immediate causes of the conflict.”
The peasant-based 1949 Revolution overthrew the Chinese bourgeoisie, liberated the country from imperialist bondage and established a workers state, albeit one that was bureaucratically deformed from its inception by Stalinist misrule. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bureaucracy is guided by the dogma of “socialism in one country,” a perspective that means opposing revolutionary struggles in other countries and accommodating the imperialists. The workers of the U.S., Japan and other capitalist countries, who are exploited by their ruling classes, are potential allies of the Chinese proletariat. This understanding is obscured by the nationalism inherent in Stalinist ideology. The task of the Chinese proletariat is to sweep away the Stalinist bureaucratic parasites on the workers state and institute a regime based on working-class democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
U.S. Imperialism’s Pivot Toward Asia
Government spokesmen and the bourgeois media, especially in the U.S. and Japan, maintain a relentless propaganda barrage about the supposed threat posed by China’s rising power. The aim of this disinformation campaign is to line up working people in support of the capitalists’ goal of overturning the Chinese workers state and reimposing imperialist domination of that country. To that end, the imperialists pursue a two-pronged strategy: economic penetration to help develop internal counterrevolutionary forces combined with military pressure.
For both the U.S. and Japan bourgeoisies, China represents a major trading partner and a lucrative site for investment, with a relatively low-paid but educated and skilled workforce for exploitation in designated sectors of the economy. But China is not a capitalist country. Despite the inroads of “market reforms,” the core of China’s industrial economy continues to be based on state-owned enterprises. Almost all productive investment, outside of the foreign-owned sector, is channelled through predominantly state-owned banks.
China became a central focus of the imperialists’ military and economic designs following capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92, which destroyed what had been the U.S.’s main military target and the most substantial counterweight to its drive for world domination. The CCP regime helped prepare that historic defeat for the working people of the world through its support to the U.S.-led anti-Soviet crusade.
The U.S. and its allies have advanced the military encirclement of China particularly since the fall of 2010, when the Obama administration declared that a “pivot toward Asia” was a top priority. The military framework for the “pivot,” called Air-Sea Battle in tribute to the AirLand Battle doctrine adopted against the Soviet Union in the 1970s, was developed by a Pentagon office that had devoted two decades to planning for war against China. Although details are classified, Pentagon officials have admitted that Air-Sea Battle is intended to destroy the radar and missile systems built to keep U.S. forces away from China’s coastline.
While Washington’s ability to carry out this policy has been obstructed by its quagmires in Afghanistan and the Near East, U.S. imperialism has strengthened its military alliances with Japan and Australia and increased arms sales to Taiwan. The U.S. has reinforced its existing bases in Guam, Okinawa and Australia and is negotiating for a larger military footprint in the Philippines. More than 5,000 U.S. troops are currently engaged in air, naval and ground manoeuvres with 10,000 South Korean soldiers in a show of force directed against the North Korean and Chinese deformed workers states.
The First Island Chain
U.S. interest in the military importance of the first island chain goes back to 1949, four years after its defeat of Japan in World War II. In March 1949, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur declared:
“Now the Pacific has become an Anglo-Saxon lake and our line of defense runs through the chain of islands fringing the coast of Asia.
“It starts from the Philippines and continues through the Ryukyu Archipelago, which includes its main bastion, Okinawa. Then it bends back through Japan and the Aleutian Island chain to Alaska.”
MacArthur made his pronouncement when the CCP’s forces had taken power in Beijing and were consolidating their hold throughout China. With the addition of Taiwan, the chain of military outposts that MacArthur laid out became central to the American imperialists’ perspective in Asia. This was underlined after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, when the U.S. repeatedly moved an aircraft carrier to waters off Taiwan in a direct threat to China.
While the Japanese rulers have distinct and competing economic interests with the U.S., they are American imperialism’s most significant ally against China. Although Washington claims to have no position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, government officials have made clear that in the event of a conflict the U.S. is bound by treaty to militarily defend Japan’s claim.
As a rising imperialist power, Japan seized the islands, along with Taiwan, after routing China’s decaying Qing dynasty in 1894-95. The U.S. took over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands after World War II and turned two of them into bombing ranges. In 1972, the chain was returned to Japan, although the U.S. retained control of the bombing ranges. The islands were thus one of the only conquests by Japanese imperialism that the U.S. allowed Tokyo to keep. As soon as the islands were returned to Japan, Tokyo extended its air defense identification zone, which had been established under the U.S. occupation, to cover them.
Over the past decade, the Chinese navy has made regular forays through the first island chain, undertaking a series of increasingly complex exercises to gain entry into the Pacific. Japan reacted in 2010 by extending its air defense identification zone to an area that comes within nearly 90 miles of the Chinese coast. Last summer, as reported in Nikkei Shimbun (7 February), the U.S. and Japanese militaries established a plan to deal with “an emergency in the Senkaku Islands” involving U.S. B-52s and Marine detachments from Okinawa as well as amphibious transport vessels stationed in the Japanese port of Sasebo. In October, Japanese warships and aircraft disrupted a Chinese live-fire exercise involving breaking through the first island chain. In January, the U.S. Marine Corps ran a military exercise at Camp Pendleton in California to train Japanese troops to carry out amphibious assaults on islands.
Together with our comrades of the Spartacist Group Japan, the Spartacist League/U.S. stands for smashing the counterrevolutionary alliance between Japanese and U.S. imperialism through workers revolution on both sides of the Pacific. We also oppose military aid to Taiwan, which has been key to U.S. designs for counterrevolution in China since Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois-nationalist regime fled to the island in the face of the unfolding revolution on the mainland. Located on key shipping lanes a narrow strait away from the Chinese coast, capitalist Taiwan, described by MacArthur as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” has been propped up by decades of massive U.S. military aid. China’s air defense zone covers the most direct route the U.S. would use to deploy forces from its bases in South Korea and Japan in the event of a war over Taiwan. As Trotskyists, we call for the reunification of China through socialist revolution on Taiwan and proletarian political revolution on the mainland.
Support China’s Military Development
The U.S. Navy, with its eleven aircraft carrier groups, is designed to further the American capitalist rulers’ plunder around the world. Key to Beijing’s naval strategy is keeping U.S. warships far enough from China’s coast that naval aircraft lose much of their effectiveness. Taking a page from Soviet naval strategy, China has sought to counter the overwhelming predominance of the U.S. Navy by developing a submarine fleet, which also constituted the core of the Soviet Navy.
One focus of Chinese military leaders has been to deploy submarines that are difficult to detect but capable of sinking aircraft carriers and other warships. To this end, China has obtained top-notch engines from the German supplier MTU to build modern diesel-electric subs, which can be harder to detect than American nuclear subs. In 2006, a Chinese Song class submarine shocked the U.S. Navy when it surfaced about five miles from the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk, well within torpedo range, in waters off Okinawa. U.S. officials acknowledged that the submarine had been undetected while shadowing the carrier group. Reporter David Lague concludes that “the Pentagon’s favored method of modern warfare—parking carriers near the coast of an enemy and conducting massive air strikes—would be very risky in any clash with China” (Reuters, 19 December 2013).
Island chains have particular importance for submarine warfare, providing cover from enemy sensors and making submarines harder to find, let alone engage. The peculiar and complex geography of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands makes them ideal for this purpose. The shallow depth of the East China Sea—less than 200 meters in most places and much less around the islands—results in unusually strong tidal currents. Also, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are separated from the Ryukyu Islands to the east by the Okinawa Trough, which plunges to a depth of over 2,000 meters.
Taiwan sits at the edge of another deep-water zone that runs eastward into the Pacific. A Chinese military analysis noted: “Owing to the enormously strong and warm western Pacific current in these waters, submarines operating there can submerge to a certain depth of water and anti-submarine sonar above the water finds it very difficult to detect them directly” (quoted in Lyle Goldstein and William Murray, “Undersea Dragons: China’s Maturing Submarine Force,” International Security, Spring 2004).
Unlike the impoverished, poorly defended countries the U.S. is accustomed to riding roughshod over, China has some capacity to defend itself, crucially including a nuclear arsenal. The Beidou satellite navigation system gives the Chinese military independence from the American-controlled GPS system. A new class of ballistic missiles, the DF-21D, has been designed to strike a moving ship up to 1,700 miles away. These missiles are designed to cripple an aircraft carrier.
We welcome these and other advances that can help to stay the hand of U.S. imperialism—the only power to have ever used nuclear weapons—and its allies. As revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky noted: “Any weapon in the hands of the imperialists is a weapon directed against the working class, against the weak nations, against socialism, against humanity. Weapons in the hands of the proletariat and of the oppressed nations are the only means of ridding our planet of oppression and war” (“Declaration to the Antiwar Congress at Amsterdam,” 25 July 1932). Nevertheless, China’s economic and military development remains extremely uneven, a legacy of rural backwardness and poverty reinforced by the imperialist subjugation that was broken only through the 1949 Revolution.
China’s collectivized economy has achieved enormous gains, including during the past six years as the capitalist world has been mired in economic stagnation, despite the gross bureaucratic mismanagement of the CCP regime. But China is still far less developed than the former Soviet Union, which covered one-sixth of the globe and possessed a wealth of mineral resources. While the USSR achieved enormous advances over the backward and impoverished society ruled by the tsars, growing into an industrial and military powerhouse second only to the U.S., it could not on its own match much less surpass the economic level of the advanced capitalist countries. Under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the U.S. pushed the Soviets into an arms race whose enormous cost played a major role in precipitating the terminal crisis of Stalinist rule there. Today, China faces a U.S. military behemoth that dwarfs the arsenal of any other country, with Washington lavishing more on its war machine than the next ten highest spenders combined.
It is the duty of the workers of the world to defend the workers states—China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos—against the common class enemy. Only through proletarian revolutions in the advanced industrialized countries will the imperialist military machine be smashed and the basis laid for achieving socialism—a classless society of material abundance. To provide the necessary leadership for that fight, the ICL is committed to reforging the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution.