With the recent announcement of a military trade deal and defence partnership involving the US, UK and Australia, Marnie Holborow analyses the roots of imperialism, arguing that the world, including Europe, will become more unstable.
The trilateral defence partnership which the US and UK have signed with Australia is an attempt on behalf of the Western powers to prevent China from gaining the military upper hand in Asian waters and airspace.
The partnership – dubbed AUKUS – commits the US and the UK to supply nuclear reactors to power Australian submarines. It will draw on US military technology and UK hardware and maintenance from British firms BAE systems, Rolls Royce, and Babcock International.
The deal replaces a previous $90bn deal with France to supply conventionally powered submarines, which, after secret negotiations with the US and UK, was summarily cancelled by Canberra. The French foreign minister described this as a ‘stab in the back’.
For more than ten years, the US has been trying to counter China’s arsenals of missiles aimed at US bases in Japan and the western Pacific island of Guam. The US already has an agreement with Australia, Japan, and India – known as The Quad. But AUKUS marks a sharp ramping up of this strategy. Nuclear-powered submarines have superior stealth, manoeuvrability, and survivability and can operate over longer ranges. This considerably boosts Western military power in the western Pacific, giving Australia deterrence and attack capabilities for the first time.
The US is firming up old regional allies: Australia, Taiwan, Japan. The waters of the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific are a source of conflict, and China has a long-standing claim over Taiwan. Xi Jinping’s Chinese government condemned the AUKUS deal, calling it a new ‘arms race’ in an ‘increasingly bipolar world’.
Hostility has flared elsewhere. France’s snub by the trilateral deal led Macron to react strongly: France recalled its ambassadors in the US and Australia, a step not taken even during the Suez Crisis or France’s 2003 disagreement with the US over the Iraq war. The original deal with Australia represented more than just a commercial deal, it was France’s flagship project in the Indo-Pacific.
France is the strongest military player in the EU with the French defence and armament sector accounting for over 25 percent of European capabilities. The submarine deal has exposed the EU’s more fragile alliance with the US.
The Afghanistan debacle already saw the US acting unilaterally. Now the EU fears that the US will no longer provide them with military security – notably against Russia.
European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has raised again the idea of a European Defence Union and the need for standalone EU expeditionary forces. The EU has already been expanding its military clout, made possible by the Lisbon Treaty which many Europeans, including Ireland, opposed when it was first put to the people in 2008.
With Brexit, one of the EU largest contributors to defence has gone. Now new demands will be made on member states to cough up more for EU defence spending. This will also mean Ireland’s financial contribution to international operations will likely have to increase.
From March this year, the ‘European Peace Facility’ was set up with a €5 billion fund to allow the EU to arm non-European military forces with lethal weapons for the first time. A leaders’ summit dedicated to European defence will be convened by Von der Leyen and the French president, Emmanuel Macron early next year, when France holds the rolling presidency of the EU. Von der Leyen is down on record as saying it is time for Europe to militarily ‘step up to the next level’. Some members of the European Council, led by France, are in favour of developing a full European army.
The submarine deal in the Pacific, by openly setting aside European cooperation, has brought EU defence strategy further under the spotlight.
China’s military spending
The logic of greater profits in the global capitalist market has led China along the same expansionist path as the US. Already Xi Jinping’s vast multimillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, started in 2013, plans to connect trade routes across 70 different countries. It will create, by the 2040s, an economic corridor with a massive network of ports, railroads, roads, airports, dams, power stations and cities, stretching overland from East Asia to Europe, through Central Asia and, by sea, through Southeast and South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. China is providing the infrastructure to carve out markets under its control.
The difference between China and the West is that its economy is directly in state hands, whereas Western capitals operate under the protection of states. State capitalism has allowed China to implement concerted and directed growth, even if this has been at huge costs to its workers, migrants, and ethnic minorities.
As the Chinese economy has grown – to the second largest economy in the world – so too has its military spending. China increased its defence budget this year to over 5 percent of overall government spending. Accurate defence budget figures are difficult to assess as official figures for defence spending does not include all of China’s military-related activities. The People’s Armed Police, which also has military functions, is not included in the budget; nor is the Chinese Coast Guard, which plays a key role in asserting China’s maritime claims.1
However, most commentators agree that China’s military spending is the second highest in the world after the United States. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that between 2011-2020, Chinese defence spending rose by a massive 76 percent.2 The Chinese navy has now overtaken Japan’s, India’s, Australia’s and America’s, according to a recent Pentagon report, and is now the largest in the world. However, it should be remembered that in absolute terms, the Chinese military still lags considerably behind that of the US.3
Despite this, China poses a far greater economic challenge to the US than the Soviet Union did in the Cold War period. China may not have the capacity to shape the rules of the global economy in the way that the US does, but it is an imperialist power, able to access global sources of value creation and articulate its power within regional and global value chains. Whichever way the latest phase of US-China rivalry is assessed, it is intensifying.
Understanding imperialism today
The day after the AUKUS deal was announced, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce requested to join a major trading block in the region, the Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP). This is a pact initiated by Obama, and from which Trump withdrew. The UK will be joining it in 2022.
China’s interest in becoming a member of the trade partnership is not coincidental. Trade deals and military shows of strength, capitalist cooperation and intense competition, go together. They form the dualism at the core of what Marxists understand of imperialism.
Developed in the early 20th century by Bukharin and Lenin, ‘imperialism’ emphasises the overlap between capitalist market system and military might. It argued that capitalism is defined by two potentially conflicting tendencies – the internationalisation of production, circulation, and investment – what today is known as globalisation – and the interpenetration of capital and companies with specific nation states.
This means that a more integrated world economy also becomes one of greater geopolitical conflict. Individual capitalists are locked into a system of competition for raw materials, markets and labour and this involves military competition. As Bukharin put it, ‘war is nothing other than the method of competition at a specific level of development.’
Lenin stressed the process of greater concentration of production, in ever-larger enterprises, as one of the key aspects of capitalism as it develops. He identified the interconnected tendencies of competition and monopoly, a feature which we see starkly today, as fewer and fewer corporations dominate the world economy.
The protectors of capital, Lenin argued, were nation states. As he put it, states ‘become a general system, they form part of the sum total of “divide the world” relations’ and lead to a strengthening of monopolies. 4 Companies need states to protect their interests – financially, politically and militarily. States ensure who dominates and who gets the larger share of the global economy. States secure trade and new markets, often through trade deals, but they also build up military capabilities to protect them.
Intense capitalist competition led by states is what we are seeing playing out in the western Pacific. The rapid rise of China in the world has not led to the stable incorporation of a new lead player into the capitalist order, as some on the left have argued. Rather, it has brought greater instability. Inter-imperialist rivalry develops as conflicts among states over security, territory and resources. China is part of that capitalist logic. 5
Biden’s imperialist Keynesianism
The French Foreign Secretary complained that the unilateral decision to set up the AUKUS deal was Biden continuing Trump’s ‘America first’ policy. There is much truth in this.
Biden realises that to maintain global hegemony, and after several decades of social and economic erosion under neoliberalism, the US has to reassert its competitiveness in the world economy. The Biden project is to use the huge resources of the state to invest in infrastructure and upskilling of the US labour market. But it is also about the state taking on China and Russia in what the New York Times has called a ‘new superpower struggle’.
Greater state intervention at home and abroad has been characterised by US socialist Ashley Smith as ‘Imperialist Keynesianism’.6 Biden has marked out the US’s competition with China as a priority, as well as strategies of containment towards Russia. The submarine deal enacts this approach, and also conveniently comes as a part redress for the US humiliation in Afghanistan.
The US about-turn over nuclear proliferation, represented by the AUKUS deal, is quietly hushed up. Australia will acquire nuclear reactors fuelled by enriched uranium. This breaks international rules and opens the door to an American-led arms race. Leaving aside the environmental question of how the enriched uranium will be supplied or the reactors decommissioned, there is no way the deal squares with the supposed commitment to reducing nuclear proliferation. Imagining what the US reaction would have been to other countries – like Iran – if they bypassed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and the US optic of the world order becomes very clear.
Tensions and instability
Imperialist expansionism gives rise to new tensions and instability. There has already been a backlash against China’s dominance in the region. Demonstrations recently shut down Gwadar, a strategic port in Pakistan and in a prime place of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese mega-project is blamed for a lack of water and electricity, and a threat to local fishing.
The AUKUS deal may well hasten new and destabilising alliances. While China and Russia have historically clashed in this region, their long experience in dividing up influence in Central Asia offers a possible path forward. The submarine deal may hasten this reaction, and this may lead to further conflict on Europe’s eastern front.
Johnson no doubt believes that the Australian-US pact boosts his ‘Global Britain’ fantasy. In truth, his policy increases UK vulnerabilities. Underwriting his ‘tilt to the Ind0- Pacific’ in a region where it has little presence or influence, may see the UK sucked into regional conflicts over which it has little control.
The submarine deal has already encountered opposition, not only from France, but also from New Zealand which seeks a nuclear-free Pacific. There is no guarantee that there will not be Australian opposition to the adoption of nuclear-powered submarines. Australia has no civilian nuclear sector and, although Australia’s Labour Party was quickly on board for a technology it had long regarded as taboo, others may not be so willing.
AUKUS is also likely to scupper hopes of a deal with China on greenhouse gas emissions ahead of vital UN climate talks which may give rise to further environmental crises with protests in their wake.
Bringing it all back home
Finally, the EU’s talk of revamping their military plans may prove unpopular with its peoples. The Irish government has responded to the plans for a European army or stronger military spending, claiming that any such proposals ‘would have to be compatible with Ireland’s policy of neutrality’. This means challenging the notion that an ‘EU rapid deployable force as required’ has anything to do with maintaining peace. It means resisting attempts in our national parliament to raise military spending under the aegis of the so-called European Peace Facility.
The geopolitical dynamics at play in the western Pacific show how imperialism is not just about Western rule led by the US, but competition between global powers in the capitalist order. The step taken by the US, UK and Australia to boost their military capabilities in the Pacific region springs from the logic of capitalist competition and we must gather forces to oppose it as its effects cascade into our part of the world.
- Centre for Strategic and International Studies, March 5, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/understanding-chinas-2021-defense-budget
- Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 26 April 2021 https://sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/world-military-spending-rises-almost-2-trillion-2020
- Chinese spending is 37 per cent that of the US. See Adrian Budd China and Imperialism in the 21 century International Socialism Issue 170, posted April 2021: http://isj.org.uk/china-imperialism-21/
- Vladimir Lenin ‘Imperialism the highest stage of capitalism’; https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/ch06.htm
- See an early discussion of the issues about the rise of China, in Alex Callinicos International Socialism Issue 2:108 Autumn 2005; http://isj.org.uk/china-imperialism-21/
- Ashley Smith, ‘Imperialist Keynesianism: Biden’s programme for rehabilitating US capitalism’ Tempest, May 18, 2021;https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/05/imperialist-keynesianism/