The imperialist conflict between China and the U.S. and the spectre of war in the Indo-Pacific region
In the last fifty years such a large number of soldiers and weapons has never been mobilized by so many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In 2020, Chinese Navy sailors spent four months more than expected onboard their ships. The figure gives an idea of the increasing tension in the China Sea. But this is only a part of the military pressure on the giant, to which should be added at least the armed conflicts with India on the border of the Himalayas and the tension with the USA and Taiwan in the strait.
The constant exchanges and military exercises of both sides have served to test new alliances, test weapons, test the Chinese capacity for a simultaneous war in the four seas and speed up the militarization of space. All this within a framework of technological decoupling, of which the most visible part has been the complaints about apps such as TikTok or Zoom, but whose core is the US attempt to strike Chinese technological development at its core: access to chips and processors, for which it depends on US and Taiwanese companies.
The media have focused on the democratic and propagandistic battles surrounding the pandemic, the successive several rounds of US sanctions on account of Hong Kong first, Xinjiang later and now Tibet and Taiwan, and the signing of the RCEP treaty which forms an Asian free trade area with 14 countries around China. But there are just two events that will mark the next few years.
1 The formalization of an anti-Chinese military alliance between Australia and Japan which has already been indirectly joined by Vietnam and will be directly joined by the USA and most probably India (the QUAD), directly linked to the Five Eyes alliance (USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain). In other words, Trump’s main legacy in Asia to Biden – who boasts of being even more hawkish against the Asian rival– will be an Asian NATO, the old nightmare of the Beijing government.
2 Signing the RCEP with Australia has not prevented China from showing its determination in the trade war against the island state. The final two months of the year have seen a real offensive, 200% imposition on Australian wine before Christmas and a blockade of Australian coal imports into China even at the cost of suffering blackouts and lack of power supply. The impact has been global. Just the prospect of the blockades being extended to steel raised the price of iron ore by 50% in the raw material markets.
That the alliances to contain China militarily be formalized and that China does not tremble at the time of conducting a trade war against one of its leaders, Australia, draws a framework that is completed with the expulsion of Chinese capital from India, the growing Chinese industrial dislocation, Japanese rearming and the growing interest of Russia, Germany and France for military presence in the region. In 2020 the conditions for an imperialist war on the borders or around China have taken a giant step.
Turkey and the expansion of the war from the Mediterranean to the Caucasus
In 2020 Turkey was the great leading player in the imperialist conflict outside of Asia. The year began with the sending of Syrian troops and mercenaries to Tripoli. In return Turkey obtained the first – and for the moment only – maritime border treaty recognizing its aspirations over the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and therefore over the hydrocarbons and gas fields of the region which are shared between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. In the process, it hoped to consolidate the Muslim Brotherhood in the government of Tripoli, to secure a permanent military base from which to secure its positions against Italy, Greece and Egypt and, of course, to penetrate the capital of the Libyan national oil company. The cost… a new escalation of war in a country already destroyed. But a summit organized in record time by Germany temporarily stopped the escalation and organized a fleet to effectively impose the European arms embargo. It was only a short respite.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Ankara and Moscow was strained to the point of ending in a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Syria. The spectre of military defeat and a rampant crisis put an internal stranglehold on the Erdogan regime, which in turn pressured Europe by turning its situation in Syria into a new refugee crisis on the border with Greece.
When it seemed that the situation was unbearable, caught between the crisis and the stagnation of its imperialist strategy, the Erdoganist regime knew how to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the pandemic to restore its position in Syria with Russia and Iran, to launch a military campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan and, above all, to turn the Libyan war around.
Thanks to the aircraft, drones, navy and thousands of mercenaries deployed by Turkey, the Tripoli government first took control of the capital and its airport; then the areas controlled by Russian mercenaries in the West of the country and finally advanced eastward. Haftar’s army was routed in the center of the country and those from Tripoli advanced towards Sirte in the hope that the defeats would accelerate the disintegration of the leading factions of Cyrenaica. The worst possible scenario awaited the powers that orchestrated the military intervention that gave way to war in 2011: a peace tutored by Russia and Turkey. With France unable to win the war in the Sahel and the Russians as an alternative, the map of influences of the whole of Africa threatened to be turned upside down.
We were in June and a scenario was beginning to emerge in which the Sahel war was stagnating and threatening to spread to the Maghreb, the war in Libya was connected to the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Ethiopia, while Turkey increased the pressure on Greece, regained military weight in Syria and started a new war in the Caucasus to send a signal to Europeans and Russians. This is virtually what happened. But along the way a new element appeared that turned the situation against Ankara.
On June 21 Egypt’s parliament approves the invasion of Libya and changes the whole regional game. It does not even need to bring its tanks to Sirte. The threat warns Turkey and its Tripoli allies to immediately halt the offensive. Erdogan changes his game again and in August he directly provokes Greece by sending his navy to escort a geological survey ship into disputed waters. The result will be negative: Greece receives military and political support from both France… and Egypt, with whom it ends up signing a historic maritime border agreement thwarting Turkish claims. France, which in the meantime has had an armed clash in Libyan waters with Turkish warships escorting arms smugglers, becomes the spearhead for sanctions against Ankara. The clandestine war between France and Turkey passes through Syria, where Paris supports without ambiguity the Kurdish armies of the PKK-YPG against the Turkish forces, but also through France itself, where Turkey – and its ally Qatar – finances the separatist subversion – as Macron calls it – of the Muslim Brotherhood. The October attacks will make the conflict with Turkey even more open by organizing a boycott against French products and France by organizing the internal repression of the Islamist organizations more or less articulated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
But meanwhile, the weariness of war and its misery has raised a mass of workers on both sides of the Libyan front. The entire Libyan ruling class feels threatened for the first time and the call for negotiations coalesces for the first time, both sides are anxious to be able to export oil again and quell the protests. The big losers will be the Muslim Brotherhood, which will take a back seat in the Tripoli government… and Turkey, whose attempts to reignite the war are no longer echoed by the Tripolitan government.
The latest Turkish move will be to launch a war in Nagorno-Karabakh in an attempt to regain influence in the Central Asian Turkic-speaking world, expose the United States and France… and be recognized by Russia as a regional power. Despite Azerbaijan winning the war at the cost of thousands of deaths, Turkey will not achieve its goals.
To this day Turkey promises to devote 2021 to mend relations with Israel, the USA and the EU and must thank Russia for not being evicted from the Kurdish territories in Northern Syria. Meanwhile, it sees the Emirates occupying, along with Egypt, Israel and Greece, the place it aspired to in the East Mediterranean gas forum. A clear and resounding triumph, but also a very symbolic one for the axis formed by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Israel, Sudan and Egypt, which has been consolidated by the Turkish military adventures and the strategy of containment of Iran developed by Trump.
The USA-Saudi Arabia-Emirates-Israel-Egypt-Sudan… Morocco axis
One of the characteristic elements of Trump’s policy in the Middle East was to endorse the position of Israel, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia against Iran and to denounce the nuclear treaty signed by the Obama administration with Tehran and the support of the countries of the EU and Great Britain.
In reality, Israelis, Emiratis and Saudis not only concurred in their confrontation with Iran… but also with the Muslim Brotherhood -especially its Palestinian branch, Hamas- and its main sponsors: Qatar and Turkey. This game emerged with tragedy during the so-called Arab Spring, placing Egypt in a common front with its neighbors on the other side of the Sinai.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic and commercial relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air embargo, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism – of the Muslim Brotherhood – and of having links with Iran. A whole soft war was then set into motion. In 2018, new elements of the conflict emerged in the Western press when Turkey used evidence of the kidnapping and murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by the Saudi secret services against Prince Salman of Arabia. The emergence of a set of common interests and the course of the Syrian war facilitated a growing collaboration between the anti-Iranian Arab front and Israel.
Thus, in 2019, Iran ignited the war in Yemen, bombed oil infrastructures in Saudi Arabia, instrumentalized the revolt of the Iraqi petty bourgeoisie and spared no armed blows in an attempt to pressure the US to leave Iraq without political initiative. In response, on January 3, the U.S. assassinated General Soleimani, the spearhead of Iranian imperialism in Syria and Iraq, with a missile at the airport in Baghdad. The danger of an escalation leading to an open confrontation between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other made the spectres of decades of confrontations emerge. But the American response was, nevertheless, restrained. The United States sought an open escalation as little as Iran. Trump had an alternative with his sights set on a second term: consolidating the anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim Brotherhood front by organizing recognition of Israel by its underground allies. In this way, the US could drastically reduce its military presence in the region and avoid armed conflicts that would not be directly profitable, without giving up its capacity for influence or endangering markets. Instead, it could sell even more military weapons.
The key move would come precisely from there. With Iran explicitly threatening the Emirates, the United States conditioned the sale of drones, F35 aircraft and other state-of-the-art systems on the recognition of Israel. The UAE responded with the condition that Israel abandon the West Bank annexation plan advanced by Netanyahu which has completely alienated the PNA (PLO) government by severely undermining it against Hamas. Finally, the agreement is reached: The Emirates becomes the third Arab country to recognize Israel. Yet Trump’s strategy fails to get the UN to maintain the arms embargo on Iran. But less than a month later, Bahrain follows in the footsteps of the Emirates.
The global consequences are immediate, the first casualties: Turkey and Iran, who see their main imperialist rivals consolidating as a bloc and the US consolidating its position by reducing its flanks. The technological and military market in the Gulf is turning upside down: Israeli military technology threatens to upset the regional balances of power. Only the first UAE purchase in Tel Aviv amounts 23 billion dollars. Israel plays its cards in Syria and facilitates Russia’s blessing for the Al-Assad regime to receive aid from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, reducing its dependence on Iran.
Turkey is seeing its patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood begin to take its toll on the Arab world. The United States begins to move its Anatolian bases and suggests as a new destination Greece or Emirates. It pushes Lebanon to negotiate a maritime border agreement with Israel and another between Egypt and the PNA which have just encircled Turkey’s claims over gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Next recognition: Sudan. The keys: US economic aid to consolidate the regime and Egyptian and Israeli military aid to stop Turkish advances in Somalia. But what is more important, both for Egypt and Sudan: that the Emirates and Saudi Arabia refrain from intervening in the conflict over the Renaissance dam that unites them both against Ethiopia and its eventual derivatives (which we will see below).
War and imperialist conflict in Ethiopia
Understanding the war in Ethiopia is difficult without a bit of historical perspective on its 20th century. But let’s focus on 2020. The year started for Ethiopia with an increase in the tension with Egypt on account of the Renaissance Dam. Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and a new hegemonic power in Sudan, has a long history of promoting the destabilization of Ethiopia as a way of defending its southern flank. The failure of the last round of negotiations which was not accompanied by open military pressure, made the attitude of the Cairo diplomacy very suspicious. But Egypt was waiting, attentive to the evolution of a process that had been taking place since the departure of the Tigray’s core of power from the Ethiopian national government and which had been radicalized during the previous six months. Its cards: Sudan and Eritrea.
Obviously, the war was a massacre in which Europe’s favorite Nobel Peace Prize winner encouraged brutality and war crimes until the last moment. Although the resistance of the deposed regional government is now purely guerrilla, the mass displacement of refugees to Sudan under appalling conditions continues to destabilize the region. By now, more than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees have settled in the fertile valley of southeastern Sudan, an area long populated by Ethiopian farmers but under Sudanese sovereignty. Ethiopian army incursions into the area, in pursuit of Tigray resistance, have mobilized the Sudanese army and provoked the first direct clashes. In the Southwest, in Darfur, the Ethiopian-allied militias have struck back, breaking the peace agreements and returning to the horror of the massacres of the early 2000s.
The conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia already goes far beyond the dispute over the Nile’ s water, and it is difficult to end even if Egypt uses the disaster to impose the shutdown of the Renaissance dam. At this point it threatens to launch a simultaneous war of decay in both Sudan and Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government, faced with increasing armed violence in Oromia, Tigray and its Somali region, has announced elections for June, proving the claims of Tigray’s rulers that precipitated the war. 2021 is looking grim.
Covid and the ideology of the coming war
In 2020 we have witnessed the first sketch of what a generalized war would be like, from the Sahara and the Sahel to the Horn of Africa; from Libya to Greece, Syria and from there to the Caucasus, Yemen and Iraq… a chain of wars and intersecting imperialist interests ready to be connected through Afghanistan with the continuing military tensions between Pakistan, India and China projecting immediately across the Indian and Pacific.
We could add the imperialist tensions that crisscross the Americas or those that confront, still at a pre-war level, China with the great powers in sub-Saharan Africa, even between the USA with Germany and the EU. But this is not necessary to outline a global framework accelerated in 2020 by the Covid pandemic and the galloping recession. One last point however: the relationship between the management of the pandemic and the maturation of the ideologies of war.
It is not only that the American and European opinion machine is successfully applying itself against China’s image outside Asia, for there is a deliberate attempt underway to culturally reconsider the very meaning of war. The driving force has undoubtedly been the so-called new normality, which has been nothing less than normalization of the killing of hundreds and thousands of people every day in order to keep businesses open and save investments instead of lives. If we accept that an equilibrium between an acceptable number of deaths by Covid and the monetary costs of a new lockdown is something humanitarian and sensible, what would stop them from using the same cost-benefit morality to justify war?How the US elections and the management of the Covid set the ideology for the next war, 10/9/2020
Because the basic problem is that as more and more national capitals see their opportunities in the world market exhausted in the midst of a crisis that has become perennial, the war becomes more acceptable to them in terms of cost-benefit analysis. The war exposes the same contradiction that the pandemic has put on the table: big and small capital, in all countries, is confronted to the most basic human need, life … that only workers are interested in until the end.
That is why although 2020 has meant a very dangerous leap forward in the global expansion of war, the main element that we must remember and retain is that it has also been the year in which the spontaneous mobilization of workers has served to stop one of the most destructive and insidious wars of the decade. That is to say, war is not a fatum, an indisputable destiny caused by the decadence of the system, but is always dependent, before it breaks out and once it does, on the relation of forces between the bourgeoisie of all countries and the workers. A relationship that has also evolved significantly in 2020 and which we will study in our next annual report.