BY MARK THOMPSON
Obama visited Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4-5 for the G-20 summit, a meeting of heads of state of the world’s larger industrialized countries. He was in Vientiane, Laos, Sept. 6-8 for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Media reports of Obama’s tour focused on diplomatic rebuffs, including a clash between security officials over Obama’s arrival in Hangzhou and a canceled meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
Obama pushed unsuccessfully at the ASEAN meeting for a sharp declaration opposing Beijing’s expanding claims to islands in the South China Sea.
In a visit to Asia in 2009 Obama called himself “America’s first Pacific president.” He has made 11 trips to Asia during his two terms. “This is where the action’s going to be when it comes to commerce and trade,” he told reporters at the ASEAN meeting.
The administration’s “Asia pivot,” announced in 2011, assumed the winding down of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. But conflicts and instability in the Mideast have escalated.
While Washington continues to seek Beijing’s collaboration, along with Moscow’s, to help stabilize the world, the pivot was intended to strengthen military and trade alliances with other Asian nations to counter Beijing’s more assertive role in the region.
Washington “assumed that a merely symbolic reassertion of U.S. power and resolve would be enough to make China back off,” noted Hugh White, an Australian journalist and former government defense adviser, the Financial Times reported Sept. 5. But “China’s assertive posture in the East and South China Sea today is strong evidence that they were wrong.”
China’s economic weightWhile in Laos, Obama announced a $90 million contribution to help clear U.S. bombs there — acknowledging but not apologizing for this “unintended” cost of Washington’s brutal war in Vietnam. From 1964 to 1973 U.S. warplanes dropped 2 million tons of bombs over Laos in 580,000 missions. Eighty million cluster bombs remained undetonated. These have killed some 20,000 people since the war’s end.
At the same time, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced investments in Laos worth billions, including a hydro-power project, a rail line to China, and a $1.6 billion special economic zone.
Beijing has opened a new rail line to Afghanistan, opening an alternative trade route for that land-locked country, where it is already the leading foreign investor. In 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Washington would sponsor the construction of new transport links to Afghanistan, but nothing happened.
A centerpiece of Washington’s Asia pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact intended as a counter to China, signed in February with 11 other Pacific nations. It covers 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. But Obama still hasn’t presented the pact to Congress for ratification, and the two leading presidential candidates have criticized it.
Relative decline in U.S. powerThe U.S. imperialist rulers came out of World War II as the victor. This included naval supremacy in the Pacific and South China Sea. It was China, above all, whose land, resources and cheap labor the U.S. rulers lusted for.
But the war had opened a new upsurge of struggle across Asia, Africa and Latin America against colonial rule and imperialist domination. A revolution by the workers and peasants ended foreign domination of China and made it clear that any intervention by Washington would be fiercely resisted. Washington’s plans to intervene were further thwarted by mass protests by U.S. troops across Asia demanding to go home.
For three decades until 1979, Washington refused to recognize the government of China, instead backing the Republic of China government on Taiwan with massive military and economic aid.
With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989-91, Washington and its closest imperialist allies believed, mistakenly, that they had won the Cold War and would reap new markets for investment and trade. They anticipated similar openings in China.
At the same time, they acted as if they now had free rein to impose their will politically. At the ASEAN conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2010, Hillary Clinton lectured Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that Washington had a “national interest” in the South China Sea and told Beijing to stay out. Yang warned his Southeast Asian hosts in response, “China is a big country. And you are all small countries.”
Since then, Beijing has accelerated work to build artificial island military bases in the South China Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Beijing’s stance when he attended the G-20 summit. The Russian and Chinese navies began eight days of drills in the South China Sea Sept. 12, their largest ever joint operations.
The Chinese government is also building its first overseas naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, and in August pledged increased military aid to the Syrian government.
The massive growth of capitalist industry and trade in China over the past 30 years has meant increasing competition for U.S. imperialism. This drives the Chinese rulers to seek a political and military role in the Pacific commensurate with their economic strength. They continue to make headway at Washington’s expense.