The conflict in the South China Sea between China and the U.S. is sharpening the conflict within capitalism. China and Russia are on one side and the U.S. and Europe are on the other side.
There is a growing military buildup on both sides, making it a volatile situation. The most affected by the heat of this conflict are smaller nations bordering the South China Sea, which are being pressured by both the camps for vested economic and geopolitical interests.
The most recent casualty is the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has announced his looming resignation next year, saying goodbye to politics.
To understand the nature and dynamics of the conflict, let us dig it deeper by raising series of questions. Are China and the U.S. on the verge of war?
One can also raise another important question: why is this confrontation taking place when China and the U.S. are economically interdependent and share common economic goals, development models, and interest?
According to various reports, the U.S. has wide-ranging security commitments in East Asia and is allied with several countries bordering the South China Sea, such as the Philippines.
Furthermore, the South China Sea is a vital trade route in the global supply chain, used by American companies that produce goods in the region.
China is a fast-emerging global superpower in technology and the development of military arsenal, with a strong GDP and a strong hidden desire to attain the status of an empire. History indicates that other than military muscle and technology, control over trade routes is a fundamental footstep on the road to achieving this goal.
China competes on aid
China has developed bases in the South China Sea. It also owns the Djibouti and Gwadar ports and created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a parallel to European and U.S. aid-giving agencies. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multibillion-dollar Chinese project, is central to the control over trade routes.
The U.S. and other western countries believe that the Chinese are militarizing the BRI. In an article entitled "The Coming Post-COVID Anarchy", published in Foreign Affairs on May 6, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd maintains that a decision in Beijing to militarize the BRI would increasingly raise the risk of proxy wars.
Further, Rudd suggests that the U.S. and China adopt better policies to avoid a confrontation. He also mentions in his article that "History is not predetermined."
That is very right. History proceeds because of the contradictions generated and not simply because of U.S. or Chinese policy.
Let us dig a bit deeper to explore the root cause of the U.S.-China conflict. The study of history tells us that there are many conflicts that arise during the development and existence of things. Essentially, the principal conflict—its existence and development—determine or influence the other conflicts' existence and development. There is only one main conflict that plays the leading role at every stage in the development of a process.
To understand the nature of the main conflict, one needs to study history since 1917. At that point, the world was divided between two ideologies: capitalism, and socialism. That division constituted the "main conflict" in those times. After the fall of socialism in the USSR and China, the nature of the main conflict changed. Russia and China started following the capitalist road.
Now, the conflict is between forms of capitalism, i.e., liberal capitalism (the U.S. and the West) and state-controlled capitalism (Russia and China). The contending powers (Russia-China versus U.S. and Europe) are not struggling over ideology but are working to capture the market economy's significant share.
The contending powers are using one another and collaborating. We could even say that the opponents cannot live without each other yet want to kill each other. The South China Sea conflict is one manifestation of the main conflict.
Regional blocs emerge
The other pertinent question could be: will the U.S. alone fight China or try to create a regional bloc to fight China? It appears the South China Sea conflict is acting as a pole around which regional blocs are emerging. The U.S., with Australia and India, is rallying against China in the South China Sea waters. All these countries do not have any territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Recently, the U.S. has made a new alliance, "AUKUS", with Australia and the U.K., to counter China. This is an exciting development because the rest of Europe is not part of this, and even India has been sidelined.
The formation of a new alliance—predominantly comprised of English-speaking countries—indicates that the U.S. empire is losing ground and influence in Europe and is shrinking to its ethnic roots. The formation of new blocs within Europe may create an opportunity for Russia and China to grow their economic and geopolitical interests on the continent.
While the South China conflict is ongoing and reflects various levels of engagement between the contending blocs, the Afghanistan situation has added significant importance and speed to develop this conflict further.
On the one hand, the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan has created opportunities for Russia and China to grow their economic and geopolitical interests. On the other hand, it brought challenges, such as Muslim extremism associated with the Taliban's past.
China and Russia think that their adversary will use Muslim religious extremism based in Afghanistan to destabilize the Muslim population within their spheres of influence (Xinjiang and central Asian states). To understand the dynamics of the Afghan situation, it's pertinent to see how Russia and China look at the Afghan crisis.
On the Afghanistan situation, senior officials from Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan met in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on September 16, 2021. The details of the meeting on Afghanistan were reported in a Global Times article published on September 17, 2021.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was reported to have said: "As important neighbors of Afghanistan and influential countries in the region, China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran need to strengthen communication and coordination, make unanimous voices, exert positive influence and play a constructive role in promoting the smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan. Countries in the region expect the new Afghan government to be inclusive, anti-terrorist, and friendly to neighbors".
Wang made five proposals on the next-stage coordination on the Afghan issue. These included “urging the U.S. to perform its duties to provide economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan”.
In addition, Wang proposed “contacting and guiding Afghanistan to form an inclusive political structure and implement moderate domestic and foreign policies and respect the basic rights of ethnic minorities, women and children, help the country to integrate itself into regional economic cooperation and connectivity networks, and achieve economic development and prevent spillover of security risks”.
"In a talk with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Dushanbe, Wang said that China is ready to strengthen coordination with Russia to jointly handle the issue of Afghanistan [and] urge US-led Western countries to shoulder their responsibility and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” Global Times reported.
Where does this leave Pakistan?
What implications do the Afghan situation and growing conflict have for Pakistan? Pakistan has been in the U.S. and Europe camps in the past.
A cursory look at Pakistan's media indicates that there has been growing criticism of U.S. policy in Pakistan print and electronic media. Does it mean a policy shift toward the China-Russia bloc?
Pakistan is an economically fragile and ethnically divided country. Since Gen. Ayub Khan's imposition of martial law of 1958, Pakistan has actively pursued U.S. and European policies and served their economic and geopolitical interests.
Some pertinent examples are joining CETO and CENTO pacts (1955), joining the World Bank aid program, accepting Indus Water Treaty and losing an important river, implementing an American-sponsored green revolution, and losing food sovereignty and security.
Former Pakistan president Gen. Zia ul-Haq declaration of martial law from 1977 to 1985 was also seen as fulfilling U.S.-Europe's geopolitical interests. Pakistan supported the U.S. against the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, creating facilities and providing human resources to fight against the USSR.
Even during the last 20 years of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been subservient to U.S. interests by providing logistics routes, air bases, and other help.
The Pakistan ruling elite’s historical alignment creates doubts about the possibility of a fundamental shift towards the new Russia-China bloc. However, during the last 70-plus years, some on-the-ground realities have changed—for instance, Pakistan's self-sufficiency in defence equipment manufacturing. Historically, Pakistan looks toward the U.S. and Europe for army hardware and software.
Pakistan now is more dependent on China and Russia on high-end technology for military hardware and software than the U.S. and Europe. The Chinese game-changing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project means that more than $64 billion worth of projects are being constructed in Pakistan.
It appears that now, Pakistan is not that dependent on U.S. and European military equipment.
Pakistan also has alternative loan and aid agencies, such as Shanghai Cooperation Development Organization. China also showed support for Pakistan with United Nations organizations whenever it was arm-twisted on terrorism charges. The construction of the Karakoram Highway and support on the Kashmir issue are two landmark pillars of Chinese historical support of Pakistan.
Pakistani elite has been linked to the West
Despite the vast historic Chinese support and huge contemporary investments inside Pakistan, it is hard to say that the Pakistani elite has taken a fundamental policy shift toward the China-Russia bloc for the following reasons:
- There is a substantial historical European cultural and social base present inside Pakistan. This social base started evolving with the advent of British colonialism in the subcontinent. Lord Macaulay's education doctrine, introduced during British colonial raj, has created a brown elite who are more than willing to push forward European traditions, culture, education, and interests. The role model of this elite is not indigenous; instead it lives in Europe whether it’s the economy, democracy, or culture. At present, China has money but lacks the political and social base required to steer up ground-level support.
- It is essential to understand that there is a fundamental difference between China before 1977 and China of today. China before 1977 has overwhelming supported people’s movements, whereas contemporary China supports governments and their elites for its economic and geopolitical interests.
- The policies safeguarding nationalistic interests have never been allowed to flourish; instead they have been dealt with heavy hands. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto paid a heavy price for his government's nationalistic policies. His democratically elected government was toppled by Gen. Zia in 1977.
- Historically, the Pakistani elites have failed to prepare policies that can help promote self-reliant interests but rather have played a subservient role in the hands of the powerful.
The above discussion in the context of a conflict within capitalism leads to an important question. Is it in the national interest of the people of Pakistan to support China against the U.S.? Will this support result in a positive change in the lives of the majority of Pakistanis and make Pakistan a self-reliant country where people can decide policies for themselves?
Before we take a critical look at this, let us bring forth a political analysis by a renowned leftist intellectual, Imtiaz Alam. He published an article on October 3 in the Daily Jang newspaper titled "Char kay tolaey chin mukhalfat cold war". In his article, Alam laid down four main justifications why China should be supported against the U.S.
Alam thinks that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s vision and plan for the environment, the extreme exploitation by U.S. and European multinational corporations, human-rights violations, and the fight against diseases make a strong case in support of China.
If we examine and compare the environmental agenda of the U.S.-Europe bloc with the Chinese model, there seems to be no fundamental difference: both talk about growth with sustainability.
In real terms, “growth” heavily impacts the environment and is responsible for its degradation. As long as the policy of growth is followed, the environment is going to be impacted and degraded.
There appears to be no primary difference regarding the extreme exploitation by the U.S. and European multinational corporations and the Chinese state-controlled companies. Both strive for efficiency and maximizing profits.
The U.S. and Europe have used the human rights charter of the UN for many years as a tool for arm-twisting smaller nations.
The issue of human rights could better be understood in the context of the conflict within capitalism where contending powers are not only trying to dent each other economically, but also aim to burnish their political and cultural superiority. Let us look at it very briefly.
The Human Rights Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.There are 30 articles in this declaration. All are important and need to be upheld by all, irrespective of being powerful or downtrodden.
Article 2 says: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”
Concerns about the Chinese on human rights are related to the political, social, and cultural situation of the Uyghurs Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Automous Region. Some human rights groups believe China has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will over the past few years in a large network of what the state calls "re-education camps", and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison terms.
To counter this, China highlights human rights violations across the globe.
It remains to be seen what this conflict within capitalism will bring forth in the future in the context of poor and powerful countries.
Fighting diseases, especially the COVID 19 outbreak, does not go to the credit of Chinese state-controlled capitalism; instead, it goes to its socialistic past.
History teaches us that the people of a country, when provided with an opportunity to make a policy decision, always make the right and just decision. It's the elites of a country who safeguard their interests while making any policy decision in the same way the people of a country make a policy decision that safeguards their class interests.
To convert the rhetoric of self-reliance into a policy of self-reliance, it is necessary that the issue of Afghanistan, the role of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the economic and geopolitical interests of the U.S. and Europe be open for public discussion within Pakistan.
Let the people of Pakistan decide what they think is good for them to build a self-reliant Pakistan.