Material World: The Changing World Power Configuration

American global hegemony continues its steady decline. The most striking recent instance is the overt shift of Pakistan, long a US client state, into China’s sphere of influence.

The US, unable now to supply its forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan, has no choice but to withdraw rapidly from that country. (We know from WikiLeaks that the US asked China to allow a new supply route through Chinese territory but was refused.)

Afghanistan will revert to its traditional status as a dependency of Pakistan, whose tool the Taliban was from the start. Eventually Afghanistan too, with its rich unexploited mineral resources, may be integrated into the Chinese sphere. Or there may be renewed Russian and Uzbek intervention (advocated by some Russian strategists), with north-south partition the probable result.

Illusions of grandeur
America’s vast military spending and far-flung network of bases are now hugely disproportionate to its diminished economic strength and real influence over events. Multiple wars have left its troops overextended and exhausted. Yet the idea of deep reductions in military forces remains taboo in mainstream American politics, while the US and Israel again gear up for war with Iran (for an earlier analysis see Material World, Socialist Standard, January 2008).

Neither the special interests of the military-industrial complex nor the insatiable thirst for cheap oil fully explain such insanity (even by capitalist standards). Like the rulers of all dying empires, the US elite is in the grip of illusions of grandeur. Indeed, there is less realistic discussion of waning American power today than in the years following the 1987 publication of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Decline of the Great Powers, when the process was much less advanced.

The US – China relationship
The emerging axis of the world power configuration is the relationship between the old hegemon and the only conceivable (though not necessarily likely) candidate for the role of new hegemon – China.

The US has lost considerable ground to China in the rivalry over the resources of regions where its sway was previously unchallenged – Africa and Latin America (once known as Uncle Sam’s “backyard”). For instance, China is now Brazil’s No. 1 trading partner.

Other sources of tension between the US and China include disputes over territorial rights in the South China Sea (MW, April 2009), restrictions on exports of China’s rare earth metals (MW, May 2011), intellectual property rights, and currency exchange rates.

Until recently, however, these tensions were counterbalanced by a symbiotic interdependence between the US and Chinese economies, requiring a certain level of cooperation. China’s industrial expansion was fuelled by American (as well as Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese) investment and imports of Chinese consumer goods.

The symbiosis disintegrates
This symbiosis is disintegrating under the impact of the economic crisis. Much consumption of Chinese goods was financed by debt, and now the bubble has burst. Other longer-term factors are also at work. The recent successes of China’s workers in raising their wages make China less attractive to foreign investors, who are now moving their money to countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh where they can still pay rock-bottom wages.

As a result, the US – China relationship is becoming more conflictual. China is deploying more forces to the South China Sea, while America is beefing up its military presence in the Philippines and Singapore and even plans a base in northern Australia.

At the same time, the US adroitly manipulates understandable fears of China in the countries along its borders. In particular, it seeks close relations with India (traditionally a Soviet/Russian ally), which it encourages to pursue its own regional rivalry with China. India tries to surround China with its client states, while China tries to do the same to India.

So although China has strengthened its positions in more distant regions, its control over its immediate neighbourhood is slipping, as signalled by Burma’s decision not to cooperate with China’s dam construction program. This could lead to a highly unstable “sandwich” pattern of great power rivalry.       

The Russia – China relationship
The relationship between Russia and China is marked by similar rivalries and ambiguities. Like the US, Russia is losing ground to China in a region where it used to predominate – post-Soviet Central Asia with its oil and gas. There are also tensions in cross-border relations, notably over Chinese firms’ exploitation of timber, fish and other resources in the Russian Far East.  

Nevertheless, the cooperative element in Russian-Chinese relations is also strong, and perhaps more resilient than US – China cooperation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) facilitates multilateral relations among China, Russia and the Central Asian countries, and this helps to mitigate Chinese-Russian rivalry in Central Asia.

In October 2008 this column suggested that the SCO might prefigure a Chinese-led bloc directed against US hegemony (MW, Oct 2008). Now it looks as if the conflict of interests between Russia and China may be too great to permit such a development.

An opaque multipolar world
Thus, in the foreseeable future there may be neither a new global hegemon to replace the US nor a new bipolar configuration. Rather, the current opaque multipolar world will continue to evolve in ways that are difficult to predict. This will occur in the context of enormous climatic change, accompanied by the scramble for the melting Arctic (MW, Sep 2007) and later on for the melting Antarctic.

Unless, that is, we can forge links of solidarity across all the actual and potential battle lines that scar our plundered planet. Unless we can dismantle all the rival state machines and set up a world socialist community.        

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