25 January 2013

Eyes on East Asia

In A.D. 2013 war was beginning. Well, not exactly, or at least not yet. But things may be creeping in that direction. Amidst all the brainless yammering about the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the hoopla of the Presidential inauguration, the emergence and bloody resolution of the Algerian hostage crisis, and French neo-colonial adventures in North Africa, the escalating geopolitical tension in Southeast Asia has receded into the background of the news cycle. That will probably change in due time, though. With old, nationalist hatreds flaring up and a global economic outlook that is anything but rosy, there is reason to believe that the situation may soon reach a boiling point. In the succinct words of China's own, inimitable Global Times, “Peace Will Be a Miracle if Provocation Lasts.

What is at issue? Seemingly at the center of the recent resurgence of nationalist belligerence between Japan, China, and their regional neighbors is a group of tiny, mostly unpopulated islands in the East and South China Seas. The legacy of unsettled territorial claims following the end of the Second World War, the eastern islands – the “Diaoyu” in Chinese or the “Senkakku” in Japanese – are officially administered by Japan, but this is contested by the Chinese. To the south, the Spratley and Paracel Islands are claimed by China, but this is disputed by Vietnam and the Philippines. The last few months have seen a continuous cycle of mutual provocation between the rival states, as overt displays of military force complement more PR-oriented moves, such as China distributing a new passport clearly showing their ownership of the disputed territories, or Japan's new virulently nationalist, right-wing president Abe Shinzō reviewing national apologies for war crimes to make sure they are not excessively apologetic. In the recent Japanese presidential elections Abe campaigned, to great effect, for increases in defense spending, expanding the army, and generally taking a tougher and more militaristic stance towards Japan's massive, ancient enemy to the west.

Such bellicosity comes as no surprise since the area around the contested islands is thought to be extremely rich in energy resources, a fact that is even drawing India into the conflict. And finally, it doesn't help matters that the US, in its recent “strategic pivot” to East Asia, is flooding regional allies with drones, jets, bombs, and other things that explode or cause other things to explode. This will not make China less nervous about the war-mongering rhetoric emanating from across the East China Sea (If you're interested, here is a write-up on the situation by the Council on Foreign Relations, but it may be biased since the CFR is actually composed of lizard people from space bent on the domination of humanity, so bear that in mind).

As military buildups continue, and nationalist bellicosity continues to intensify, the question must be asked: why is this happening now? Why is the project of international cooperation for the economic well-being of all, hailed by the likes of Francis Fukuyama and so-called “third way” liberals, once again breaking down into nationalist geopolitics and territorial conflicts over the control of space? The political leadership of Japan, China, Taiwan, and the other regional powers must know that armed conflict would not only be disastrous for those directly involved, but also potentially catastrophic for an exceedingly fragile global economy. While the resulting war and death would be a joyous affair for the US arms industry, the fact that any major conflict would probably force the U.S. to take the side of its liberal client states in the region against China would ensure the breakdown of trade and investment between China and the US, and thus the breakdown of the one of the most important interdependencies in the global economy. The stoppage of the flow of cheap exports from China to the US means the end of the massive accumulation of dollar reserves by China; this, in turn, would presumably mean the end of Chinese financing of the US public debt, and thus the end of the country's role as the US's chief foreign banker (for an analysis of some of the consequences that may result from the disruption of the US/China relationship, see here). There are any number of scary scenarios one could speculate about at this point, but it is sufficient to say that if it were to come to this, one of the key pillars of the global economy – such as it is – will crumble, and the results probably will not be serendipitous. For anyone.

Assuming that the worst-case scenarios are not difficult to foresee, why are the regional powers of Southeast Asia embarking down such a dangerous path? Michael Klare, in his excellent article, outlines some of the immediate causes: the strategic pivot of US military forces towards Asia – supported by a morbid Sinophobia within the American political class – and major governmental shake-ups in China and Japan that favor aggressive foreign policies backed by jingoistic fervor are two that he names. But he accepts these facts as given and doesn't probe further to inquire into the conditions that made them possible in the first place. Why is the US public as receptive as it is to anti-China rhetoric, such that both of the presidential candidates last fall practically fell over themselves in a lurid contest to see who could denounce China more vociferously? And why are the people of China and Japan lending a very receptive ear to hyper-nationalist, militaristic arguments? Well, in the case of China, this may have something to do with it. Meanwhile Japan and the US, both moribund economies that are now simply printing money indefinitely, are undergoing stagnant or minimal economic growth and, at least in the US, grinding unemployment. When combined with a political class that is rightly perceived as feckless, dysfunctional, and largely incapable of addressing the situation – especially in the US, but also, to a lesser degree, Japan – the state is obligated to conjure up the specter of the foreign enemy as the natural source of the present misery, anxiety, and despair. Symbolic compensation for material destitution becomes even more essential than usual to the maintenance of legitimacy – in fact, it must be intensified. Given the recent collapse of neoliberalism as a global system for the accumulation of capital, and the apparent unavailability of any viable alternative, it may very well be the case that the elected officials of these countries really have no option but to sublimate the anger and resentment produced by the global crisis into the xenophobic language of nationalism, glory, and territorial conquest.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Here again is Klare on the geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia: “That the irrationality of [overt hostilities] will be apparent to anyone who considers the deeply entangled economic relations among all these powers may prove no impediment to the situation – as at the beginning of World War I – simply spinning out of everyone's control.” True enough, but while it may seem irrational to external observers, it is precisely an integral aspect of the crisis itself that what appears to be a blatantly irrational and self-destructive course of action to some, nonetheless should appear to others as the only viable path to take. The breakdown of the regional and international patterns of cooperation that accompanied neoliberal economic growth in Southeast Asia, and the consequent revival of nationalist geopolitics and the resurrection of the ghosts of imperialism, are inextricably related to the continuing global transformation of neoliberal capitalism.

1 comment:

  1. With tensions rising, economic uncertainties is inevitable. Being able to secure our income through an income insurance is good but without addressing the main issue, none of this would matter.