Hegemony or Cooperation: Major Contradictions in East Asia Today*

Developing vibrant trade and investment ties with countries in Southeast Asia would open prospects for China to use this new economic relationship particularly with the U.S.’ military allies as a means of scaling down their security commitments with the U.S. that include the military encirclement of China.


The Cold War period, 1947-1991, saw the assertion of U.S. imperialism’s economic and military hegemony in East Asia and the rest of Asia Pacific in its bid to develop an unhampered access into the vast region’s resources and subject it under a new global economy headed by the U.S. U.S. imperialism was constrained, however, by the emergence of China as a socialist power and the Soviet Union’s early attempts to check U.S. imperialist inroads into the region. U.S. imperialism, along with British and French imperialism, tried to construct a system of neo-colonialism as colonized countries struggled for independence and self-determination, giving rise to three major wars: the Chinese liberation struggle that ended in independence in 1949 and the defeat of the U.S.-backed Kuomintang forces; the Korean War, which resulted in a stalemate in 1953 between the U.S.-backed South Korea and the Chinese-backed North Korea; and the Vietnam War, that ended in a humiliating defeat of the U.S.-South Vietnam forces in 1975 by the Vietnamese liberation forces. Japan, meantime, rose from the second world war as the U.S.’ junior imperialist partner in East Asia and as its conduit in asserting U.S. economic hegemony in this region.

The transformation of China after the death of Mao Ze-dong into a market economy and the abandonment of socialist-internationalist principles in 1978, followed by the collapse of Soviet revisionism in 1990, gave U.S. imperialism a free rein in economic hegemonism and militarism in East Asia, ideologically-promoted no less by its “anti-terrorism” rhetoric. Rightist and neo-conservative ideologues in the U.S. are using the jingoist rhetoric of Chinese economic and military power ambitions to fuel current contradictions between the two countries. This essential carry-over of Cold War belligerency by the U.S. and Japan is also fueling secondary contradictions involving North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries in the region.

I. Brief Historical Overview Related to the Current Major Contradictions

A great part of the world’s economic, political and military tensions today insofar as these involve the major power contenders centers on East Asia. U.S. imperialism has established its foothold here for more than a century and, since the collapse of Soviet socialist revisionism in the late 1980s and the transformation of China from a socialist into a market-oriented, pro-globalization economy in 1979, its hegemony has remained uncontested. Some of the major flashpoints here – such as the Korean Peninsula (North Korea vs the U.S., North Korea vs Japan, North Korea vs South Korea), the continuing frictions springing from China’s irredentist claim over Taiwan, the territorial claims on the Spratly islands and others – draw the intense involvement of the United States, China, Japan and even Russia. The world’s so-called 9-member nuclear club has two countries coming from this region – China and North Korea; or six, if the United States and Russia, traditional geopolitical and geoeconomic stakeholders here, as well as India and Pakistan from South Asia, are included. The political-economic and military fault lines in the region affect other parts of the world – or are symptoms of the ongoing crisis of global capitalism.

What gives this region a historical distinction is that: First, it is one region that has undergone long colonialism and imperialist aggression – more than five centuries. Second, it has also suffered many wars or armed conflicts during such period, owing to trade rivalries and scramble for colonies and spheres of influences between European, U.S. and Japanese colonial powers as a result of which vast populations in this region died. It is in this region where the first-ever atomic bombings took place – in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945. Third, this is one region that affected the rise and fall of European empires and the Japanese empire, to be replaced in an all-sided way by the American Empire.

In the region, despite their points of convergence the U.S. imperialism and China represent the major contradiction, with the latter often seen – to a fault – as a rising economic and military power. Their contradiction centers on trade disputes but the U.S., as promoted by neo-conservative policy makers and defense authorities, is also engaged in a military brinkmanship with China. Over the past 60 years and especially most recently, the U.S. has been encircling China militarily in order to prevent it from being a military power that, it claims, would challenge the U.S. military preeminence which has been traditionally securing the region and the rest of Asia and Pacific as an exclusive domain of U.S. imperialism. Other thorns in U.S.-China relations are the Taiwan issue and Beijing’s perceived military build-up. China desires to regain its sovereignty over Taiwan – especially because of the latter’s goal to declare its own independence – but is constrained by U.S. economic and military support for the Taipei government.

Next to this is the immediate flashpoint in East Asia today – between the U.S. and North Korea. This contradiction, which takes its roots in the Korean War of the early 1950s, draws also the involvement of Japan and South Korea (due to its being a Cold War and post-Cold War ally of the U.S.), on the side of the U.S., and China and Russia, on the side of North Korea. For more than 50 years, socialist North Korea has been threatened with a “rogue regime” change highlighted by brutal economic and military sanctions by the U.S. but the latter has failed to force this socialist country to its knees owing to Pyongyang’s strong intransigence and the Korean people’s resistance and adherence to self-reliance and independence as well as the economic and diplomatic support extended by China and Russia.

Yet another contradiction is between the U.S. and Japan itself, given the increase in trade frictions between these two traditional allies. The contradiction between China and Japan especially over Taiwan, the East China Sea gas resources and other territorial disputes is heating up, with each country now deploying naval forces.

All these contradictions are not confined to the main protagonists only but have wide-ranging impacts not only in the region but also throughout the world. Economic globalization and the intensification of U.S. imperialist militarism and wars of aggression in the guise of “counter-terrorism” have the effect of intensifying these contradictions, thus making the whole region replete with potential major confrontations, civil wars and other armed conflicts.

It is a tragic legacy of long western colonialism and modern imperialism that a large part of what is traditionally called Far East including South Asia and Southeast Asia remains in the developing stage even as major capitalist countries led by the U.S., Japan and even the EU countries still treat this region as a neo-colonial enclave. U.S. and Japanese imperialism, whether in collaboration or separately, generate the main contradictions in the region and consigns other countries to a neo-colonial relationship and underdevelopment often aggravated by civil wars and armed conflicts.

A brief historical overview will help amplify this.

Before modern imperialism of the late 19th century led to the ascendance of U.S. imperialist hegemony in East Asia and the rest of Asia Pacific, most countries in the region were subjugated for nearly four centuries or shorter by various European powers placing these to be under an exploitative and oppressive, European-dominated mercantilist colonial system and later under a modern world capitalist economy. From the late 15th century to 19th century, European colonialists engaged in intense competition in the region marked by bloody inter-European wars for raw materials, trade, spheres of influence, colonial territories and military outposts.

Among these colonialist powers, Portugal was the first to establish trade monopoly between Asia and Europe by preventing rival powers from using sea routes between Europe and the Indian Ocean in the 16th century. The following century, Portugal gradually lost its maritime supremacy as the Dutch East India Company established independent bases in the East and later seized Malacca, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), most southern Indian ports and Japan from the Portuguese. The English rivaled the Dutch in a global struggle over empire in Asia that lasted until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. After the Seven Years’ War, the British eliminated French influence in India and established the British East India Company on the Indian subcontinent.

The Industrial Revolution in the mid- to -late 19th century increased European demand for Asian raw materials and the severe Long Depression of the 1870s provoked a scramble for new markets for European industrial products and financial services in Asia and other continents. Except for some countries in Southeast Asia that came under colonial rule from the 16th to mid-19th century, the onset of modern imperialism generally saw a shift in focus of imperialist objectives in this vast region from just merely trade and indirect rule to formal colonial control of vast overseas territories, particularly South Asia. These areas came under the rule of European imperialist countries particularly Great Britain, France and The Netherlands. Emerging as new imperialist powers in East Asia and in the Pacific were Japan, following the Meiji Restoration; Germany, following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; Tsarist Russia; and the United States, following the Spanish-American War in 1898.

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