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Vol. VI, No. 51      Jan. 28 - Feb 3, 2007      Quezon City, Philippines











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Hegemony or Cooperation: Major Contradictions in East Asia Today*
First of four parts

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. 

Meantime, French imperialism spread through trade exploration, the establishment of protectorates and outright annexations. It established French supremacy in wide swathes of Southeast Asia by seizing the three provinces of Cochin China or the southernmost region of Vietnam, capturing Hanoi after a war with China and securing trade and religious privileges in the rest of Vietnam. By the beginning of the 20th century, France had created an empire in Indochina whose area was nearly 50 percent larger than France itself.  

Unlike the traditional European colonial powers such as Great Britain, France or The Netherlands, Tsarist Russia, a landlocked country, expanded from the center outward by a process of accretion in its drive for access to warm water ports. Thus while the British were consolidating their hold on the Indian subcontinent, Russian expansion had moved eastward to the Pacific, then toward the Middle East, and finally to the frontiers of Persia and Afghanistan.  

China’s imperial history had several dynasties ruling and expanding its territory with the Qin Dynasty establishing the first Chinese empire from 221–207 BC. The Qing dynasty (1644-1911), established by the Manchus, was the last imperial dynasty that ruled China which also was said to have expanded into Central Asia. In the 19th century, military campaigns, corruption, population pressures and disasters leading to the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) and the Taiping and Nian rebellions ended the dynasty and the abdication of the last emperor in 1912. 

Internal weaknesses left China vulnerable to European including Russian, Japanese and U.S. imperialism, thereby leading it to suffer one of the most oppressive and humiliating colonial occupations in the world. From 1839 until 1900, China suffered defeats in wars with Great Britain and Japan forcing it to accede to treaties that led to its dismemberment and economic vassalage by European, Japanese and American imperialists. The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) and the Bogue (1843), forced China to cede Hong Kong to Great Britain and opened Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy), Fuzhou (Foochow), and Ningbo (Ningpo) ports to British trade and residence with extraterritoriality, that is, the right to try British citizens in China in British courts, and to promise to conduct foreign relations on the basis of equality. The other Western powers soon received similar privileges. The 1858 Treaty of Tientsin opened 11more ports to European trade, allowed foreign envoys to reside in Beijing, admitted missionaries to China, legalized the importation of opium, and permitted foreigners to travel in the Chinese interior. The United States and Russia later obtained the same rights in separate treaties. These treaties gave the foreign colonialists extraterritoriality, customs regulation and the right to station foreign warships in Chinese waters. 

Following its defeat by Japan in a war, China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 giving up its suzerain rights over Korea and Taiwan to the Japanese imperialists and to allow the European powers and Japan to secure concessions. So weak was China at this time that two years later Germany demanded and was given exclusive mining and railroad rights in Shandong province. Russia did the same and obtained access to Dairen and Port Arthur and the right to build a railroad across Manchuria, allowing it to dominate a large part of northwestern China. Great Britain and France also obtained a number of concessions. At this stage, China was divided up into “spheres of influence”: Germany dominated Jiaozhou Bay, Shandong, and the Huang He valley; Russia controlled the Liaodong Peninsula and Manchuria; Great Britain dominated Weihaiwei and the Yangtze Valley; and France dominated the Guangzhou Bay and several other southern provinces. 

Not to be left out, the U.S. in 1900 forced many of the colonial powers to support its “Open Door” policy, providing for freedom of commercial access and non-annexation of Chinese territory.  

It was only toward the end of the 19th century when the U.S., egged on by a rising corporate elite and finance oligarchy in their quest for trade expansion and access to raw materials for their industries, set its eyes on East Asia and the rest of Asia and the Pacific. Echoing the Monroe Doctrine that established U.S. hegemony in South America in the early 19th century, a call was raised for the U.S. to fulfill its "Manifest Destiny" across the Pacific. American journalist W.T. Stead called for "the Americanization of the world." As it became part of the inter-imperialist rivalry and consequent redivision of the world, the U.S. began to build up its sea power, with its own naval expenditures increasing from $22 million in 1890 or 6.9 percent of the total federal budget to $139 million in 1914 or 19 percent. The expansion began in 1867 with the occupation of Midway Islands and the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Next, it consolidated its control over Hawaii islands at the expense of European plantation companies through annexation in 1898 but not after the U.S. Marines engineered a “revolt” that deposed the Hawaiian queen and set up a puppet regime. 

Using treachery and the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. annexed the Philippines and Guam from Spain in 1898 while, almost at the same time, taking control of Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean as well as the small Pacific outpost of Wake Island. 

The economic depression of the 1890s followed by World War I led to the weakening of some empires in Europe with repercussions in East Asia and the rest of the world, showing how wars – particularly major wars – would strike at the heart of imperialism and cause major changes in the power equation. Germany lost all of its colonies in Asia: German New Guinea (a part of Papua New Guinea) which became administered by Australia; its possessions in China, including Qingdao, which were ceded to Japan with the support of the U.S. and UK. 

Japan had earlier become an international power with its seizure of Korea and Taiwan toward the end of the 19th century and, following its spectacular defeat of Russia in 1905, took control of southern Sakhalin Island, the Liaodong Peninsula with Port Arthur and extensive rights in Manchuria. 

In 1931, the Japanese military units based in Manchuria seized control of the region leading to a full-scale war with China in 1937 and drawing Japan toward an overambitious bid for Asian hegemony (Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere). The rise of Japanese imperialism and its invasion and occupation of large portions of Eastern China and British, French, Dutch and U.S. territories in Southeast Asia shattered the preeminence of European and U.S. hegemony in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Japan, however, ended up defeated during World War II with the heroic guerilla war waged by various nationalist and socialist-led forces in these areas playing a decisive role. To prevent the USSR, an ally during the war, from marching onward to Japan, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 resulting in the death of more than 200,000 Japanese civilians. The bombings, which were actually aimed at pre-empting the entry of troops from the Soviet Union that had earlier declared war against Japan, expedited the unconditional surrender of Japan to the U.S. and its occupation by American forces. As a result, Japan lost all its overseas territories after this war. 

The defeat of Japan and the weakening of the various western powers in East Asia emboldened patriotic and national liberation movements in the region particularly in Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia and South Asia, to call for an end to foreign colonialism. The recalcitrance of the imperialist powers precipitated civil wars while in some countries independence would be handed over but only after the imperialist rulers forced the signing of treaties establishing a post-war neo-colonial relationship.

De-colonization, just the same, was a slow process in some colonial territories. Portugal still clung to Macau and settled a new colony in Timor Island. Only in the 1960s and 1990s did Portugal begin to relinquish its colonies in Asia. Goa was invaded by India in 1962 while East Timor was abandoned in 1975 only to be invaded by Indonesia with the support of the U.S. Macau was returned to China in 1999. Two years before that, the UK handed Hong Kong back to China.  

The second world war effectively caused the decline of western European imperialism after it was devastated by the war, aggravated by an economic crisis and the rise of independence and socialist struggles at home. However, the European and Japanese imperialists’ loss was U.S. imperialism’s gain as it became more assertive of its hegemonic ambition. Using Cold War rhetoric and the pretext of containing the spread of Soviet-inspired communism throughout the world, U.S. imperialism intervened in three major wars in East Asia right after World War II: in China during the late 1940s; Korea during the 1940s-early 1950s; and Indochina, from the mid-1950s to 1975. U.S. imperialism, however, suffered major defeats in China, with the victory of the Chinese liberation struggle in 1949, and in Indochina following its retreat in 1975. It could only muster a stalemate in the Korean War after it failed to force North Korea to its knees ending with the signing of an armistice treaty at Panmunjon in 1953. Technically, the war remained unsettled. 

Note, however, that in these three major wars as well as in other civil wars and rebellions in the region, including the Philippines, U.S. imperialism was for a long period backed by its allies in Europe and Asia most especially the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea as well as Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan and Indonesia through direct military intervention, aid and diplomacy. Support by allied or vassal states for the U.S. wars of aggression and intervention in East Asia was secured through defense treaties and military access agreements in exchange for trade and financial agreements, economic assistance as well as propping up dictatorships such as in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. 

It was clear that even after the end of the second world war and until today, East Asia remained embedded in a world of economic, financial, and military system in which the imperialist powers compete for hegemony and influence.  Bulatlat

*This is part of a paper discussed by the author at the conference of the International League of Peoples’ Struggles in East Asia and Oceania on Dec. 11, 2006. It will also be part of a forthcoming book on East Asia today.

U.S. and China: Harmony Today, Confrontation Tomorrow?
Second of four parts

The Korean Peninsula: U.S. Military Aggression and Pyongyang’s Response
Third of four parts

China vs Japan: FTAs, Oil and Taiwan
Last of four parts




© 2007 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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