The recent agreement between Australia, the UK and the US has caused a crisis in international relations. With France temporarily recalling its ambassador from Washington and China issuing a protest, the new agreement has upset feelings across the board. This deal, however, merely constituted one more step in a wider realignment among the imperialist powers.
The deal announced on 15 September included joint work on providing nuclear-powered submarines (without nuclear weapons) and long-range missiles to Australia. The US and UK are already using these technologies and have been collaborating on them for decades. Now they have begun sharing them with Australia. The deal also includes increased intelligence and cybertechnology cooperation.
It is no wonder that the Chinese government condemned the deal in strong terms – it clearly represents an attempt to counter Chinese military capability in the Indo-Pacific region. The Russian government objected on the grounds that the deal represents a breach of nuclear nonproliferation agreements, as Australia would now have access to weapons-grade uranium. Furthermore, the announcement has also upset the EU powers, primarily France, which had been left out of the negotiations. France now stands to lose tens of billions of dollars worth of submarine contracts.
The strength of the EU’s reaction seemed to take the US administration by surprise. It is evident that there was more to this than the loss of a submarine contract, even if it was a sizable contract. The real source of the friction was that the US didn’t feel the need to include them in the discussions.
When Biden was elected, there was an audible sigh of relief among European governments. Finally, they thought, the US would be governed by a President committed to transatlantic cooperation and NATO. Western imperialism would be reunited. Biden’s recent actions have shown that Trump’s foreign policy wasn’t a temporary blip, but part of a wider shift in the policy of the US ruling class.
Following the Second World War, US imperialism was preoccupied with countering the USSR. In its strategic planning, the battleground was to be found in Europe, specifically Germany. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the frontier moved eastwards, but the strategic priority remained the same. And consequently the troops and diplomatic effort remained in Europe.
On another front, the need to ensure a steady supply of oil for the world economy in general, and the US economy in particular, ensured a strong US presence in the Middle East. For decades the US meddled in the region, deposing left-wing leaders and supporting the most reactionary regimes and movements, such as that of the Shah of Iran and the various Gulf states.
Pivot to Asia
In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the US ruling class started realising that their strategic priority had shifted. Their interests had become intricately tied to the Pacific region, and the South China Sea in particular. They have come to realise what the Chinese had realised: 70 percent of world trade flows through the South China Sea, and much of it is crucial to the supply chains of US companies. The (successful) attempts by the Chinese to militarise some of the islands in the sea were therefore a significant threat to US interests.
This new situation prompted Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, although his predecessor, Bush, had already taken some measures in this direction. The expansion of fracking in the US also helped by making the US independent of Middle Eastern oil. Trump’s clashes with China were just an extension of this policy, albeit conducted with all the brashness and clumsiness that characterise Trump. Indeed, the Democrats were often demanding harsher measures against China.
In all this, Europe is being left behind. European governments increasingly feel like a backwater of world politics, and that’s not just a feeling. The centre of gravity has decisively shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as Trotsky predicted a hundred years ago. China is, of course, central to this, but crucial parts in the supply chains are also played by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
US imperialism is increasingly seeing its most important allies in the Pacific region, not the European continent. Japan and Australia are at the top of that list. Of course, the US would like to remain on good terms with its allies in Europe, but its priorities have decisively shifted.
The European powers, primarily Germany and France, also take an interest in the region. For Germany, China is its third biggest export market and its biggest source of imports. France is concerned about the impact on its colonies in the region and is keen to pretend that it is still a first-rate power, when in reality it barely qualifies as second rate.
The AUKUS deal between Australia, the United States and the UK very impolitely rubbed French noses in this uncomfortable truth. Firstly, there was the fact that Australia didn’t see France as an ally, or French military technology, as sufficient. Secondly, France’s supposed ally, the United States, didn’t even bother lifting the phone and letting the French know beforehand. The French supposedly only found out about it through the Australian press. Macron’s opponent in the Presidential elections, Le Pen, claims that they must have known, but whether they actually knew or not, is a secondary matter. The insult lies in that the US didn’t officially inform them.
Clearly, in this instance, the US regards its relationship to Australia as more important than its relationship to France. As the chairman of the German foreign policy committee pointed out, the choice of the US as a partner for Australia was a logical one. The US was offering nuclear-powered submarines, and their military strength is far superior to that of France, particularly in the Pacific.
Nations and interests
The way that the US made its announcement was a massive humiliation to the French, and by extension to the European Union. It didn’t help that Biden invited the British along for an undeserved moment in the sunshine, at a time when the British and the European Union are at loggerheads. Nor did it help that this was apparently discussed behind the back of Macron at the recent summit in Cornwall. And, of course, matters weren’t made any easier by the upcoming election in France. Le Pen wasted no time in accusing Macron of being responsible for the humiliation.
No wonder that the European Union and the French expressed their indignation. The French recalled their ambassador for consultation and accused the US of betrayal. It is notable, however, that many EU governments didn’t join in the chorus. Presumably, they saw the writing on the wall. After a bit of grovelling on behalf of the US, the French government has agreed to discuss the matter. No doubt relations will be patched up after some concessions on the part of the US. French officials have said the US is attempting to repair the relationship in a “transactional” manner.
Still, this was the second time this summer that the Biden administration failed to involve its European allies in decisions. In Afghanistan, US allies were left scrambling after being presented with a fait accompli by Biden. At the time, the German government loudly protested. The Germans are particularly worried about another wave of refugees finding their way to the EU, threatening the stability of the union.
The priorities and interests of the US and the EU are diverging. According to EU commissioner Breton, “something is broken” in US-EU relations. Clearly, Trump wasn’t the only problem here. He was merely a crude expression of a wider process. Political commentators see this as further argument for a European military, and Macron has chimed in. At a recent press conference, Macron echoed this call, saying that Europeans “must see that for more than 10 years the Americans first focus on themselves and have strategic interests reoriented toward China and the Pacific” and that now Europans must “take our part in our own protection”. An EU expeditionary force to rival that of the US remains a pipe dream but the European bourgeoisie is becoming increasingly aware that it cannot rely upon the US military to defend its interests.
Biden halted Trump’s withdrawal of 12,000 soldiers from Germany, citing a new review of troop allocations, but that review could itself end up making the same recommendation. Clearly, if the US is to prioritise the Pacific, it needs to shift its military resources there. Europe seems a very suitable candidate for further cuts in troop numbers.
The US ‘pivot’ will have ramifications not only in Western Europe, but also in Eastern Europe. If the US no longer has a significant presence in Europe, how can it be relied upon to counter Russian influence? So far, countries like Poland have looked to the US to defend their interest, but with the US shifting priorities, can they continue to do so in the long run?
For decades, the German bourgeoisie has benefited from US military presence. Rather than waste their money and resources on military spending, they could invest their profits in industry and raise productivity. Now, the US (not just Trump) is putting pressure on the German government to shoulder more of the burden for the defence of Europe (primarily against Russia).
To claim that the alliance between the Western European and the US is over would be to exaggerate. But as Lord Palmerston put it, nations do not have permanent friends or enemies – they only have interests. And the interests of France, Germany and the US are diverging to a greater degree than in the past.
Arms race in the Pacific
US relations with the EU have taken a hit. Relations with China are getting worse. Inevitably, increased military presence of the US in the region, particularly the South China Sea, will provoke a response from the Chinese government. Like Germany and Japan, the Chinese government has spent relatively limited sums on its military, but these sums are increasing rapidly in line with the growth of its GDP. At the moment military spending is more or less increasing in proportion to GDP. But as the crisis intensifies in China, this too will change.
The focus of China’s military has shifted from defending its own borders, which is relatively cheap, to pursuing the interests of Chinese capital abroad, which is much more expensive. This “modernisation”, as the Chinese government calls it, is planned to reach completion by 2035. It includes new aircraft carriers, aircraft and naval vessels – everything that China would need to join that select group of countries whose armed forces have the ability to operate outside of their immediate vicinity. For China, this is first and foremost a question of the East and South China Seas, and secondly a question of extending its reach into the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The present generation of aircraft carriers are suitable for the former, but not the latter.
The need for China to increase its military power is going to increase as the crisis intensifies. As protectionism is rising, and competition for existing markets intensifies, so too will the need to protect these markets. This is what drives the arms race in the Pacific.
Incidentally, this arms race is extremely expensive. The contract between Australia and France was worth $90 billion. The new contract based on the AUKUS deal hasn't yet been worked out, but estimates suggest that each nuclear-powered submarine would cost around $5 billion (without factoring in inflation). It is hard to see this new contract being cheaper than that which it replaces. This spending, although much desired by Australian and US imperialism, is a complete waste of resources as far as the workers and oppressed of the Pacific are concerned. How many homes, schools or hospitals could not be constructed with this kind of money? It is clear that when they talk about there not being enough money, they are not talking about money for submarines.
The US is no longer the undisputed ‘world police’. In 1960, the US share of the world economy was 40%, today it is merely 24%, with China not far behind on 17%. The relative decline in economic power of the US eventually had to translate into a relative decline in its military and diplomatic power. This is what is now taking place.
In military terms, China remains a far cry from being able to confront the US directly. Nonetheless, it has the strength to begin flexing its military muscles in the South China Sea and a few other places. The relative decline of US imperialism will inevitably lead to increased conflict as other powers feel emboldened to challenge US domination in various parts of the world. China is the world’s foremost rising economic power, which now is being reflected in its growing military power.
No power can challenge the US directly, which is one reason why world war is ruled out. However, some nations are quite capable of asserting themselves against weaker US allies. A recalibration is taking place in world relations, with the inevitable consequence being proxy wars, military coups, airstrikes, drone strikes and civil war. Behind the glossy images of submarines and military contracts, lies the bloody reality of war for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
The AUKUS deal is therefore just another sign of the dead end of capitalism, and the misery that this dying economic system has to offer the world. Caught between the competing imperialist powers will be the masses of the world. The fate of Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Libya will be the future fate of others. It is no more possible to ask these imperialist powers to respect ‘the rule of law’, human rights and peace, than a wolf can be asked to become a vegetarian. The arms race and wars will only end when capitalism is overthrown, and that’s the real task before humanity.