Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China

US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

July 11, 2017
6 min read

Illustration: Mr Marbles

In 2016, US exports to China totalled $116 billion, while its imports reached $463 billion. The $347 billion deficit accounts for almost 70 per cent of America’s total trade deficit. Donald Trump’s most influential senior advisers, Peter Navarro, who heads the National Trade Council, and US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross, call China ‘the biggest trade cheater in the world’.

They blamed Beijing’s non-compliance with trade rules as the main reason for the US trade deficit and said that China was responsible for huge job losses in the US. This and other trade losses drive Trump’s aggressive unilateralism, which means levelling the balance of trade with other states and prying open their markets to benefit the US.

That is not new. The balance of power, however, especially in south-east Asia, has changed a lot in the past few years. Dr Charles Santiago, a former NGO trade campaigner turned MP of the opposition Democratic Action Party in Malaysia, says that China is now the dominant superpower in the region: ‘It is successfully influencing foreign and military policy of south-east Asian countries through underwriting infrastructure developments like construction of highways, sea and airports in the region.’

Although the US is still by far the largest economy in the world and will be for some time, its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will directly impact its trade competitiveness in Asia and will benefit the rival Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes China.

The RCEP, however, is not an alternative that promotes just trade. Joseph Purugganan, Philippine director of Focus on the Global South, says that, ‘Just like TPP, RCEP is a corporate trade deal that will do nothing to address inequality and wealth concentration, the destruction of the environment, and the erosion of people’s fundamental human rights in Asia.’

Threat of war

The threat of war is increasing in the Korean peninsula as military tensions escalate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile tests. The US, South Korea and Japan want Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its weapons programmes and crack down on the supposedly ‘communist’ country’s hereditary regime. China opposes any attempt by the US to overthrow the North Korean government as any crackdown or regime collapse there could lead to reunification of the two Koreas, which would in turn mean a unified pro-US Korean peninsula on its doorstep.

The US has already dropped dummy bombs and threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons many times in the past. In his visit to the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas, US vice president Mike Pence confirmed that a military solution is on the agenda.

The US is also building a missile defence system in South Korea that is aimed at China. It is not surprising that China perceives this as a threat.

The possibility of President Trump launching a catastrophic war against North Korea is especially worrying as any conflict would be between nuclear powers. Without UN approval it would be a violation of the UN charter, the war powers clause of the US constitution and other US laws.

In addition to escalating tension over North Korea, the South China Sea territorial dispute is also getting out of control. China’s massive land reclamation in the disputed reefs and waterway, which is altering the ecosystem in the area, as well as its installation of weapons systems there despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to exercise ‘self-restraint’ and avoid activities that could escalate tensions in the region, is heightening its dispute with other claimant countries: Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

Both North Korea and the South China Sea problem, if not peacefully resolved, could bring the world to another, deadlier war. Barack Obama committed to shift 60 per cent of US naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 under his ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. Trump’s election promise was to upgrade the US military’s hardware and manpower, including the construction of 80 advanced warships.

This escalation of tension, carried out by both sides, is also affecting the contours of international relations in the Asia Pacific region and globally. It poses clear and present challenges to the social movements that are trying to promote social and economic justice, civil liberty, human rights, democracy and ecological equilibrium in their respective countries and across the region.

In the light of these sources of increasing insecurity, social movements are also facing a growing culture of autocracy – Duterte in the Philippines, military rule in Thailand, for example – that is being fostered by this geopolitical instability.

Emboldening autocracy

The Philippines, the US’s traditional ally in the region, was supported by an arbitral court ruling of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2015, which rejected China’s claims to more than 80 per cent of the disputed reefs.

As the current chair of the ASEAN, the Philippines could have taken the opportunity to lead the regional bloc behind a common stand on this maritime dispute. However, the current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte decided not to raise the arbitral court’s ruling at this year’s ASEAN summit. Duterte expressed contempt for the US in several key speeches and a preference for closer ties with China and Russia due to American interventions in Philippine affairs and the imbalance of US‑Philippine relations.

He is increasingly criticised by local and international human rights groups in relation to his militaristic drug policy that has now killed more than 7,000 people since he rose to power in June 2016. The extra-judicial killing of suspected drug users and pushers is part of a worrying trend of growing human rights violations and far-right populist rule in Asia. Most countries in ASEAN are now suffering from this democratic deficit.

Duterte’s anti-US posturing failed to convince the opposition Magdalo Party that he is pursuing an independent foreign policy, however. It has recently filed an impeachment complaint against him in the Philippine Congress for betrayal of public trust, culpable violations of the constitution, bribery and other crimes over his alleged secret deals with China and other aspects of his foreign policy.

Dorothy Guerrero is head of policy and advocacy at Global Justice Now

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths