Tensions between the United States and China, already high, are growing as the brash and unpredictable Trump moves into the White House. Australia’s ruling class are confronted and split by choices that can land them on one side or another of this cut-throat rivalry – a rivalry between their biggest trading partner and their central military ally.
Donald Trump causes great anxiety amongst Australia’s rulers because they cannot easily foresee how he will act in the already-tense Asia-Pacific region. They suspect he will destabilise Australia’s precarious balancing act. Already they are worried about Trump’s provocative actions on Taiwan, desperate not to be dragged into a crisis.
By abandoning the regional Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and slamming so-called “free trade”, Trump has alarmed Australian politicians and bosses who are wedded to neo-liberal ideology. With the TPP at risk, they now focus on the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as the way forward. This will thicken the link between Australia and China’s economies.
Already Canberra relies on the Chinese economy to drive growth and provide domestic stability. But Trump threatens this with his promise to label China a ‘currency manipulator’ and start a trade war that would engulf Australia.
But it is the ongoing stand-off in the strategically important South China Sea that represents the biggest threat to the status-quo in Australia. More than one third of global shipping and $5 trillion of world trade passes through this region yearly.
Pro-US forces are pressuring the feeble Turnbull government to join the United States in aggressive patrols, close to China’s recently constructed military facilities on human-made islands. So far, the government has refused.
US Vice President Joe Biden visited in July last year as part of this campaign. He weighed into the public debate, warning “It’s never a good bet to bet against the United States.” China have rebuked Australia for their diplomatic challenges on the subject, and issued their own warnings for Australia to not become involved lest China strike back, economically or with force.
The possibility of a military clash which draws in Australia is very real. This is particularly the case as political instability and opposition movements at home can push Presidents of both the US and China to whip up nationalism to boost their support by manufacturing an incident.
Pro-US and pro-Chinese forces are at work within Australia, and allies of both camps exist in the two major parties. They are locked in a vicious fight, both in the open and in the shadows.
The China-US divide is infecting all of the political and economic debates. Right-wing populists like Hanson will seek to exploit the issue, stoking racism and arguing for the protection of local bosses’ profits against “free trade”. Divisions and the potential for splits and realignments in the major parties will be exacerbated by Trumps election.
Socialists must take an independent, internationalist position on the issue, a position that supports the interests of the working class. We refuse to act as apologists for feuding imperialist regimes. Instead, we support the struggles of workers and the poor in all other countries against their militarist and nationalist governments. Concretely, we can add to the struggle by opposing the military build-up in Australia, fighting for more spending on health and education instead of new submarines or fighter planes, for example.
Socialists also oppose the neoliberal “free trade” agreements, like both the TPP and RCEP, which are capitalist instruments for the destruction of workers’ rights, social safety nets and environmental standards. But neither do we stand for capitalist protectionist measures to shelter local bosses and their profits.
Instead we want to protect and improve the living standards of ordinary people. This requires public ownership of the big private companies, to allow democratic control and management to plan the use of the wealth we produce for human need.
Joint ownership and cooperation in managing and sharing the resources of the South China Sea between the neighbouring countries is the solution that will benefit the majority of people. It is also the only solution that can undermine the competing petty nationalisms.
Meaningful implementation of this is impossible on the basis of capitalism, which is rooted in cut-throat competition between separate nation-states. Only by fighting to establish international, democratic socialism, which puts the majority of people’s needs first, can we undermine the militarism and imperialism that is growing in the region.
By Kirk Leonard