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Imperial boundaries are being redefined in South East Asia

This article is over 8 years, 9 months old
China’s ability to exert its influence in neighbouring countries shows the limitations of US imperialism, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2453
US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping during a state banquet in Beijing last year

US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping during a state banquet in Beijing last year (Pic: The White House/Flickr)

The recent crisis in Nepal has highlighted the challenge to US imperialism in Asia. 

After the earthquake, while Western imperialist powers jostled for position with promises of aid, the Chinese government stepped in and supplied relief. 

For China, Nepal is a key part of its “new Silk Road” project, which aims to forge infrastructure links through Central Asia to European markets. 

This assertiveness has fuelled a popular perception that China was on course to become the world’s new superpower. But other commentators look to its recent economic slowdown and say its rise was a mirage. 

Neither side is right. 

The US remains the world’s largest military power and maintains its dominance within global capitalism. But Nepal showed China is able to assert its interests in its regional sphere of influence. It pointed to one of the crises facing US imperialism. 

That’s why US president Barack Obama has attempted to “pivot” US foreign policy towards South East Asia. He’s tried to increase trade links and beef up the military presence, placing 60 percent of the US Navy in the Pacific. 

The threat China poses to US dominance seems evident.  

China has weathered the global crisis much better than the West, growing 56 percent from 2007-10 compared with the West’s 3 percent. 

During the crisis China became the world’s second largest economy, leading in manufacturing, exports and energy consumption. 


This rapid growth both underpins the expansion of the Chinese military and makes it necessary to secure new markets. 

Meanwhile, the West’s military spending has relatively declined since the crisis. Chinese military spending grew by 43.5 percent in 2008-13, while US spending rose by 0.1 percent. 

Nonetheless the US’s military budget still stood at a staggering £390 billion in 2013 compared to China’s £85 billion. 

They’re predicted to converge by 2028. But for now China is in no position to challenge the US militarily and remains dependent on the US navy to safeguard shipping routes. 

Last year China became the world’s largest economy according to the International Monetary Fund. While it came out of the crisis stronger, the government’s response has created its own problems. 

It made a £2 trillion cash injection into the economy. But much of this went into a speculative real estate boom and it has also fuelled the growth of a barely regulated “shadow” banking sector. 

Chinese capitalism is also coming up against a much deeper profitability crisis.

Its rapid expansion rested on bringing in cheap labour from rural areas, targeting foreign investment and importing used factory equipment. 

But the supply of new labour is drying up so labour costs are rising. And little of the profit from foreign investment actually remains within the country. 

China is still able to challenge the US economically and assert itself regionally—and the limits on internal expansion are driving its need for foreign markets. 

But this does not mean China is going to replace the US—they aren’t fighting it out on a one to one basis.

The crisis is a product of the imperialist competition between many capitalist states, such as Japan and Vietnam.

China’s rise shows that while the US remains the dominant superpower, imperialism features rivalry between many rising powers.

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