By Stephen Gowans
April 21, 2022
In Lenin’s view, imperialism is immanent in capitalism as a global system. Inasmuch as China is one of the most significant players in this system, if not the most significant, the implication of Lenin’s view is that imperialism is also immanent in China.
A number of people who claim to be anti-imperialists and to understand the concept thoroughly, to the point of holding workshops, participating in panels, and writing articles to instruct others on what it means, have, despite their professed knowledge, defined the concept in a manner that departs significantly from the way in which imperialism has been understood historically. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, there was little mystery about what imperialism is. Now, it has become altogether different from what it has always been understood to mean. And while many of these same people claim at least a passing knowledge of Lenin’s view of imperialism, the Bolshevik leader would have been baffled by their understanding.
In opposition to commonly accepted definitions and the Leninist tradition, the anti-imperialist docents have developed a view of imperialism that resonates less with Lenin and more with a view developed by Shintoist Japan in the 1930s. According to this view, imperialism is North American and Western European domination of the world. Anti-imperialism is the effort of a rising power to liberate its neighbors from this domination by folding nearby states into its own (declared or undeclared) regional empire (the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in Japan’s case.)
Hence, Russia’s efforts to “liberate” Ukraine from the United States and Europe, and to incorporate parts or all of it into a palingenetic Russian empire, is viewed as anti-imperialist. Likewise, China’s new security agreement with the Solomon Islands is seen as anti-imperialist—a weakening of US and Australian domination of the islands. While it certainly is this, it is also an effort to define a security architecture that allows Beijing to protect Chinese investments abroad and to safeguard shipping routes that are vital to the unimpeded access of Chinese billionaires to foreign markets and sources of raw materials.
The Leninist view of imperialism as inherent in a globalized capitalism can be used as a lens to parse the New York Times’ reporting on the recent China-Solomon Islands security agreement. According to a leaked draft of the accord, Beijing is empowered to dispatch police, troops, and warships to the islands to protect Chinese investments and Chinese citizens, an agreement that resonates with multiple similar accords struck between Washington and countries in Latin America and beyond.
The Times, tacitly defining US ruling class interests as humanity’s interests, presents the accord as a danger to the world. “China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his army now have a foothold in an island chain that played a decisive role in World War II and could be used to block vital shipping lanes,” the newspaper warns. What isn’t mentioned is that the United States and its satellites control the shipping lanes. The deal allows China to challenge US control of the maritime routes on which it depends—or more precisely, on which its capitalist economy depends—for access to foreign markets and sources of raw materials. The deal doesn’t threaten humanity so much as it threatens US leverage over a capitalist rival.
The Times continues its diatribe against the accord by noting the pact’s imperialist features, all the while avoiding any mention of the similar accords Washington, London, Paris, and other imperialist capitals have signed with numberless governments around the world for centuries, sometimes at the point of a gun.
“To start,” the accord “provides a broad mandate for China to potentially intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora are under threat, as it stretches its projection of military power.”
The newspaper quotes Richard Herr, a law professor at the University of Tasmania, who observes that “With the pact, China is essentially trying to establish a principle of using military force to protect its economic presence in places where it claims the government does not have the capacity.” In this, China acts no differently than the United States.
“What the Solomons’ deal tells the world, at the very least,” he adds, “is that China believes that if its major projects are threatened, it wants a right to protect them.” Again, this is standard US procedure, or, to put it another way, standard procedure for major capitalist powers. Consider also France’s intervention in Africa to protect access to and investments in uranium mines, vital to an important form of French energy.
“The lesson for the rest of the world is that China is looking to rebalance the global order in its favor,” Herr continues. “And whether that means opening trade routes, establishing a military facility or signing a security agreement, Beijing will act to benefit its own interests.” Herr goes on to say that Beijing will do so at the expense of “democracy and an open and free world”, euphemisms for the US empire. In other words, the expansion of a Chinese empire comes at the expense of a US empire.
What the Times’ article shows, albeit in a clearly chauvinist way, is that large capitalist powers and blocs—the United States and its satellites, Europe (to the extent it acts independently of the United States), China, and Russia—seek to fashion the world order in their favor. They seek to bring as much of the world economy as possible under their own control. This means security arrangements and treaties to protect their investments abroad, and to safeguard their access to foreign markets, sources of raw materials, strategic territory, and investment opportunities. To be sure, the United States is by far the strongest of the rivals, but that doesn’t mean that Russia and China are not driven by capitalist compulsions to dominate the planet every much as strong as those that drive US expansion—a compulsion to settle everywhere, to nestle everywhere, to establish connections everywhere.
With multiple capitalist power centers existing within the framework of a globalized economy, rivalry for profit-making opportunities is inevitable. The rise of one power center at the expense of another may appear to be anti-imperialist, but only so far as the declining power is erroneously viewed as the sole imperialist, i.e., as the lone capitalist power in search of investment opportunities, markets, and raw materials. The decline of US and Western European influence in East Asia with the rise of Japan beginning in the 1930s may have appeared to the naïve as an anti-imperialist victory—this was certainly the illusion Tokyo aimed to create—but it was an illusion all the same. So too is China’s rise an illusory anti-imperialist victory. It may be a victory against China’s domination by the United States, as the rise of the United States was a victory against US domination by Britain, or Germany’s rise was a challenge to British hegemony, but it is in no way a victory over the persistence of capitalist rivalry for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory. It is simply a continuation of this process.
Imperialism within a globalized capitalist economy can be envisaged along two axes. One axis concerns the process of large countries exploiting profit-making opportunities in smaller countries. The anti-imperialist docents err in thinking of imperialism in these terms alone. The other axis concerns the rivalry among large countries for profit-making opportunities within the borders of the countries its rivals dominate and within the borders of its rivals themselves. The first axis is one of large countries dominating weaker ones. The second is of large countries competing among themselves to monopolize the sum total of the world’s profit-making opportunities—to shape the global order in their favor, to use terminology favored by the New York Times.
The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is a manifestation of imperialism, in three acts:
- In China seeking to create a security architecture to protect its tycoons’ investments beyond China’s borders.
- In Beijing’s efforts to counter US domination of shipping lanes important to China’s capitalist economy.
- In the opposition of the United States (and its sub-imperialist partner, Australia) to China’s challenge to US-led control of maritime routes.
Capitalism need not be invoked to define China and Russia, along with the United States, France, and Great Britain—the permanent members of the UN Security Council—as imperialist states. As victors of WWII, these self-defined “model” nations have assigned to themselves rights and privileges senior to those of all other nations. Russia, for example, can test a new ballistic missile with impunity, by virtue of its permanent membership on the council and access to veto powers, while participating, along with China, in the imposition of international sanctions on a small country, North Korea, for doing precisely the same.
Large countries, including the largest of all, China, have historically dominated their weaker neighbors, even if some of them, China not excepted, were dominated themselves. A fortiori, we would expect large capitalist countries, driven by an expansionary capitalist logic, to continue in this manner. China shows no evidence that it is an anomaly or a departure from expectation.