Choo Chon Kai, from the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), talks to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about rising United States-China tensions and the struggle for peace in Southeast Asia.
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How do you understand the current dynamics at play within global capitalism?
We are entering a new phase of global capitalism in which the US-dominated post-Cold War unipolar world order is crumbling. The old powers are in decline but the new powers have yet to fully develop their strength.
US imperialist hegemony is clearly in decline. Its military strength has been overstretched by its catastrophic military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2008 economic crisis has deeply impacted its economy.
Meanwhile, we have the rising influence of emerging powers, such as China, who are seeking to challenge US imperialism’s dominance at the global level.
We also have US allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, establishing closer relations with countries that the US deems as not-friendly in order to help pursue their own geopolitical ambitions.
While these smaller emerging powers might not be challenging US imperialism at the global level, they are advancing their own geopolitical interests at the regional level.
How have these global dynamics impacted politics and struggles in Malaysia?
In recent decades, Malaysia has been very close to the US and very strongly influenced by its policies and economic thinking.
But more recently, due to the US’ decline and closer economic relationships with China — which has overtaken the US as our biggest trading partner — Malaysia has started drifting away from US influence.
It is evident that the government is moving closer to other countries, even if the US still has some influence in Malaysia.
What, in your opinion, is behind US military strategy in the region? How do you view China’s role and actions towards the US and regional neighbours?
The US is trying to maintain its economic, political and military superiority in the region, primarily by seeking to contain its main rival, China.
In terms of China’s role in the Southeast Asian region, this is quite complex. With the exception of Vietnam, which China invaded four decades ago, most countries in the region have peacefully coexisted with China.
More recently, however, China has triggered disputes in Southeast Asian waters by building artificial islands and sending Chinese military vessels to patrol disputed areas. This has created certain tensions and anxieties among governments in Southeast Asia over whether China poses a threat to their country.
As for Malaysia, when disputes have emerged, for example in the South China Sea, the government has not adopted an aggressive stand towards China. While protesting the fact that Chinese vessels have crossed into Malaysian waters, it has refrained from beating the war drum.
Are there debates among the Malaysian left over how to respond to the current tensions over China?
On this issue there is no consensus within the Malaysian left. Generally speaking, the left — especially the older generation — view China in a more positive light.
When it comes to US-China rivalry, they still see China as a positive counter-hegemon to the US. Few are concerned by China’s rise and any threat this might pose to neighbouring countries.
There are also still a lot of debates over how to characterise China: Is China socialist or not? Is China imperialist or not? From my point of view, we should seek to better understand China's complex history and its current state, politically and economically. This is important because China has become a major power. We can no longer ignore these discussions.
At the same time, we should be careful not to quickly jump to conclusions. Some say China is not imperialist purely because of its recent historical past. Others say it is imperialist because it is building military bases in the region or has threatened to take Taiwan.
The left faces a big challenge reconciling these views and reaching a consensus.
How is the conflict over Taiwan viewed in your country? What stance has the PSM taken towards this issue?
This depends on which community we are talking about. Among the Chinese community, there are strong views and divisions: there is a minority that is very pro-Taiwan and — based on my observation — a majority who support China and its ambition for unification.
Among the non-Chinese communities, you will not find such strong views. Most largely support the government’s position, and that of other ASEAN countries, calling for dialogue to avoid a military confrontation over Taiwan.
The PSM is continuing to have internal discussions due to differing views. But, in general, we are against any escalation of the Cross-Strait conflict into a war. We believe the Taiwan question should be resolved through peaceful negotiations based on mutual respect.
We respect the right of self-determination for Taiwanese people. We are not advocating for unification or Taiwan's independence — we are supporting their right to self-determination, just as we do for West Papua, for Palestine, for all peoples.
Do you see possibilities to build solidarity with struggles that don’t have Western imperialist powers as their main enemy — not just Taiwan, but Hong Kong, for example — given that these movements might seek support from these powers?
This is quite a challenging issue. In Hong Kong, for example, the local movement is dominated by right-wing forces that are clearly pro-Western imperialism.
This is used by leftists in other countries, including Malaysia, to say that the protests are simply the work of pro-imperialist forces. This makes it very difficult for some leftists to link up with, or even sympathise with, these struggles.
The problem is that when the left fails to build solidarity with these protests, the protesters — including even those from the left — see the left’s failure to provide solidarity and turn to the right and imperialism for support.
I don’t think I have the answer for how to go about this. I do think that the first thing the left should do is seek to understand the dynamics, history and content of struggles in different places. Only then can we develop empathy and build solidarity.
As the PSM, we have held sessions with the purpose of establishing dialogues with people directly involved in such struggles, so that more people can better understand and connect with them. We have sought to amplify the voices of the left involved in these struggles in order for them to be heard.
What kind of peace initiatives do you think the left in the region could focus on?
A joint statement initiated by comrades from the Philippines that we, as the PSM, fully support, lists certain peace initiatives, including the closure of all US military bases in the Asia-Pacific, which we see as a main factor contributing to escalating tensions in the region.
It also demands, among other things, the dismantlement of all imperialist intelligence infrastructure, upholding the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty and expanding the nuclear weapon-free zone treaty to the entire Asia-Pacific region.
But another important peace initiative we need to take is bolstering working-class solidarity and internationalism from below. We cannot just rely on governments — the movements, the grassroots, need to promote solidarity against military escalation in the region, wherever this is happening.
Most importantly, we need to organise movements at home capable of capturing political power. This would give us more space to promote peace and avoid conflicts among countries in the region.
How should the left view prospects for a multi-polar world?
The left should be under no illusions that the emerging so-called multi-polar world will help our struggles.
Our struggles will always depend on on-the-ground organising and our ability to build movements capable of challenging the capitalist order. A multi-polar world will not do this for us.
Of course, a multi-polar world provides us with a new situation, new openings, new opportunities and new challenges when it comes to organising struggles.
But we should have no illusions in right-wing governments or governments that only seek a better foothold within a multi-polar world. It is meaningless to the working class to have a multi-polar world if the same repressive regimes are in power.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
These issues are very difficult. How to deal with these new situations is a dilemma for the left.
A lot of people have preconceived positions on issues such as the US-China rivalry. But what we need is further discussion and a greater understanding of, for example, China’s rise, the new challenges we face internationally and its impacts on struggles domestically.
We need more discussions to enhance our understanding of the situation, and develop more concrete and useful strategies for advancing our struggles.
[Abridged from a longer version of this interview published at links.org.au.]