Russia, China and the US fear of ‘tectonic shifts’

February 24, 2022
US bases across the globe. Image: @davidsvine/Twitter

The news that Russia had officially recognised Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics, and that “peacekeepers” crossed the border, was immediately denounced by the Australian government and the corporate media.

An editorial in The Australian demanded that sanctions be imposed to “head off a march of tyrants”. We were told that “we are not immune from the tectonic shifts occurring in the world order”.

Whether Russia acted offensively or defensively is not the question: some objective analysis would have been good, but that is possibly a bridge too far.

The view from The Australian mirrors that of almost the entire global capitalist media. Any differences are a matter of degree. The Australian described former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s address to the Danube Institute in Budapest on February 12 as “clear headed”. In the current environment, describing relations between two nations as a “Moscow-Beijing axis that rejects the American-backed world order”, is apparently “clear headed”.

Abbott and much of the world’s media are now running the line that Russia will simply finish the job and occupy Ukraine. We are expected to believe that a “domino” effect will follow, with the Baltic states and Poland being the next targets of Putin’s push to re-institute the Soviet Union.

Abbott’s ill-informed harangue was a call to arms for imperialism to counter this “axis” and for Australia to be a key player.

The self-styled international relations expert declared: “Australians are accustomed to answer the call, all over the world, because we’ve always known that deterring aggression means letting the aggressor know that their targets aren’t alone.

“And, as history shows, the best way to make potential aggressors think again is to have a contingent of allied soldiers in place, so that an attack on a relatively weaker country means engaging the forces of relatively stronger ones.

“The point of this would not be to threaten Russia or China with offensive weapons; just to remind bullies of the natural solidarity that should exist between countries striving to be free.”

All of this needs a moment’s reflection and it needs to be remembered that history does not start with the morning newspaper.

A simple, if unpalatable truth, is that Russia and China are being threatened with offensive weapons and that they might reasonably argue that they are responding to bullying.

The United States has more than 750 military bases in 80 countries. By contrast, China has four bases and Russia 10, although seven of these are in former Soviet Republics. It is not all that difficult to see where the threat is coming from and who is the bully.

Most recent figures point to a global military budget of more than $1.8 trillion. The US alone accounts for nearly half of this figure and is constantly pressuring its allies to raise their military spending.

In 2019, it scrapped the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and quickly moved to produce a new, low-yield nuclear warhead for its Trident missiles. These submarine-launched ballistic missile weapons, shamelessly referred to as “useable” nuclear weapons, are now in place.

While the world waited to see what was about to unfold in Ukraine, strategic thinking had begun to shift to the Asia-Pacific region and the need to confront that other part of the “axis”.

In the middle of the crisis in Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken found time to come to Australia to address the Quad meeting, doubtlessly offering sage advice to his Australian ally about Australia’s role in the region. The media played their part in stirring the pot.

Journalism needs sources upon which to draw. Peter Hartcher, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s international editor, sought expert advice in the form of Eldridge Colby. Colby served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in 2017–2018. Colby was a principal author of a 2018 paper by the Pentagon that explained that the “war on terror” was effectively over and that the US military was recommitting to the concept of great-power competition and confrontation.

In his new book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defence in an Age of Great Power Conflict, Colby argues that Australia, Japan and the Pacific islands are central to US plans to weaken China. Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea become critical states in any future armed confrontation with China.

He nailed his colours to the mast in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2019 which devoted an entire issue to the question of nuclear conflict. Colby’s article is titled “If you want peace, prepare for nuclear war: a strategy for the new great-power rivalry”. Eldridge Colby was not issuing a warning to pull back from some apocalyptic abyss; he was urging the opposite.

Interestingly, Colby’s article appeared just days before the US announced that it would be withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, that prohibited Washington and Moscow from developing short and medium-range missiles.

Colby’s influence has remained significant. As a source of “expert opinion” for Hartcher gave the appearance of analysis rather than an exercise in opinion-shaping. Balance is not the name of the game.

The media as an arm of the state has a job to do. Even so, the level of pro-war propaganda poured out is extreme; it has the unashamed intent of convincing the public that war is the only way to resolve disputes.

Hartcher’s interview with Colby was revealing for another reason: the strategist let it be known that the US was having trouble selling the idea of a war with Russia. A recent YouGov poll found that only 13% considered it a good idea to go to war with Russia. He also made the point, so often kept from our gaze, that economics are central to US belligerence and warmongering. War and the preparations for war can be calculated in economic gain and loss.

As Colby described it, China is “the largest economy to emerge in the international system since the US itself” and that is precisely why China is being presented as a “bully”, as “aggressive” and a threat to all we hold dear.

For the White House, tectonic shifts in the world order mean that China and Russia remain threats. China, once the workshop of global capitalism, is set to eclipse US capitalist power. Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was earmarked for exploitation by the West on a grand scale, but that all changed.

Neither China nor Russia are paragons of virtue. There is much to criticise. But the real threat comes from the US, which is losing economic power and political prestige. All that remains is military power and the threat from imperialism that comes with that power.

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