A new era of antagonism between the US and China has emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is seen in the mounting rhetoric of “strategic competition” escalating military expenditures and efforts at alliance building such as AUKUS. Increasingly important are the US’s efforts to contain China economically, as seen in the US CHIPS Act that restricts exports of US and Taiwanese semiconductors and advanced technological components. However, at the heart of worsening relations between the US and China is a paradox: the US and China are integrated into global capitalism and deeply interdependent in processes of accumulation. The major fault line of international antagonism no longer lies between the capitalist world and its external enemies as in the last Cold War, rather it is between the two major capitalist powers.
It was this puzzle of antagonism amidst integration, that I sought to unknot in my Honours thesis in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
A historical materialist approach to this issue is urgently needed as conventional approaches fail to grapple with this question or offer one-sided answers. Realist and state-centric theories see the US-China rivalry as the latest iteration in a historical tendency for changes in the “balance of power” to produce rivalry between challengers and already dominant powers. The optimism of earlier Liberal perspectives, that the pacifying effects of capitalist integration would bring China into the fold of a US-centred world order has given way to claims of a fundamental battle of ideologies, one that the US must win, and China must lose.
Class relations and international hierarchy are all too often left out of the story. Thus, contributions to a coherent Marxist conception of this major international rivalry are needed and can aid in rescuing debates and responses to China’s rise away from the dominant trends in contemporary commentary which reify and mobilise “national interest”, to justify increasing militarism abroad and austerity at home.
A historical materialist and political economy examination of the US-China rivalry must seek to delineate the ‘internal relations’ between the economic and the political. The route to conceptualising the internal relations of the geopolitical and the economic requires determining how the patterns and dynamics of global capitalism are understood as central to the contemporary expression of geopolitics. This requires an examination of processes of class struggle between and within capitalist states.
My thesis sought to address this puzzle through a historical materialist perspective by first drawing on a fruitful wave of Marxist theorisation of Imperialism that emerged in the wake of the War on Terror. The key authors within this perspective, David Harvey, Alex Callinicos, and Ellen Meiksins Wood drew on a conceptual dualism between capitalist and geopolitical logics as a means of overcoming economic determinism and an instrumental or reductive conception of the capitalist state and interstate system. A geopolitical or territorial logic represents the interests and concerns of state managers, particularly strategists and military planners. The capitalist logic represents the flows of capital and the culmination of decisions made by a diffuse array of actors interested in capital accumulation. The core tension within these theorisations that prompted much debate was integrating geopolitics as a distinct state logic with a degree of autonomy from the pursuit of profit that guides capital, while also situating geopolitics within a conception of capitalism as a totality. Given the current historical conjuncture of rivalry between powerful capitalist states, an extension of these theories is overdue. Thus, my thesis extended early 2000s Marxist theories of the relationship between capitalism and geopolitics through integrating class struggle in understanding a capitalist geopolitical logic and reformulating them in a new context in relation to contemporary US-China relations. The first chapter of my thesis concluded with avenues to theoretically and empirically extend these approaches by emphasising the geopolitical logic of states as a reflection of the relative autonomy of the capitalist state and as a product of processes of class struggle in the formulation of the general interests of capital within a state.
Chapter Two examined the US-led superintendence of global capitalism and the contradictions of China’s entry into global capitalism. The US state played a decisive role in the reconstruction and superintendence of global capitalism. Before neoliberal globalisation, there was a clear conjunction of the capitalist geopolitical logic of the US Empire and the logic of US capital. The transnational extension of circuits of accumulation was coterminous with the extension of US hegemony and the internationalisation of the US state. That is, in the words of the new theories of imperialism the two logics of capital and state geopolitics were aligned. However, with the emergence of the greater transnational organisation of production and accumulation alongside China’s unique integration into global capitalism, this relationship is no longer straightforward.
As a product of a unique confluence of internal political crisis in China and an international crisis of profitability in the capitalist world economy China’s integration and transition into capitalism has been carefully mediated by the Chinese state and the CCP. The form of the Chinese state limits the autonomy of its capitalist classes and inhibits the forms of international class integration that characterised the extension of US-empire to previous capitalist states. The conjunction of geopolitical shifts and capitalist crises also played a role in the autonomy of the Chinese state from the US informal empire. In the context of the Sino-Soviet split and a crisis in the global capitalist economy, China was integrated into capitalism in a process separate from US-assisted state formation unlike the relatively weak major capitalist and peripheral states following World War II. The way in which China has been integrated into global capitalism, but not into the US empire, stems from both the unique characteristics of the Chinese state and its distinct road to capitalism afforded by global crisis, new forms of transnational production, alongside the contradictions between the agency of transnational capital and the US state emerging with neoliberal globalisation. To unpack the complex interrelation of the twin logics requires moving beyond attributing invariant logics to social agents and a closer class-focused examination of the determinants of US policy towards China. This points to a more complex picture of class struggle within the US state.
The third chapter turns in greater detail to the forms of intensified economic competition within and beyond China that have significantly shifted class struggles within the US and thus the geopolitical relations between the US and China. I found that the alignment of the class interests of transnationally orientated capital and the Chinese ruling class from 1990-2008, constrained the latent antagonistic orientations of US state managers as capital accumulation in China was translated into the growing power of the Chinese state. We can identify a weakening of this conjugation of class interests beginning in 2008, deriving from capitalism’s global crisis and changes in the political economy of China. This shift produced increasingly competitive pressures between US and Chinese capital within and beyond China, enabling the capitalist geopolitical logic of US state planners to reorient US-China relations and seek to align circuits of capital accumulation with the sustenance of relative predominance of the US state. Increasingly, as the internal business environment in China has shifted less in favour of foreign capital and inter-capitalist competition between Chinese and US capital has accelerated, processes of class struggle in the US state have increasingly given weight to a latent geopolitical logic of state managers seeking to constrain China’s rise. Thus, the form and actualisation of the US state’s geopolitical strategies towards China are not autonomous from the logic of US capital. Rather, the formulation and instantiation of US-state geostrategic policy is crucially mediated by the balance and interests of class forces, particularly dominant capital fractions.
My thesis argued that the contemporary US-China rivalry represents a development in the contradiction between ‘dialectically interrelated’ capitalist and geopolitical logics. With the development of US superintended global capitalism, the partial dissociation of the transnational expansion of capital accumulation and politico-territorial-imperial demarcations has developed such that circuits of accumulation have allowed the rise of the Chinese state autonomous from US empire. The current adversarial turn in US policy towards China represents an attempt to align circuits of accumulation with a geopolitical logic aimed at sustaining US primacy. This has been driven by the changing accumulation regime within China and subsequent intensified forms of inter-capitalist competition that have decohered the once overwhelming interests of US capital in sustaining amicable US-Sino relations.
In conclusion, we find that in addition to class antagonisms between ruling and subaltern classes, forms of ruling class antagonism have emerged that portend an increasingly uncertain and volatile future for global capitalism. The legitimation for this new rivalry that major powers and their allies will attempt to enlist from their populations requires new galvanisations of international solidarity. Given the limits of capitalist interests to secure a peaceful, let alone humane world, it will likely fall on the working classes of the world to resist the re-emergence of new forms of capitalist inter-imperial rivalry on a rapidly warming planet.