US eyes turn east

The successful launch and return to earth of Shenzhou 5, China's first manned spacecraft, on October 14-15, could well turn out to be highly significant. Kit Robinson comments

The successful launch and return to earth of Shenzhou 5, China’s first manned spacecraft, on October 14-15, could well turn out to be highly significant. Not because of any pioneering nature of the mission itself - obviously taikonaut Yang Liwei was simply following in the footsteps of earlier cosmonauts from the USSR/Russia and the United States in this regard. But rather in what it says potentially about the role of China in the world; the questions it raises about China’s future role in the global balance of power.

Although it has all been done before, and although the Chinese space programme, in its very early stages at least, had some help from the old Soviet Union all those decades ago, nevertheless the fact that China has shown that independently it possesses the technological and economic power to organise and carry through such a prestigious event is very important. Expressions of support and pride from ‘third world’ governments for what has been achieved by a leader of the ‘developing nations’ are predictable and understandable, but its real significance goes much deeper.

It will certainly have been studied and analysed in the United States, currently in economic and military terms the sole superpower on the planet. Hypothetically, it can be projected that, if the high rates of economic growth that have been reported in China over the past 20 years of state-protected, but increasingly capitalist, development were to carry on for another 40 years, China would catch up and outstrip the USA as the pre-eminent world power. This is actually rather unlikely: the more predominant the capitalist mode of production becomes, the more China is likely to become acquainted with the reality that capitalism is not about continuous growth at double-digit rates decade after decade. Markets have limits, and sooner or later reach them, resulting in stagnation/contraction. It is only a matter of time before China experiences capitalist crisis at first hand.

In immediate terms, however, the impact of the Shenzhou mission could be considerable, though exactly how things will shake out is difficult to predict. The whole project of the ‘neo-conservative’ imperialist clique in Washington is, as is now well known, to use American power in a pre-emptive manner to stop the emergence of credible and, in their terms, potentially dangerous rivals to American power. Iraq was merely a pawn in that strategy - Bush’s January 2002 ‘axis of evil’ speech that also marked Iran and North Korea for likely attack, and the later adding of Syria, Libya and Cuba to the list, are of course further manifestations.

But none of these are remotely capable of rivalling the United States in world power: in the eyes of the neo-cons they are still really only local irritants. China had already been marked out by the ‘project for a new American century’ as a much more strategic obstacle to US domination. Now its emergence as a space-going power is likely to lead to this perspective being stressed much more; giving emphasis to the US’s ‘son of star wars’ space weapon project, which includes plans for killer satellites that can destroy enemy spacecraft, as well as guided weapons launched from armed satellites to destroy targets on earth.

Various writers are now talking about the potential for conflict over such matters, musing about future UN weapons inspectors being sent into outer space, etc. This is an unlikely scenario: only the United States has the technology and, even more importantly, the economic muscle to seriously undertake major space weapons projects at this point. Russia simply does not have the resources, while China’s space programme is still far too embryonic. It is true that the Americans are having considerable difficulties with their space programme at the moment in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster - indeed, humiliatingly, they are having to rely on Soviet-era Vostok launchers to carry out missions that ought to have been undertaken by their own shuttles, including the supplying and indeed building of the international space station. But this is only a short-term problem for the US: in the end, in purely technological terms, its superiority is overwhelming and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

A new arms race in a more conventional sense is more likely than a new space race as the immediate result of the Chinese success in orbit. But this could well cause further divisions among the imperialist powers and major dissent within the US itself over its wisdom. After all, many western companies have for years been gaining enormous dividends from investments in so-called ‘Red’ China - the ‘communist’ trappings of China’s ruling party have little more meaning today than the ‘revolutionism’ of Mexico’s corrupt and repressive ‘Institutional Revolutionary Party’, which dominated that country for half a century. China presently is not a credible bogey and, given the sticky situation of the United States in Iraq, and the more pressing issue of North Korea and Iran in terms of Bush’s warmongering agenda, serious conflict with China is unlikely in the short term.

It would take a series of outright victories over smaller states such as Syria or North Korea to put the US in a position where it might feel confident of attempting an extreme adventure in the pursuit of ‘regime change’ in China. Nevertheless, such ‘regime change’ is the strategic goal of the neo-conservative clique, and no doubt is in a more diffuse sense on the wish list of virtually the entire American bourgeoisie.

Bush’s difficulties over Iraq, however, also give a taste of the opportunities that already exist for the independent struggles of the working classes, both in the imperialist west and in the countries targeted, to resist and defeat the ‘neo-cons’ and turn the tables on the imperialists themselves. Imperialist aggression has backfired in the past and it can be made to do so again.