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George Stern

Changes in the Pacific

(August 1940)

From Fourth International, Vol.1 No.4, August 1940, pp-99-102.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE BALANCE OF POWER tautly maintained in Asia and the Pacific for half a century has been shattered by the German conquest of Europe.

Britain, long master in Asia, is master no longer. Declining British world power has reached its final quarter hour. The vast domains ruled or dominated by the British Raj are once more on the imperialist market. The British lion’s share of the plunder of the East is about to fall to other beasts of prey.

In the decades of British decline, especially since the close of the first world war, Japan and the United States have been rivals for succession to the British command in Asia. Between them Britain tried to maintain the same kind of balance it so disastrously tried to preserve between France and Germany on the continent of Europe. Today, however, a weakened Britain faces the direct assault of the Reich it helped to rearm. American expansionist aims in the Pacific have consequently been superseded by the sudden and pressing need to defend the American hemispheric empire against the attacks, economic, political, and military, of the new masters of Europe. The balance of power in the East has thus already swung automatically and deeply in favor of Japan.

The impending redivision of spoils in the East will be far greater in scope and weightier in import than that which followed the first world war. At the end of that war Japan was able to retain only a portion of the relatively meager holdings it had seized from the defeated Reich. The rest it had to disgorge, partly at the demand of the United States. A decade later, in 1931, Japan moved into Manchuria. Britain, obsessed by the dream of forging an iron ring around the Soviet Union and hopeful of preserving its own sphere in southern Asia by giving Japan lebensraum in the north, gave aid and comfort to the Japanese drive. France, moved by identical motives, did likewise. Together they checkmated the somewhat more vigorous resistance which the United States wanted to offer. The British thus tried to “appease” Japan as they later tried to “appease” Nazi Germany. The results were parallel. In 1937 Japan moved from Manchuria into China proper, just as Hitler moved from the Rhineland to Austria, and thence to Czechoslovakia. This summer of 1940 British supremacy in Europe has already been brought to an end by Germany and British supremacy in Asia is directly challenged by a grateless Japan.

Out of the last war Japan secured a few German islands in Oceania and a few German railways in China located mainly in the German “sphere” in Shantung. Today, as the direct result of Germany’s victories in Europe, the dazzled Japanese imperialists see within their grasp the incomparably richer Asiatic holdings of Britain and of the fallen empires of France and the Netherlands. France and Holland are already helpless and Britain, they believe, is about to become so. The United States they see immobilized by the new menace in the Atlantic. Not since the end of the 19th century when the great powers in harmony or in discord, separately or together, tore huge pieces out of the prostrate body of China, has such an opportunity for plunder presented itself. The balance of power established in its essential elements at that time is at an end. Japan now means really to be master in the house of Asia.

Japan Faces Difficulties

This intention, however, does not in itself quite settle the matter. Asia is too big and Japan too small for blitzkrieg conquests. Japan has had recent and eloquent experience of this fact. Manchuria was invaded and taken nine years ago and is not yet a wholly “pacified” province. The war in China proper was begun three years ago and China is yet far from conquered.

Germany and Italy, moreover, cannot be expected to leave all the pearls of all the Indies to Japan, assuming that they complete their conquest of the British and French empires. All Asia and Japan itself are still far too dependent upon the industry and markets of Europe for Japan to be free of concern over what might befall them before the war has run its course.

For it is clear that the inter-imperialist conflict has by no means exhausted its stock of sudden shifts and changes. The surprises are not over. The battles of Poland, Norway, Flanders and France were but the beginning. Tomorrow’s battle of Britain will not be the end. The United States understands it must meet and try to conquer the new masters of Europe and is preparing to do so. It may have to postpone but decidedly will not entirely abandon its intention of reducing Japan to its proper proportions in an American-dominated Pacific basin. The two ocean fleet and monster air force already projected for this purpose may take four or five years to build. Japan cannot be wholly confident that even in that time her present apparent freedom of action will continue. For there remains still unanswered the huge “question” of the USSR, sprawled across the continents of Europe and Asia.

Stalin, fearful of the weakness of the regime he has done so much to undermine, took refuge behind a pact with Berlin and ended years of intermittent border warfare with Japan by signing a truce with Tokyo. He hoped the resulting war among the powers would lead to mutual exhaustion. He too has been cruelly disappointed in the event. He knows that between a German Europe and a Japanese Asia, the Soviet Union will have to fight or else be broken between them. That is why he has moved his western defenses to the Baltic. That is why the Far Eastern Red Army is again being prepared for the conflict with Japan which Stalin had hoped was postponed, at least for a number of years. The possibility of a “parallel” policy in Moscow and Washington is another “surprise” the Japanese must count upon in the re-casting of Pacific accounts that is now only beginning.

China Still Fights On

But before they can be ready for any of these eventualities, the Japanese must somehow complete their long-deferred conquest of China. The entire might of their military machine has been expended on the good Chinese earth for three years. Vast territories have been taken – encircled rather than conquered. The continued presence in the conquered areas of British, French and American forces and interests and the continued necessity to concentrate Japanese economy upon the difficult task of nourishing the war machine have prevented the Japanese from realizing on their conquests. The resistance of the Chiang Kai-shek regime to the Japanese has in the main reflected Anglo-American and Soviet counter-pressure against the Japanese continental drive. Through French Indochina and from Burma and down the long road from the Turkestan frontier arms and planes and supplies have continued to trickle in quantities small enough, but sufficient to brace the Chinese positions behind the impregnable Yangtze gorges.

Consequently the first efforts of the Japanese to exploit the new situation have been directed toward choking off these crucial sources of supply. Even before the final debacle in France, the French government yielded to Japanese pressure, promising to stop all arms traffic over the railway into Yunnan. When Paris fell and the armistice followed, Japanese warships were sent to the Indochina coast and troops were concentrated in nearby Hainan. The French hastily agreed to admit Japanese “inspectors” to Indochinese border points to supervise the execution of the agreement. Actual occupation of this rich French colony, like the occupation of the even richer Dutch East Indies, awaits the settlement of Japanese accounts with the British.

These accounts are large. The entrenched positions in China represented by one billion and a half dollars in British investments are the principal heights the Japanese expect to scale. But here too the Japanese have begun the exploitation of their new advantage by forcing the British to join in isolating the Chungking Chinese government. As in the case of Indochina, the Japanese made a show of force. Their troops ringed Hongkong, British South China citadel which has for a century tapped all the wealth of the Pearl River valley. The island port was thrown into panic. European women and children were hastily evacuated. Under this pressure the British on July 13 yielded by agreeing to close the Burma route to China for a period of three months. A few days later the announcement was permitted to appear that the British were seeking to arrange a Sino-Japanese peace. This effort is designed to save both time and face. If the German assault on Britain achieves its purposes, matters in China will be arranged without British intervention. Meanwhile, the British are maneuvering desperately to prevent immediate Japanese action at a time when Britain is hopelessly without defenses in its Eastern possessions. The success of these maneuvers may depend not only upon the speed and success of the German attack but equally upon the course pursued by the United States.

When Holland fell early in May and the Dutch East Indies were cast adrift, Washington took a strong stand, the Indies being one of the principal sources of rubber consumed by US industry. Washington announced it would tolerate no change in the status of this South Sea archipelago. Subsequently, however, the defeat of France and the perilous plight of Britain deprived this warning of its sting. The US fleet is still at this writing in the Pacific. But it is no longer free to steam westward to enforce the “status quo” of the East Indies or any other object of American imperialist interest. It waits instead upon the outcome of the Battle of Britain. It waits mostly upon the fate of the British navy in that battle. Should the British navy or the better part of it go under or otherwise pass into German hands, the US fleet will head pronto for Panama and the Atlantic, and at that moment precisely the last serious obstacle for the Japanese in the form of a rival imperialist force will be removed from the scene and the admirals and generals of the Mikado will feel freer to proceed with their plans.

Prospects for Colonial Revolts

It is not, however, solely upon the plans of imperialist chancelleries and the movements of imperialist fleets that the fate of the backward peoples of the East depends. The possibility of sudden shifts and changes in the war has not been exhausted. Neither has the possibility of national and colonial revolt in the domains under dispute. The imperialists are at war for the second time in a generation for re-division of the world’s colonies. But the subjected peoples of these colonial and backward countries may still demand a voice and force a hearing in the determination of their fate. This may not be the least of the “surprises” still to come.

The very fact that a new imperialist re-division has appeared on the order of the day in Asia is, like the war in Europe, a consequence of the revolutionary defeats of the past two decades. The Second International, and later the Third International of Stalin, each in its own way, rescued imperialism in Europe after the first world war, and in the East during the decade of colonial wars and revolutions that followed the armistice of 1918. In the principal colonial and semi-colonial countries, particularly in India and China, the defeat of these struggles was characterized primarily by successful arrangements between the imperialists and the native bourgeoisies at the expense of the revolting masses of workers and peasants. Because the Communist International under Stalin failed to lead the workers of India and China along the road of the proletarian revolution, the Gandhist Congress Party and the Kuomintang were able to keep both those great countries safe for imperialist exploitation.

Gandhi repeatedly dispersed the concentrating forces of the Indian revolution, diverting them into channels of compromise that left British rule intact. China was swept in 1925-27 by the greatest mass uprising of workers and peasants in the history of that country. But the Communist International subordinated the Chinese Communists to the bourgeois Kuomintang, yoked the workers to the national bourgeoisie, with the result that the latter crushed the mass movement in return for a few crumbs from the imperialist table. China was thus laid open to the depredations of the Japanese imperialists and India was held fast in the fetters to which new masters now seek the keys.

In China today that important section of the bourgeoisie represented by such figures as Chiang Kai-shek and TV Soong has resisted the Japanese invasion – after years of efforts to come to terms with the invaders – only because they could hope for a larger share of the loot under British and/or American domination. They are not wedded to the national struggle, as such. Tomorrow, should the prospect of effective British and/or American resistance to Japan disappear entirely they will readily adapt themselves to the new scheme of things. Between the Soviet Union on the one hand and Germany and Japan on the other they will find new room to maneuver. In India, while Gandhi and his Congress hold in check any movement of the workers to “embarrass” Britain’s war effort, the British will not hesitate to barter away the lifeblood of Indians in the interest of preserving whatever they can of their huge share in Indian wealth and the product of Indian labor.

Nevertheless, whatever the handicaps inherited from the defeats of the past, the subject peoples are still in a position to fight for and win their freedom. They rose almost everywhere to achieve it after the first war among the powers. The imperialists had succeeded in crushing the workers’ revolutions everywhere in Europe except in Russia. In the colonies they fought down the national movements with a combination of brute force and concessions to the native exploiters. While this method provided a temporary “solution” for the imperialist rulers, it brought no solution to the pressing problems of the colonial peoples, produced no advances out of their backwardness, provided no significant outlet for even a relative growth of their productive forces. Instead it accelerated the expropriation of the colonial petty-bourgeoisie, perpetuated the serfdom of the colonial peasantry, and increased the burdens of the colonial proletariat. The concessions made by the imperialists to the native exploiters were niggardly enough, but with the onset of the world economic crisis beginning in 1929, not even these could be maintained. The crisis instead enormously sharpened the antagonisms in the imperialist camp and led to new blows at the colonial peoples – Japan’s invasion of China, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia – and finally to the outbreak of the new world war. For the colonies this war offers only the prospect of deepening exploitation, no matter whether the old masters remain or new masters take their place.

For capitalism has already more than sufficiently demonstrated its disconsonance with the productive forces. It can no longer assure to the workers in the advanced countries even a subsistence standard of living. Should it succeed in surviving the present war its totalitarian form would be generalized on a world scale. In the past, imperialist rule in the colonies has meant the stifling of economic development and the perpetuation of backward economic and social relations in their most oppressive forms. If an imperialist “solution” of the present world conflict is imposed, a still greater rate of exploitation will be forced upon the backward countries and the thralldom of the past deepened multifold. At the outset of this war the Allies once more offered their colonial slaves promises of “freedom” and “cooperation” after the war had again ended in an Allied victory. The chances of such a victory have now, to put it mildly, been somewhat dimmed. But had it occurred, is it possible to doubt that these promises would be redeemed only in the crueler deceptions of a new Versailles? Germany and its satellites for their part fight only to rule by blood and iron alone. The colonial peoples can be under no illusion as to what Hitlerite domination will mean.

Like the workers of the entire world, therefore, the toilers of the East face the choice of descent into a helotry even deeper than has been their lot until now or the renewal of their common struggle for the socialist revolution, the socialist reorganization of society which can alone end imperialist exploitation forever. The hopes of liberation of the colonial peoples are bound up even more decisively than before with the emancipation of the workers of the whole world. The colonies will be freed, politically, economically and culturally only when the workers of the advanced countries put an end to capitalist rule and set out together with the backward peoples to re-gear world economy to social needs instead of monopolist profits. Only in this way will the colonial and semi-colonial countries be enabled to emerge from their varying stages of backwardness and take their places as integral sections of a new and advancing world order.

The chances of such a struggle are no idle dream. Should the workers of India rise and join with the Chinese and together unite with Russian workers and peasants overthrowing Stalin, even in the midst of imperialist invasion, the picture of Asia, and indeed of the whole world at war, would rapidly change. It may yet be, as Marx once conjectured, that the liberating struggle for the entire world will be ignited in the East. The imperialists are fighting for a new balance of power. Such a balance can mean only the balance of the labor of hundreds of millions of sweated slaves against the profits of a handful of super-imperialist masters. There is still time to strike for a new kind of balance and establish a new kind of power, a socialist balance created by workers’ power.

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