February 12, 2023

US Escalates the New Cold War in Asia

Vijay Prashad

IN early February, the United States government announced that it would be exercising a 2014 agreement with the Philippines to set up new bases on Luzon Island, at the archipelago’s north. These bases will likely hold aircraft capable of striking targets in China, including around the vicinity of Taiwan. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, Jr., in Manila to discuss final elements of the agreement. There was little push-back from Marcos, who has anyway used any issue but the growing discontent in the country, to divert popular attention; far better to blame everything on China than to deal with the crises that afflict Filipinos. These bases will both provide Marcos’ government with revenue and its presence allows him to focus the people’s attention on China.

These new US bases in the Philippines are not the first such bases in the country. The United States entered the Spanish-American War in 1898 against the Spanish Empire and alongside long suppressed nationalist forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. After the Spanish empire was faced with defeat, the United States set-aside the nationalists and annexed these former Spanish colonies itself. The US built military bases in the Philippines as part of its occupation, bases that had been lost when the Japanese took the islands and then were reoccupied after the defeat of Japanese imperialism in 1945. The US expanded these bases – particularly at Luzon Island’s Subic Bay, which had been initially captured by the US from the Spanish in 1899. The United States held onto these large bases, including at Subic Bay, until 1992, when – due to the collapse of the USSR – the US decided to shut-down parts of its base structure around East Asia. Now, the US is back on Luzon Island with its military bases.

In November 2022, the US announced that it would expand Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal in northern Australia to enable it to house six B-52H Stratofortress bombers, which can travel at high subsonic speeds and can carry nuclear precision guided bombs. This new expansion in Australia, the new bases in the Philippines, and other US military apparatuses in East Asia (American Samoa, Guam, Japan, and South Korea) are not all built in the heavy footprint model of the Cold War. Influenced by former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘revolution in military affairs’, these bases have light footprints. They are built around airfields and surveillance centres, able to deploy force by the leveraging of communications technology and by aerial and naval power – not by large numbers of ground forces. Since both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) developed highly effective ballistic missile technology, building large bases with enormous troop concentrations would leave them vulnerable to attack. Older, larger bases in Japan and South Korea had been the centre of US strategy during the Cold War, but these are now being supplanted by many smaller bases from Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base (Thailand) to the new, small bases in the Federated States of Micronesia and in Palau.

In Guam, a US colony, 27 per cent of the land is owned by the US military, which has developed several bases on the island. Twenty years ago, the US air force moved several of its most advanced cruise missile systems to the Andersen Air Base in Guam, which now house B-1 and B-52H bombers, and the US navy rebuilt its naval base so that it now stations nuclear attack submarines there. Guam has become one of the US navy’s most extensive facilities, with the ability to house an aircraft carrier and assault ships. To protect the military facility, the US has deployed a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence Battery (THAD).


There is no doubt as to why the United States has been building up its military prowess in the waters around China. This muscular approach is described by the US government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (February 2022) very clearly. The ‘intensifying American focus’, says the US government ‘is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC’. While this text says that the build-up is due ‘in part’ due to the PRC, no other explanation is given. What is the problem with the PRC? ‘The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power’, writes the White House. In other words, the US understands China to be a direct competitor against its own role as the ‘world’s most influential power’. China will face the wrath of the US military if it continues to ‘seek’ to rise above its station as a mere factory for western corporations. It is perfectly acceptable for the United States to combine its ‘economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might’, which is precisely what it is doing in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, but it is unacceptable for the PRC to do so. When the PRC asserts itself, it is ‘bullying’; when the US asserts itself, it is the ‘rules based international order’.

Part of this creative exercise in the information war is the suggestion that China is ‘imperialist’, and that this ‘imperialism’ or ‘colonialism’ will be combatted by the west and its regional allies (Australia, Japan, and South Korea). China’s attempt to protect its own sovereignty – including over Taiwan (recognised by the One China policy of the United States) – is being characterised as ‘imperialism’. There are of course going to be stresses and strains as China moves beyond its borders for trade and diplomatic relations and there will be contests over island chains from the Sea of Japan to the South China Sea between China and its neighbours (as there are contests between most countries). But these stresses and strains, even when between countries of unequal sizes, do not rise to the level of imperialism. It is bewildering how this talking point of US imperialism – that China is imperialist – has now become so widespread, even amongst sections of the Left. It is based on this talking point that the United States is justifying its build-up on the rim of Asia, including in India (which is being talked about as a NATO Plus member – along with Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea).

The US New Cold War on Asia is about the major economic advances made by China, which is now the leading trading partner of 120 countries, including most Asian countries (including Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam as well as the ASEAN bloc). The US is not operating to prevent any threats from China to its neighbours, but to box China in and prevent its advancement. The claim that China seeks to be the ‘world’s most influential power’ is belied by China’s own statements that it has no wish to supplant the United States, nor does it seeks to establish a ‘pole’ in any future ‘multipolar’ world order; China says that it would like to strengthen the multilateral system, including regional organisations and the United Nations. If you take China at its word, then it is not seeking to challenge the US but to establish the priority of the UN as the world’s leading institution. What the US says however is that it cannot tolerate China’s economic ascent, which it cannot contain economically, and against which it has now mobilised the full power of its military capacity. That is US, not Chinese, imperialism.