John Pilger’s new film exposes the ruthless US military buildup against China, but also refuses to let the Chinese government off the hook, writes Mark Gillespie
China’s occupation, and militarisation, of disputed islands in the South China Sea is seen as a massive provocation by the US and its regional allies.
John Pilger’s new film The coming war on China takes an in-depth look at the real nature of the “threat”. Pilger accuses the western media of “beating the drums of war” and focusing on China’s unilateral and illegal actions while failing to shine a light on the role of the US in the Pacific, Asia and beyond.
Pilger’s film aims “to break the silence”. “What is not news”, he argues, is that, “China itself is under threat” from American bases that, “form a giant noose encircling China with missiles, bombers and warships”.
In 2002 the Pentagon set out to achieve “full spectrum dominance” by 2020. This meant a massive investment in the US military to ensure its overwhelming superiority on land, air, sea, space and in cyber space.
It is estimated the US maintains 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories around the globe. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases between them.
China has always been seen as a potential rival in US strategic planning, and in 2012 the Obama administration upped the ante by announcing its “pivot to East Asia”.
Part of the pivot involves shifting the majority of US military assets to Asia and the Pacific and strengthening the US’s strategic alliances with other states in the region.
According to Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, 60 per cent of US air and naval forces will be based in the region by 2020 including the latest equipment such as F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, P-8 Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, and the Zumwalt-class destroyers.
There is a concentration of bases in the East Asian region including in South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. China is the second biggest economy in the world and the world’s biggest exporter. The vast majority of its imports and exports pass through the South China Sea, which is ringed by US bases.
In 2011 the Gillard government agreed to 2500 US marines being permanently stationed in northern Australia on a rotational basis. And the US has many other installations in Australia, like Pine Gap, that are central to their “full spectrum dominance” strategy.
The US also has alliances and bases to the west of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pilger does not just look at the US’s overwhelming military capacity, but also at how they established this string of bases by trampling on local populations.
He starts with the Marshall Islands, a sprawling chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the central Pacific just north of Nauru and the equator. Between 1874 and the First World War the Marshall Islands were a German protectorate. Germany lost the war so they were handed to Japan, which subsequently lost them in the Second World War when the US invaded.
From 1947 to 1986 the US governed the Marshall Islands as a UN trustee. Pilger’s film outlines the appalling treatment of the Marshall Islanders by their US overlords.
The Marshall Islands became a major test site for US nuclear weapons. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear tests were conducted on various atolls, the equivalent of 7200 Hiroshima bombs, making some parts of the Marshall Islands, “by far the most contaminated place on Earth”.
But US officials weren’t happy just dislocating people and destroying islands and their way of life. They also wanted to see the effects of radiation on humans and deliberately used the Marshal Islanders as “guinea pigs”.
“It will be interesting to get a measure of human up-take when people live in contaminated areas,” wrote one US official as the Marshall Islanders were told it was safe to move back into contaminated areas.
The most appalling health consequences followed.
Even though the Marshall Islands received independence in 1986 the US military still dominates it though a “compact” that gives the US absolute control of the country’s foreign and defence policy.
The Marshall Islands are described as a “stepping stone to Asia” and the US has stationed the giant and secretive Ronald Reagan Missile test site there. The US military test their intercontinental ballistic missiles by firing them at the Marshall Islands from California.
Pilger visits the base on Kwajalein Atoll where a “small-town America has been created” for the military personnel complete with manicured golf courses, a yacht club, swimming pools and restaurants. He contrasts this with the living conditions of the Marshall Islanders on nearby Ebeye Island where more than 15,000 people, many forcibly relocated there, live on just 32 hectares in the “worst slum in the Pacific”.
This is “apartheid in the Pacific” argues Pilger. People live without proper water, sewerage and electricity and are unable to eat the plentiful supply of fish because of the contamination.
They have the worst rate of diabetes in the world and commute daily to the base to flip hamburgers, water the lawns and take out the garbage.
Every missile fired at the Marshall Islands cost the US government $100 million, but the people on Ebeye have just one dilapidated bus for the school kids that they can’t afford to replace.
Pilger also visits the “front-line” islands of Okinawa (belonging to Japan) and Jeju (belonging to South Korea). Both are less than 800 kilometres from mainland China. A giant naval base has been constructed on Jeju for US ships, while on Okinawa there are 32 military installations.
On both islands there has been rigorous opposition to the bases from locals. On Okinawa it’s almost impossible for the local people to move anywhere without coming up against fences and land confiscated for military use. GI rapes are common as is the danger of accidents since the “skies are full of planes and helicopters”.
On Jeju Island the locals saw the navy base as a US-driven project aimed at China but were also concerned about its impact on the UNESCO designated Biosphere Conservation Area.
While exposing the US’s imperial agenda Pilger is not fooled by China’s claim to be “communist”. “China,” he says “has matched the US at its own great game of capitalism.”
He rejects Professor Zhang Weiwei’s (an aide to Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s market deregulation) assertion that China is not a class society, and explicitly raises the bloody repression of workers and students in Tiananmen Square.
He exposes inequality in China and also records the class struggle telling us that, “strikes, and community protests and activism reached record levels”, there in 2015.
One weakness of Pilger’s film is his framework for explaining imperialism. A Marxist analysis of imperialism sees military competition as the inevitable extension of capitalist economic competition. By contrast, Pilger seems to suggest that the development of different capitalist powers could take place without the intense military competition currently seen around the world.
US aggression towards China is explained as result of the arms industry needing, “threats and false enemies that justify the business and profit of war”. But Pilger attributes China’s supposedly modest imperial ambitions to cultural factors. “The West with its Christian roots”, argues Eric Li, a Chinese entrepreneur and social scientist, “are about converting other people to their beliefs”. China in contrast, “built a wall to keep the barbarians out, not to invade them”. Pilger lets these comments pass unchallenged.
But as China has risen as an economic power, it has inevitably needed to flex its own military muscles to secure its interests.
China’s brutal occupation of Tibet, or the repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang region, is not mentioned by Pilger. Nor is China’s involvement in the new “scramble for Africa” where rival imperialist powers are jockeying for control over natural resources, political influence and strategic territories.
China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, investing in mines to secure access to everything from oil, copper and timber to uranium. In April last year it even began constructing its first overseas base there, a naval installation in Dijbouti.
Regardless of this weakness Pilger’s film does a good job of turning the spotlight on US imperialism in Asia.
Since the release of the film the Trump administration has stepped up the aggression toward China. Trump’s new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has talked of preventing China from accessing the disputed islands militarily and recently the US deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems to South Korea, much to the displeasure of China.
Pilger’s film deserves a big audience in Australia, which is the major regional ally of US imperialism. US bases here play a key role in the global reach of the US military. Australia is an integral part of the US military intervention in the Middle East.
Pilger’s film warns of the danger of war and the potential use of nuclear weapons, but does not end without hope. He reminds us of a, “third superpower… ordinary people everywhere, like the people on Okinawa, Jeju Island, the Marshall Islands, China, the United States” and asks, “can we really afford to be silent?”
The coming war on China
Directed by John Pilger
In selected cinemas now