‘The Coming War on China’ is John Pilger’s 60th film. Pilger reveals what the news doesn’t – that the world’s greatest military power, the United States, and the world’s second economic power, China, both nuclear-armed, are on the road to war. The film is a warning and an inspiring story of resistance.
When the United States, the world’s biggest military power, decided that China, the second-largest economic power, was a threat to its imperial dominance, two-thirds of US naval forces were transferred to Asia and the Pacific. This was the ‘pivot to Asia’, announced by President Barack Obama in 2011 during a visit to Canberra. China, which in the space of a generation had risen from the chaos of Mao Zedung’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ to an economic prosperity that has seen more than 500 million people lifted out of poverty, was suddenly America’s new enemy.
The build-up of naval forces would reinforce America’s already dominant military position in the region. Although seldom referred to in the Western media, some 400 US bases surround China with ships, missiles and troops, in an arc that extends from Australia north through the Pacific to Japan, Korea and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India.
‘The Coming War on China’ is John Pilger’s most recent film – his 60th documentary and perhaps his most prescient. Completed in the month Donald Trump was elected President, the film investigates the manufacture of a ‘threat’ and a new cold war in Asia and the beckoning of a nuclear confrontation.
Pilger marks his film in chapters. Chapter one is set in the remote Marshall Islands, in the Pacific, which the United States took them over as a United Nations ‘trust territory’ in 1945 with an obligation to ‘protect the population’s health and wellbeing’. During the 12 years up to 1958, the US exploded the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb every day in the islands, contaminating its people and environment.
Filming on irradiated Bikini Atoll, which cannot be safely inhabited, perhaps ever, Pilger describes the testing in 1954 of the world’s first Hydrogen Bomb, codenamed Bravo, which vaporised an entire island leaving a dark chasm a mile wide in Bikini’s beautiful lagoon. The inhabitants had been moved to a nearly atoll, Rongelap, where the ‘unexpected’ fallout endowed them with multiple cancers.
Declassified documents describe a secret programme originally designed to test the effects of radiation on mice and used in the Marshall Islands on human beings. A US Atomic Energy official of the time describes the island of Rongelap as “by far the most contaminated place on Earth”.
The ‘guinea pigs’ were regularly monitored and underwent scientific examination. Many suffered thyroid cancer. Deformities appeared in babies; countless survivors of the original blast died from radiation poisoning. A claims tribunal was set up and quickly ran out of money. The most moving interviews in the film are with islanders, mostly elderly women, who have survived, precariously, in poverty.
Today, the largest of the Marshall Islands, Kwajalein, is home to one of the United States’ most secretive bases, a missile launch pad designed as a ‘stepping stone to Asia and beyond’ and aimed at China.
In Chapter two, Pilger traces the rise of China as an economic power, beginning with ‘the century of humiliation’ when the Chinese were depicted as the ‘yellow peril’, and racial stereotypes were a staple of Hollywood. Author James Bradley describes the opium trade and the colonisation of China by Britain and other imperial powers. “The American industrial revolution was funded by huge pools of money… from illegal drugs in the biggest market in the world, China,” says Bradley.
The 1949 Communist revolution marked not only the end of foreign exploitation but also, ironically, the beginning of a China almost no ‘expert’ in the West predicted. “Today,” says Pilger, standing against the ultra-modern skyline of Shanghai, “China has matched America at its own great game of capitalism – and that is unforgivable.”
Four hundred miles away, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, 32 American military installations form the frontline of a coming war with China. Fumiko Shimabukuro, aged 87, is one of the leaders of a non-violent resistance challenging Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’. They want the bases closed and point to a warning from the past. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, American nuclear missiles were ordered to be launched at China and Russia by an officer who, it seems, had lost his mind. Only luck allowed that his moment of madness was countermanded. In a remarkable sequence, one of the 1962 missile crew describes how the world was almost destroyed “by mistake”.
In 2015, Pilger reports, the US Navy and its regional allies, including Australia, rehearsed a blockade that would cut China’s lifelines of oil, trade and raw materials. Today, President Trump is waging a trade war against China, where America’s biggest companies, such as Apple, are based: the source of a trade deficit for which China is cast, in Trump’s world, as the ‘bad guy’. In the meantime, China has built military airstrips in the disputed Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, and is reported to have placed its nuclear missiles on ‘high alert’. The warning is no longer from the past.
‘The Coming War on China’ was broadcast on ITV in the UK, on SBS in Australia and was seen in many other countries, including China, where a pirated version was shown to possibly its biggest audience – interestingly, a section in the film dealing with human rights issues in China was uncut. “It’s not the fairest way to distribute a film,” says Pilger, “but I was delighted.’’
Director-producer-writer-presenter: John Pilger
Production company: Dartmouth Films
Executive producer: Christopher Hird
Film editor: Joe Frost
Chief archive producer: Jacqui Edwards
Assistant director: Bruno Sorrentino
Graphic designer: Charles Gatward
Researchers: Dan Broudy, Jon Mitchell and Maki Sunagawa (Okinawa), Leer Cheng (Shanghai), Tom Rainey-Smith (Jeju)
Camera: Rupert Binsley, OwernScurfield, Bruno Sorrentino, Joseph Zafar
Sound: Jouni Elo, Giles Khan, Zubin Sarosh, Cooper Sheng