In his new film The Coming War On China, award winning journalist John Pilger makes the case that the United States military is gearing up for the war to end all wars, against the world’s second biggest economic power – China.
Pilger has been at the forefront of journalism for more than five decades, and this film is the latest in a long line which has often taken aim at the American military machine, the largest to ever grace the earth.
To see how his claims stand up, I caught up with Professor Scott Lucas from the University of Birmingham. Lucas is an expert in U.S. foreign policy and international relations and has also worked as a journalist since the late seventies, with a particular emphasis on world affairs.
The film opens with a number of harrowing images of war, as the American national anthem plays out in the background. Media reports of China’s apparent expansion in the South China Sea follow, as Pilger’s narration proclaims that ‘the media is beating the drums of war’.
China is building airstrips and military bases on islands constructed in the South China Sea, what is not news, he says, is the fact that the country is surrounded by a massive amount of U.S. bases in what is termed by the military as a ‘perfect noose’. The majority of U.S. naval forces are now deployed to the region in what the military, and former President Barack Obama, calls ‘the pivot to Asia’.
These facts are true, but does that necessarily mean that America is preparing for a war against its largest trading partner? Yes, China is encircled by a staggering number of military bases, but the majority of these have been in operation for decades, many of them since the end of World War II, why now is there concern for war?
Dr Lucas doesn’t see it as inevitable:
The fact is that the Chinese are setting up artificial islands, which are military positions, it doesn’t mean that I think America is threatened by those islands in any way but it does mean that I think, and I think this is something Pilger sort of ignores, that this isn’t just a U.S. and China question. There are others who are concerned about China’s military power such as the Japanese, Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea, and those countries aren’t just American puppets. So I would differ from Pilger in thinking that this is just a bipolar U.S.-China confrontation that’s going to lead us to war.
Pilger begins to outline his case in his explanation of the U.S. occupation of the Marshall Islands, with particular reference to Bikini island, in the segment of his film ‘The secret of the Marshall Islands’.
The islands are located smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between the west coast of North America and Japan. Bikini is just one of a network of 23 islands which, in the 1940s and ’50s, having been captured from the Japanese at the end of the war, were used to test the new doomsday weapon instrumental in bringing about the surrender of the Japanese empire and demonstrating American military might – the atomic bomb.
In 1946, 87 U.S. warships were assembled in Bikini, complete with animals that were strapped to them as Pilger says ‘Like a perverse Noah’s ark’. A nuclear weapon was then detonated, destroying the fleet and obliterating Bikini. The native population were moved to surrounding islands to live in slums abandoned by their occupiers, while the rest of the islands were used to test weapons.
Over the next 12 years, the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb was detonated in the islands every day. In 1958 the islanders were told it was safe to return – it was of course not as they remain some of the most irradiated places on the planet.
The islands are still occupied by the U.S. military and a large installation, The Ronald Reagan Test Site, is situated on one of the non-irradiated islands. It serves as a perfect strategic point between the home continent and Asia, and is one of the key bases in the impending war, according to Pilger.
He then goes on to demonstrate the animosity and paranoia the U.S. has felt about China, ever since Mao seized power in a communist revolution in 1949, after a century of colonial rule. In the late 1970s, and with the Chinese Communist party under the control of Deng Xiaoping, capitalism returned, and it is an unbridled success.
Since then over 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty. It is this that Pilger says is a game changer, China has matched America in its pursuit of capitalism and that is unforgivable. That China has become a global economic superpower is seen as the greatest threat to American hegemony, and therefore they must be stopped at any cost.
However China depends on America and vice versa. China’s largest trading partner is the USA; they hold the largest amount of U.S. bonds. Professor Lucas believes herein lies the truth: both sides have an awful lot to lose from a military conflict and as such the prospect of an all-out nuclear conflict is unlikely, despite both superpowers posturing in the region.
“With Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s, the Americans basically said they were going to pursue a relationship where there is dialogue rather than a confrontation first strategy,” Lucas tells me. “And then in the eighties, when the Chinese opened themselves up to the West, that again changed the nature of the relationship because the starting point is that both sides have a lot to lose from a military confrontation”.
Furthermore, there have been incidents in the recent past which could have served as a spark that would ignite conflict, but which Pilger neglects to mention in the film, such as the shooting down of a U.S. spy plane by the Chinese in 2001.
As Lucas explains:
When that plane was clipped and crashed, the crew was held for something like two weeks, there were some very loud voices, like Rumsfeld, who were saying “We’ve got to show them, we’ve got to go in and use force”. American business interests went to the state department and basically said “don’t do this, do not ruin our business relationship with this type of posturing”. Colin Powell wins the argument over Rumsfeld, and possibly over Dick Cheney, and the Americans all but apologise for running spy operations. That shows me how much the Americans are averse to going to the wall, the Chinese give the crew back and give the plane back, but in many pieces and many boxes having stripped it for intelligence.
However, the U.S. maintains a network of military bases in the region that any nation trying to exert influence there should be wary of. Okinawa Island in Japan is occupied by 32 American installations and is according to Pilger ‘the frontline of a beckoning war with China’.
It is not without precedent that he says this; from here the U.S. has attacked Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and a host of other nations, and throughout the fifties and sixties the island was used to position nuclear missiles at every major Chinese city.
Similarly, on Jeju Island in South Korea, which is less than 400 miles from Shanghai, the U.S. is busy constructing a massive new military base. This island is located in a stretch of sea which is key to Chinese shipping, if America wanted to form a blockade, which they practised in 2015, they could strangle crucial Chinese imports. This is another reason Pilger asserts that ‘the danger of confrontation grows by the day.
With almost 1000 bases spread across the world, and 50,000 troops stationed in Japan alone, no ocean has ever been dominated like the U.S. has dominated the Pacific. However it is not necessarily in preparation for war, it seems it is more posturing from the United States – neither side wants a war, there is too much at stake.
Though with a build up like this and President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric war is always a danger, just not the inevitability Pilger outlines.