“The United States has almost 1000 military bases around the world, covering every continent, every ocean,” filmmaker John Pilger says. “China has one!”
He points out: “The US Pacific Command in Hawaii claims responsibility for 52% of the Earth’s surface.”
After a sold out Melbourne screening of his latest master class in documentary filmmaking, The Coming War on China (his 60th film for ITV), Pilger is stark when speaking with Green Left Weekly. Undeniably, he insists, US island bases surround China like a noose, and new US-Australian bases amplify the “Asian pivot”.
The new film offers strident counterpoint to the perpetual frame and lens of the representation of China in the West as the “aggressor” in the South China Sea.
But tellingly, Pilger also offers a moral equivalence. China, currently reclaiming small islands for what it calls defensive purposes, is contrasted and contextualised with the numerous US military bases, island apartheid and previous island nuclear tests.
Like a left-wing David Attenborough, Pilger has again donned his khaki journalism suit and travelled around Asia to break the silence on the human rights abuse of the ordinary people on Asian Islands. US bases in Japan, Korea and Marshall Islands subjugate islanders, but these same islanders are the resistance on the front line: protesting, blocking and obstructing the threat of war.
Bases, missiles, navigation of the South China sea and Trump’s US secretary of State Rex Tinllerson threatening a blockade, is altogether a rejig of historical actions against China.
Pilger tells Green Left: “The ‘real face’ of American imperialism has been on show in Asia since the US joined in the European plunder of China in the nineteenth century, notably the ‘opium trade’ that made fortunes for US industrialists.”
Before the 19th century western occupation, the Chinese bloomed over thousands of years of civilisation and traded widely. Now in the 21st century, China is the new economic power. It holds more than US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves the reserve; is a world manufacturing hub; and has helped form the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — which by itself challenges the Washington census. China also lays claim to a modern Sputnik moment: sending into orbit the world’s first quantum computer.
Pilger has returned to China for the first time in years and says China has matched US with at their own capitalist game. He notes ongoing issues “with human rights, especially the right to speak against the state and challenge its power”.
“Since I was last here, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, many into a new middle class.” This has been accompanied by mega-infrastructure developments.
Pilger believes the origins of the tensions and conflict between the US and China is relatively simple: the US Empire is in decline and China is an economic powerhouse on the rise.
“The origin of the tensions in the Asia-Pacific is Washington’s determination to remain the world's top dog — by military means. Its logo is an eagle with one talon in America and the other in China.”
He notes: “It was Hillary Clinton who, as US Secretary of State in 2009, transformed a regional dispute in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to ‘a matter of US national interest’.”
Turning geopolitical competition into wars has been a long-standing US approach. “Since the Second World War, according to the historian William Blum, the US has attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of them democratic; bombed more than 50 countries; and attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.”
Rather than thrust the world into a devastating war, Pilger, like most citizens of world, prefers a peaceful resolution. “As the new president of the Philippines has demonstrated, the dispute can be peacefully negotiated and perhaps even solved if the US stays away,” he says.
Even after disastrous nuclear testing on civilians on Pacific islands, the US has never stayed away from western Pacific islands. In all the horrible detail, The Marshall Islands nuclear testing on civilians is given a historical overview.
In the documentary, Pilger voices over nuclear blasts that: “the United States exploded 66 nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 — the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for twelve years.”
Marshall Islanders still carry the radioactive-caused deformities and cancers. Still, to this day, new US missile bases gate and separate the poor townships of the Marshall islands.
A less known hotspot where Pilger visits is JeJu — a beautiful South Korean island. Called the Hawaii of Asia, JeJu hosts a US base just 400 miles from Beijing.
Pilger says in the film: “People’s resistance to these war preparations has become a presence on JeJu for almost a decade. Every day, often twice a day, villagers, Catholic priests and supporters from all over the world stage a religious mass that blocks the gates of the base.”
In Australia, the latest announcement features US F22 raptors to be based in Darwin. Foreign bases remain a historical theme for Australia, with Pilger noting: “Military service to the foreign power is as Australian as Vegemite. Today, Australia's military, intelligence, political and media establishments are fully integrated into US power structures and designs.
“This is remarkable, of course, when you consider that Australia is a country with no foreign enemies.”
Astoundingly in the film, a top US official denies there are any US bases at all in Australia. Pilger tells Green Left he wasn’t surprised, as “governments, especially rapacious governments, lie routinely”.
In Australia, the anti-war movement can learn much from the resistance (disinvestment, protests, blockades) to US bases on islands like Japan’s Okinawa and Korea’s JeJu.
Pilger believes: “The anti-war movement needs to move from marches and slogans to direct action and civil disobedience.”
Outside the traditional anti-war movement, soft-power, money and influence from Australia’s biggest trading partner China, may well be tipping the balance of power away from the US. There is also a growing Chinese peace movement powered by Chinese Australians.
A slight shift in Australian politics can seen by the reactions of former prime ministers like Paul Keating and the late Malcolm Fraser, who called for a shift in foreign policy. Like it did before with Britain to the US, Australia could eventually shift allegiances.
But Pilger remains sceptical of Australian politicians still very much tethered to the US alliance. He notes, on the other hand: “I think many ordinary Australians fear the US and want a peaceful relationship, if not friendship, with China.”
Polls certainly show Australians more fearful of the US than China. Donald Trump’s nuclear weapons comments have scared Australians and in recent weeks, China deployed nuclear missiles to its north, which can easily reach US cities.
A “mutually assured destruction” situation, as in the Cold War, underpins a simmering of tensions. But these are unusual times, where the US has carried out new simulations of nuclear war and survival simulations, and there’s palpable uneasiness about just where are we headed.
“Trump has blustered a great deal,” says Pilger, who believes Obama laid the groundwork for the conflict. “Whereas Obama committed the US to spend $1 trillion on nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.
“Having promised to help rid the world of the nuclear threat, he secretly authorised an escalation of nuclear warhead spending greater than any president since the Cold War. Obama’s drone campaign has murdered, according to one estimate, 4700 people; he also holds the record for running seven simultaneous wars.
“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess where this may be heading — if the rest of us don't wake up.”