America's Bases in the Asia-Pacific Region

John Pilger’s The Coming War on China is an ominous examination of the war games between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Pilger is a venerable Australian journalist who has made 60 documentaries about an impressive range of sociopolitical subjects such as the Vietnam War, the Cambodian genocide, Indigenous Australians and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is often critical of Western foreign policy, but The Coming War on China is a largely even-handed documentary that will enlighten and perhaps challenge your position on Sino-American relations.

It opens with footage of a devastated Hiroshima and war-torn Vietnam while the pomp and circumstance of the Star Spangled Banner plays in stark contrast. This clear contradiction is a harbinger of what’s to come; both countries are criticised, but the United States’ transgressions are given particular emphasis (well, I’d argue that Hiroshima was not a transgression).

After the brief, foreboding title sequence, we are shown a montage of news clips reporting China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, which is punctuated by some Fox News foghorn saying “we, the US, have to be much more aggressive in dealing with the Chinese government!” One suspects that this pundit is ignorant of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” policy, which is drastically increasing US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Pilger reminds us just how extensive this presence already is. Hundreds of bases are scattered from Northern Australia all the way up to Japan and across the Pacific Ocean, and the history of what America has done in the Marshall Islands, namely Bikini Atoll, is very hard to justify, certainly much harder than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After years of subjecting the Marshallese people to a variety of pollutants and cancers with 23 nuclear tests (see Project 4.1), the gross exploitation continues. Nowhere is this more evident than on Kwajalein island, where the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site is situated.

Castaways of the Marshall Islands

The American workers live on a complex with shops, swimming pools and bars that are run by low-paid Marshallese labour from Ebeye Island, which is known as the “slum of the Pacific.” With a population of around 15,000 (many of whom are Bikini refugees) crammed into an 80-acre area, Ebeye is one of the most densely populated islands in the world. There is little infrastructure and little money, so little in fact that the community can’t even repair the island’s only school bus. Each missile that’s fired from the base, meanwhile, costs 100 million dollars.

The other most trenchant criticism of the United States is their base on the beautiful South Korean island of Jeju, which is the ideal location from which to launch a blockade on Chinese raw materials.

Pilger pieces this narrative together with the help of many interesting interviewees. Perhaps the most compelling is James Bradley, author of The China Mirage. Bradley offers several fascinating historical perspectives on the US-China relationship, such as the truly Trumpian 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all Chinese labour immigration for decades.

Also, Bradley discusses the American elite’s involvement in the illegal opium trade, which gave Warren Delano, the grandfather of President Franklin Roosevelt, and Francis Blackwell Forbes, the great grandfather of Secretary of State John Kerry, very substantial fortunes that have been nurtured to this day. Another revelation (to me, at least) is that Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton were also funded by opium lucre.

Before anyone screams bias, I must stress that there is balance to the documentary. Pilger acknowledges China’s dire poverty and human rights issues, especially the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, he could have gone deeper.

He does not mention, for example, China’s foreign policy regarding North Korea, which it helps sustain because it presents an incendiary obstacle for the United States. However, Japan and even South Korea join China in its reluctance to see the rogue state fall, albeit for different reasons. For Japan, a united Korea would erode their influence in the region, and for South Korea, modernisation of their northern relatives would be horrendously expensive. The awful pantomime of the Kim dynasty won’t be ending any time soon.

If there’s one question you will ask after watching this documentary, it will be “why don’t I see John Pilger on TV or YouTube more often?” Pilger puts the subject and the interviewees in focus rather than himself, and he causes us to step away from partisanship and consider who the aggressors really are in this potential war. There’s no shaggy-haired, Michael Moorean affectation or hand wringing, just a venerable journalist effectively investigating the things that matter. Much of his work can be found on this YouTube channel.

The core purpose of his documentary is to challenge the notion that China is the new “red threat” and warn the people of the world that their voice can prevent this coming war. Although he does not want to make a villain of the United States, he compellingly argues that America’s war games in the Asia-Pacific are, to date, more ethically dubious.

Despite these historical blemishes, however, I still think America is a force for good in the world. In 1947, Churchill remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” I think a similar sentiment can be applied to the American empire.

Let’s just hope President Trump doesn’t get “the nuclear” on Chiiinah.

Rating: 3.5/5

Director: John Pilger
Screenwriters: John Pilger
Starring: John Pilger
Producers: John Pilger
Country: UK/Australia
Year: 2016
Runtime: 113 minutes

Watch The Coming War on China on the 6th December on ITV1 at 10:40pm.

By Jack Hawkins

I write about film, history and culture for War History Online, Film Inquiry, Movie Marker and others. @Hawkensian