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Encircling China

John Pilger’s 60th documentary examines US strategy towards its main rival

The latest film from John Pilger, the seasoned and world-famous director and journalist, weaves together stories across time and geographic spaces in East Asia, focused on the predominant superpower, from atomic bomb testing to US military base expansion.

It might initially seem puzzling that The Coming War on China focuses not so much on how likely a coming war on China might be, as on the historical advance of US militarism in the Pacific.

This history includes the victimisation of the people of the Marshall Islands as well as anti-US military resistance movements of the indigenous island populations on Okinawa and Jeju. Such accounts are a necessary backdrop for viewers to understand the existential threats that China now faces. This is not to ignore, of course, China’s own recent base-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea which threaten the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Concerned about current campaigns of US military aggression in the Middle East and belligerent threats of nuclear war with North Korea,

US viewers in particular may reflect on these developments in East Asia and wonder what this barely-known history in the Pacific says about them as a civilised people who cherish the rule of law, and the Wilsonian principles of de-colonisation and ethnic self-determination.

Pilger shows how the US geostrategic arrangements that counter China in the Pacific today depend on the imperial supremacy the US maintains over its colonial islands (in Micronesia) and over its clients (the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan).

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Tony de Brum, foreign minister, Marshall Islands

Strange love

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire, Dr Strangelove, was a sardonic contemplation of what could happen were the wrong person to depress the wrong button on some nuclear command centre control panel. Pilger’s film is, in part, a sober presentation of what did happen in Okinawa in 1962. In Dr Strangelove, we see US air force general Jack Ripper descend into insanity and send the bomber wing in his charge to drop nuclear bombs on the USSR. In 1962, according to John Bordne (a former member of a USAF missile combat crew), he and his colleagues were ‘told… to launch all the missiles’ from their silos at four different locations in Okinawa.

The main target, Bordne concluded, was surprising: China. Only one missile was to head towards Russia. A field-grade officer who issued the mistaken command to arm the rockets for launch was later quietly court-martialled.

“US government documents… demonstrate that its scientists conducted human radiation experiments with Marshallese citizens. Some of our people were injected with or coerced to drink fluids laced with radiation.” - Tony de Brum, foreign minister, Marshall Islands

However, on that hair-raising false doomsday, Bordne and his fellow missileers could only look at each other incredulously and ponder the possibility that they had nearly ‘exterminated the whole planet’.

Bordne’s filmed recollection of these events has been challenged by other missileers interviewed by the Stars and Stripes US military newspaper, but another fellow crew member, Bill Horn, appears to confirm Bordne’s account: ‘Although we didn’t know for sure [where the other missiles were aimed], we surmised that it was somewhere in China.’

Given the Cold War context and the US assumption that China and the USSR were allies, a simple but hasty deduction would make China the obvious destination for the remaining 31 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Further historical background for the development of a nuclear-weaponised western hegemony appears in the opening scene of Pilger’s film.

General Franklin Blaisdell boasts of the US military’s ability to dominate land, sea, and air in battle. ‘All countries,’ he observes, ‘respect the power of the United States, and they respect how dominant we are in this region.’

The unqualified pride foregrounds a later scene where another military commentator, with a gleam in his eye, casts a maniacal smile and gleefully extols the ‘next generation of futuristic ideas [by] scientists who have designed these [weapons] and [they’re] coming to life!’

In terms of the emotional effect created in casual talk of weapons of mass destruction, the parallels to Kubrick’s protagonist, general Ripper, are unsettling. Viewers will surely wonder about the fervent exuberance appearing here, reminiscent of US president Donald Trump’s hasty missile attack on Syria and TV newscaster Brian Williams’ fawning praise of the ‘beautiful pictures [of the launch] at night from the decks of… two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean.’

“If indigenous islanders in the Pacific could realise self-determination over their land and sea, they could well weaken the strategic posture of the US in this region.”

It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s exposure of barbarism.

After the Japanese surrender of the Marshall Islands at the close of the Second World War, the United States assumed responsibility for the region as a so-called trust, ‘with an obligation to protect the health and wellbeing of the people.’ The positive connotations signified by the word ‘trust’, we learn from the film, are turned inside out with a perverse understanding applied by the US occupiers to the people of Micronesia.

Precious fluids

Obscured and hardly ever told, the story of what happens to the Marshallese and their land unfolds early in the documentary with horrifying irony. We see archival footage of propaganda documenting the compliance of island people duped into serving as unwitting subjects in tests of US atomic weapons. Bikini Atoll became the first South Pacific site of an apocalyptic nightmare, as Pilger observes.

As viewers of the documentary, we see firsthand testimonies from survivors, now advanced in age, who had been used as guinea pigs in the testing of nuclear weapons detonated nearly every day for over a decade.

We learn of the government’s methodical plan to expose the Marshallese to contaminated land, flora and fauna in the interest of advancing nuclear science. As one unnamed official of the US atomic energy commission remarked at the time: ‘That island is by far the most contaminated place on earth.… it will be interesting to get a measure of human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.’

Although these events precede by a decade some of the darker fictions in Kubrick’s satire, striking congruities with historical realities run deep.

In Dr Strangelove, Ripper declares that he ‘can no longer allow... the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.’ ‘It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it?’ he asks Mandrake: ‘Foreign substances introduced into our precious bodily fluid, without the knowledge of the individual and certainly without any choice.’ Audiences of that time must have seen the general’s claims as characteristic of some psychotic disorder.

In The Coming War on China, Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, offers testimony at the United Nations explaining how ‘US government documents… demonstrate that its scientists conducted human radiation experiments with Marshallese citizens. Some of our people were injected with or coerced to drink fluids laced with radiation.’

As the 1947–1956 paranoia engendered by the Red Scare was unfolding in the United States, its hideous effects appear to have been playing out in atomic tests conducted on the Marshallese from 1946 to 1958.

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A map from The Coming War on China of US bases in the Asia-Pacific region.

Base colonialism

During this time, in 1953, US president Dwight D Eisenhower criticised that period of nuclear testing in his ‘Chance for Peace’ speech where ‘[e]very gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’ Though not the central aim of his speech, Eisenhower managed to make the notion of institutionalised forms of theft against his fellow citizens more concrete in the calculations he cited – the costs of fighter planes, destroyers, and bombers weighed against the costs of homes, hospitals, and schools that were never built. Eisenhower’s calculations, however, excluded the health, welfare, and dignity taken from former and current residents of US colonies in the Pacific whose lives and history are laid bare in this documentary.

Apologists for such a system of theft may point to such brutalities as a historical anomaly, but Pilger shows how the past encroaches upon the present.

There are ongoing nuclear missile tests launched from the Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. Residents of Ebeye Island (part of the atoll) are left largely to serve the well-fortified Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.

Many refugees who escaped atomic testing in the Rongelap and Bikini Atolls (also part of the Marshall Islands) in the 1950s came to Ebeye. They continue to eke out a strained and uneasy existence with the original inhabitants of Ebeye.

Current US military presence in the Pacific region necessitates, as Pilger’s film shows, a kind of colonial partition: the redistribution of land and resources between the thriving military facilities and local island communities who are struggling to carve out a living in the polluted slums.

As unconnected as it might appear to an approaching war on China, the film also features an exposé of Okinawa’s postwar history – US occupation until 1972 and the seeds of its present struggle against remaining US bases. We see Okinawa sacrificed as a colonial pawn by defeated Japan to the US forces and the project to turn Okinawa into a garrison island.

Just as with base colonialism in the Marshall Islands, garrison construction necessitated constraints on local civil rights and the acquisition of natural resources – land and water. Base expansion strategies that employed military men with bayonets and bulldozers to wipe out Okinawan farmland, along with houses and crops, remain engraved in local memory of the US colonial administration.

As local people were also mobilised to labour in building the military garrisons during the occupation, we see in the film how this past and present work represents part of the larger circle of bases that threatens a growing China. The film surveys resistance movements against a new Marine Corps base in Okinawa.

An expert on Asia, Tim Beal, reflects the general perception that, ‘From the point of view of Japanese, Okinawa is a good place [for the new base] because in a sense, it’s not really Japan, it’s a sort of internal colony. From the point of view of Japanese public opinion, it’s a good place to have the bases (certainly having bases on mainland Japan would be extremely unpopular), so I guess whatever the protests are, they will probably be ignored.’

“Stephen Starr describes the likely aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the US and China, a post-apocalyptic earth covered by black carbon smoke and plunged into freezing temperatures where not a single crop will grow for over a decade.”

The documentary also shows viewers how ‘security’ achieved through bilateral alliances, such as that of the Japanese-US treaty, builds upon the marginalisation of local people.

As the narrative moves into the present, Pilger’s camera picks up scenes of local people fighting against dispossession of a pristine natural asset in the ocean just off Henoko, where Tokyo has resumed dumping sand and gravel to lay the foundations of another air station for the Marines Corps.

Pivoting and resisting

It is no accident that the frontline anti-military resistance in Okinawa and in Korea’s Jeju Island, both sites of fierce struggles against base construction, is a major feature of The Coming War on China. These island movements are part of the wider opposition that challenges Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’.

US policies focused on China would be impossible without the old colonial access to neighbouring locations (not only Okinawa but also the Philippines, Guam, and so on) and the low value placed on the residents’ safety and health (as this film shows in the case of the Marshall Islands). If indigenous islanders in the Pacific could realise self-determination over their land and sea, they could well weaken the strategic posture of the US in this region.

Pilger’s work ultimately pricks the conscience of his audience to recognise the human face of a nation’s global military and economic plans. The film prods us to look more closely at the effects of the US military project on communities and people across the world.

Perhaps nowhere are these effects expressed more vividly in Okinawa than in the passions of an 88-year-old woman, Fumiko Shimabukuro, who experienced the horrors of the battle, and, during the US military administration of the island, ‘came to help build that base [Schwab].’

Oral history of witnesses to the Battle of Okinawa, which is rarely seen in English cinema, appears most poignantly in the remarks that Shimabukuro and other interviewees share with Pilger in the film: ‘My obligation,’ she observes, ‘is to work towards peace, which means eliminating military bases from our lives.’

Her words – like those of the priests and artists in Jeju Island we hear in subsequent scenes – bespeak an indigenous struggle, spanning multiple generations, to reclaim land and self-determination. Lucid memories of the tragedies seen and felt in the Second World War Battle of Okinawa remain central motivations of the ongoing resistance. Surely this film will also generate publicity for local struggles and educate under-informed audiences around the world, especially in the United States.

The final section of the documentary re-visits the footage of Asia-Pacific interviewees, presented as ‘ordinary people like us’, inclusive of the viewers. Here, racial and territorial borders are momentarily transgressed, following a sense of urgency as we come out of viewing the film’s penultimate section featuring commentary from Stephen Starr, program director for the School of Health Professions, University of Missouri.

Starr describes the likely aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the US and China, a post-apocalyptic earth covered by ‘black carbon smoke that would rise into the stratosphere.’ This is a world plunged into freezing temperatures where not a single crop will grow for over a decade. In this scene, we can see the definitive effect of the present madness as the film effectively crosses the racial and territorial borders under the organising banner of ‘ordinary people’. Here, the prescience of Pilger’s complex work will become clear to human beings open to empathy for their neighbours, however far removed they are from the centres of power.


John Pilger, The Coming War On China is available on DVD (130mins, 101 Films, £17.99).

Daniel Broudy and Miyume Tanji dedicate this review to the memory of Tony de Brum (26 February 1945 – 22 August 2017). Daniel Broudy is professor of Rhetoric and Applied Linguistics at Okinawa Christian University and co-editor of Synaesthesia: Communication Across Cultures. An honorary lecturer at Australian National University, Miyume Tanji is a co-author of Okinawa Under Occupation: McDonaldization and Resistance to Neoliberal Propaganda (Palgrave, December 2017).

Topics: Foreign Policy