A Preview of The Coming War on China

Noted journalist John Pilger talks about China, Okinawa, and U.S. policy in Asia.

Excerpts from Interview by By Maki Sunagawa and Daniel Broudy, July 2016, in Foreign Policy In Focus


John Pilger is a world-renowned journalist, documentary filmmaker and author. He has twice won Britain’s highest award for journalism. His films have won television academy awards in Britain and the US. Two of his films, on Cambodia and East Timor, are rated with the most important of the 20th century. The Coming War on China is his 60th film.


Q: You’re now finishing up work on your latest project the title of which, it seems, can also trigger feelings of considerable dread. The Coming War, maybe you’d agree, is pretty heavy. Can you describe the impetus for this particular look at world events, especially as you see them unfolding in East Asia?


John Pilger: The film picks up the theme of much of my work. It will set out to explain how great power imposes itself on people and disguises itself and the dangers it beckons. This film is about the US—no longer sure of its dominance—rekindling the Cold War on two fronts—against Russia and against China. I’m concentrating on China in a film about the Asia-Pacific. It’s set in the Marshall Islands where the US exploded 67 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958, leaving that part of the world gravely damaged—in human and environmental terms. And this assault on the Marshalls goes on. On the largest island, Kwajalein, there is an important secretive US base called the Ronald Reagan Test Facility, which was established in the 1960s—as the archive we’re using makes clear—“to combat the threat from China.”

The film is also set in Okinawa. Part of the theme is to show the resistance to power and war by a people who live along a fence line of American bases in their homeland. The film’s title has a certain foreboding about it because it’s meant as a warning. Documentaries such as this have a responsibility to alert people, to warn, and to show the resistance to rapacious plans. The film will show that the resistance in Okinawa is remarkable, effective, and little known. Okinawa has 32 US military installations. Nearly a quarter of the land is occupied by US bases. The sky is crowded with military aircraft; the sheer arrogance of an occupier is a daily physical presence. Okinawa is about the size of Long Island. Imagine a bristling Chinese base right next to New York.

I went on to film in Jeju Island, off the southern tip of Korea where something very similar has happened. People on Jeju tried to stop the building of an important and provocative base about 400 miles from Shanghai. The South Korean navy will keep it ready for the US. It’s really a US base where Aegis Class destroyers will dock along with nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers—right next to China. Like Okinawa, Jeju has a history of invasion, suffering and resistance.

In China, I concentrate in Shanghai, which has seen so much of China’s modern history and convulsions. Mao and his comrades founded the Communist Party of China there in the 1920s. Today the house where they met is surrounded by symbols of consumerism: Starbucks is directly opposite. The ironies in China today crowd the eye.

The final chapter of the film is set in the US, where I interviewed those who plan and “war game” a war with China; and those who alert us to the dangers: Bruce Cummings, the historian whose last book on Korea is bracing secret history, and David Vine, whose comprehensive work on US bases was published last year. I filmed an interview at the State Department with the Assistant Secretary for Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Russell, who said that the US “was no longer in the basing business.” The US has 5,000 bases—4,000 in the US itself and almost a thousand on every continent.

Drawing this together, making sense of it, doing everyone as much justice as possible, is the pleasure and pain of filmmaking. What I hope the film will say is that there are great risks, which have not been recognized. I must say it was almost other-worldly to be in the US during a presidential campaign that addresses none of these risks.

That’s not entirely correct. Donald Trump has taken what appears to be a serious if passing interest. Stephen Cohen, the renowned authority on Russia, has tracked this, pointing out that Trump has made clear he wants friendly relations with Russia and China. Hillary Clinton has attacked Trump for this. In 2010, as secretary of state, she turned the regional dispute in the South China’s Sea into America’s dispute. The following year, Obama announced his “pivot to Asia,” jargon for the biggest build-up of US military forces in Asia since WWII. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently announced that missiles and men would be based in the Philippines, facing China. This is happening while NATO continues its military buildup in Europe, right on Russia’s borders. In the US, where media is ubiquitous and the press is constitutionally the freest in the world, there is no national conversation, let alone debate, about these developments. In one sense, the aim of my film is to help break a silence.


Maki Sunagawa is a post-graduate research fellow in the Graduate School of Intercultural Communication at Okinawa Christian University. She is developing a book on state and corporate propaganda and their uses and effects in Okinawa since the end of WWII. Daniel Broudy is Professor of Rhetoric and Applied Linguistics at Okinawa Christian University. His research includes critical analysis of textual and symbolic representations of power that prevail in post-industrial culture. He is a member of Veterans For Peace, and writes about discourse practices that shape the public mind.

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