JOHN PILGER speaks to Ben Cowles about his new documentary film The Coming War on China and how US foreign policy is rooted in the 19th century
THERE is a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 at a mass rally when the main character Winston Smith realises the state’s official enemy has just changed from Eurasia to Eastasia.
Though this enormous policy change happens in the middle of a government speech, no-one else in the crowd seems to notice it.
Finding the flags of their former allies, now their eternal enemies, strewn around them, they tear them down screaming: “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia!”
We find ourselves in a somewhat similar case. Not so long ago when this whole “war on terror” began, we were always at war with Islamic fundamentalists; Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisa’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s were our strategic allies and Vladimir Putin’s Russia was a slight annoyance but generally ignored.
Now, at the end of 2016, it seems we have always been at war with Russia and Syria.
Occasionally we are always at war with China, especially when the communists get all uppity about the South China Sea.
However, at least for the moment, it appears all media attention is focused on Syria where the “moderate” terrorists are now our allies.
This is one reason why John Pilger’s latest film The Coming War on China is an essential wake-up call.
When it comes to China, the media rarely, if ever, mentions why the country is so protective over access to the South China Sea. And, as Pilger’s film points out, the media never speaks on how the United States surrounded China with a ring of military bases and an arsenal of nukes aimed at it.
It is in the midst of all this that I got in touch with the eminent journalist with a few questions about his film.
Why did you decide to make this film now?
I have been planning this film since 2011 when President Barack Obama announced his “pivot to Asia.”
That strange, innocuous term meant the beginning of the greatest build-up of US naval and air forces in Asia and the Pacific since World War II. The implications were clear — the US was declaring another enemy: China.
I have been a reporter in the Asia-Pacific region and I think I understand the importance of the region to the United States’s sense of its own dominance. Hillary Clinton, in one of her leaked speeches, said the Pacific should be renamed “the American Sea.”
The US Pacific Command’s symbol, or logo, has an eagle with one talon over Seattle, the other over Beijing. “We control of 52 per cent of the world’s surface,” they say. By its rapid economic rise, China is perceived in Washington as a challenger to the top dog.
What were some of the challenges making the film?
The main challenges were raising the money (successful, but only just) and persuading Obama’s Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, the most verbose war provocateur since Donald Rumsfeld, to speak to me (unsuccessful).
The sheer physical harshness of filming in the Marshall Islands also took its toll.
With the business interests both countries have with each other, it is hard to see how either side would benefit from war — although people were saying exactly the same thing about Britain and Germany before the first world war. Could the US’s encirclement of China be empty saber-rattling and nothing else?
Neither side would benefit from war — that’s exactly right. And nuclear war is not a remote possibility; in response to the threats and pressure, which include a full-scale rehearsal of a blockade of China by the US Navy, China has put its nuclear weapons on high alert. Of course, a lot of sabre-rattling is posturing, but as history shows, it also generates an atmosphere of distrust and, as one strategist describes it, “a landscape of potential miscalculation, mistake and accident.”
When one side begins to believe that the other is about to launch nuclear weapons, there is — as a US panel of experts concluded — less than 12 minutes to decide whether or not to retaliate.
What do you make of the arms trade’s role in this? The US spends a huge chunk of its GDP on the military; could China be a useful enemy for this expenditure?
The US arms business is central to the risk of war. In 2014, Congress approved federal contracts worth $440 billion; at the top of the list of recipients were the arms companies.
All but one of the world’s 10 leading arms companies backed Hillary Clinton for president. By the way, Britain is now the world’s second biggest arms dealer. Theresa May’s government says it will send the new multibillion-pound aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the South China Sea — plus a squadron of Tornado fighters — to join in the fun.
You’ve mentioned that the US’s way of thinking is rooted in 19th-century thinking, could you explain what you mean by that?
US foreign policy has pretty much run in a straight line since the Korean war in the early 1950s. It’s about control of strategic territory, especially the gates to fossil-fuel sources.
This is a classic gunboats policy; there is nothing subtle about it.
Many countries and their governments are perceived in terms of their usefulness or expendability. Genuine independence is barely tolerated.
Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Venezuela are “enemies” basically because they are independent, to a considerable degree, of US diktats and influence. That’s classic 19th-century thinking.
This took a different form during the 20th-century cold war, which was fought mostly by the US in so-called Third World countries for strategic and resources gain, as Britain had done. The pith helmet and robocop helmet may look very different but have much in common.
Listen to Admiral Harry Harris, chief of the US Navy in the Pacific, who does a brilliant impression of Lord Curzon.
Unfortunately, imperialism, once a term of great civic pride and endeavour, has been banished from the dictionary of journalists and transatlantic scholars (“realists”) since the nazis gave it a bad name.
Have you had any reaction on the film from China? If so, how has that been?
The response has been unlike any other I’ve had. In China, social media has carried the trailer and almost certainly the film itself to a huge audience.That a Westerner should make a political and historical documentary analysing and critical of both sides, that relates something of the “hidden” history of China, must seem exotic.
As one of the film’s Chinese interviewees says, the Chinese are used to being regarded, behind polite exteriors, as the “yellow peril.”
What do you hope people will come away from the film thinking?
“Information is power” is an enduring truth. I hope people take from the film information that challenges the myths and stereotypes, and lies, that are often everyday currency.
You say in the film that ordinary people can act as a superpower themselves. How can ordinary people stand up to the might of Western imperialism?
Ordinary people in countries that have stood up to Western power, often against the odds and without the privileges we enjoy in the West, don’t have to ask that question.
John Pilger is journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. The Coming War on China is his 60th film. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you can still catch it on the ITV Hub (mstar.link/JPChinaWar) until January 5. Ben Cowles is deputy features editor at the Morning Star. You can chat with him on twitter: @Cowlesz