Since Donald Trump won the US Presidential election there’s been a whole smorgasbord of geo-political anxieties to keep you awake at night. Oliver Stone’s Snowden was a timely reminder of the massive repressive state apparatus of para-legal or illegal surveillance that will be at the fingertips of the new occupant of the Oval Office. But if you do manage to drop off to sleep, finally forgetful of the terror of the near future, the subject of veteran documentary filmmaker John Pilger’s latest film will have you bathed in a cold sweat and bolt upright in no time. The Coming War on China is an alarming work of some urgency.
Tracing the relationship between China and the US, Pilger starts from the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Sixty-seven nuclear tests were conducted of such potency that it was the equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb being dropped every day for twelve years. The Bikini Atoll, in a post-modern twist much loved by JG Ballard and others, became the name for the two-piece skimpy swimsuit, fusing sex and death in a way Kubrick would note in Dr. Strangelove, a film Pilger obviously has in mind throughout his own. The impact on the local community was apocalyptic as no provision was made for their safety and they were in fact used as guinea pigs for American medical research into the effects of contamination.
Their testimony is deeply moving and infuriating when set beside the Quiet Americans, the strategists and diplomats, with their neat justifications and plausible deniability. Pilger delves even deeper into history, studying the racial stereotyping of the Chinese, the immigration ban on the so-called Celestials and their exploitation, first as a captive market for drug running to fund the railways and then as a labour force to build them. Through Mao Tse Tung and his ignored overtures to the Americans, we arrive at more or less the current situation. Pilger notes how despite US protestations, their presence in the Pacific and their ring of military bases from South Korea, Japan and Indonesia, is in effect a noose that is tightening around China. While China grows economically and develops, lifting millions out of poverty, and many into great wealth, the US looks to keep the Chinese ringed in, war-gaming scenarios of aggression and manoeuvring their fleet just off Chinese waters.
Particularly terrifying is of course the role of nuclear weapons many – like the warheads still stationed in Okinawa – pointed at major Chinese population centres. Peace protestors picket the gates of these unwelcome guests, even as helicopters buzz them from overhead. Despite his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has done nothing to reduce the global arsenal, which if anything is more dangerous now than it ever was. Within the American military, the former cold warriors are as intent as ever to keep the Red Menace at bay, even if they do drink Coca-Cola and watch Star Wars these days. John Pilger made his name as a crusading journalist whose work for ITV through the years has uncovered some of the most shameful episodes of the last century and this one. From Vietnam to the treatment of the Aborigines in his native Australia, Pilger has made it his mission to speak truth to power and give a voice to those who are usually ignored or silenced.
There will be some moments where his partisan approach gives an incomplete picture. China’s human rights record is alluded to, but Chinese economic reach in Africa and Europe and its position on minorities and entire nations such as Tibet goes unmentioned. Likewise, as a film the structure is episodic and the connections between the episodes are occasionally unclear. But none of that really matters. This is a siren as much as it is a movie and to call it inelegant would be to miss its function. After all, with a belligerent and unsubtle bull like Donald Trump barging through a nuclear-armed China shop – as he soon will be doing – this is the kind of stark, unsubtle warning that we need.