Transcript: John Pilger: The Coming War On China - 9 December '16
Thom Hartmann: Hello. I'm Thom Hartmann, in Washington DC. Welcome to the Big Picture.
If you watched any of Donald Trump's rallies this year, you might have heard him rant and rave against China. The way he put it - and continues to put it - China is America's mortal enemy, an adversary for the 21st century and beyond. Donald Trump, however, isn't the only person who appears to think this way.
The so-called "pivot to Asia" that President Obama made the centerpiece of his long-term foreign policy agenda was also predicated in large part on the idea that China is a potential adversary that needs to be countered - perhaps by force. But is China really our enemy? Or are we just turning them into one? And are we risking nuclear annihilation in the process?
These questions are at the heart of "The Coming War On China" - a shocking new documentary by legendary filmmaker John Pilger, that is airing in the United States exclusively here on RT America with its premiere Saturday night at 9pm Eastern, 6pm Pacific time.
John Pilger joins us now from our London studios. John, welcome to the program.
John Pilger: Thank you, Thom.
Thom Hartmann: You start out this documentary not by talking about China, but with a long section about US nuclear testing in the Pacific. Why was that?
John Pilger: Well, it's about the possibility, if not the prospect, of nuclear war. The issue of nuclear war and the risk of nuclear war was said to have gone away. It never went away, of course, and we're reminded by this current situation with China and also with Russia, of course, two nuclear-armed powers. The whole Cold War issue that so consumed us, the possibility of us, of facing a nuclear Armageddon, that's very much an issue now.
The whole issue with China is, I mean, I would use that rather bland word 'unnecessary'. But it's happened and what's interesting is that it's happened, it's been happening for some years but it's almost as if it's only just been noticed. There has been quite a bit of news both in the US and over here about China building air strips in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and almost nothing about the fact that the US has surrounded China with some four hundred military bases that stretch all the way from Australia through the Pacific up through Asia, Korea, Japan and across Eurasia.
And that's one of the, probably the most revealing maps I've used in the documentary, based on David Vine's excellent research in Base Nation which shows China encircled as if by some noose and these are, as I say, warships, bombers, battle groups. The US Navy has low draft ships just outside Chinese waters. This is the kind of provocation, the kind of scenario if you like, just before a war.
But why? It makes no sense and of course it's all about dominance and the US feeling insecure, at least the administrations in the US feeling that they, their position as top dog in the world is being challenged.
Thom Hartmann: You in the movie describe an incident in Okinawa during the Cuban Missile Crisis that, you know, I was alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I had no recollection of that or had that story ever been told. Tell us about that. And what should that incident tell us?
John Pilger: Well, it's interesting isn't it? You're right, I was also alive then and I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis very well. And there was no suggestion of a possible threat in the East. But in fact what happened was, and we have one of the former missileers who gave a testimony to a United Nations Committee that a false order was received in a Mace missile site on Okinawa. These Mace missiles were aimed at China and at North Korea. A couple were aimed at the Soviet Union but mostly at China.
And it was, the hero of this piece was a captain, he's now dead, a US captain who questioned the fact that he'd been given an order to fire a missile at China when in fact they were then, the crew was watching on television the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold and it had absolutely nothing to do with China. So he ordered several of his crew to go to another launch pad which had accepted this order, draw their 45s and tell them to stop. It was the kind of drama that one imagines, but really believes doesn't actually happen. But it did happen. And the former missileer John Bordne who gives this, who tells us in the film what happened, describes coming out into the fresh air that day and feeling the breeze and them discussing how they almost blew the earth to pieces.
That's a threat of nuclear weapons and at the moment we have Okinawa absolutely bristling, we don't know with nuclear weapons, maybe, and the ones that were almost fired were secretly on Okinawa, but bristling in 32 US installations about 500 miles from China. That's the kind of risk that we're we're observing today, or we should be.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. You talk about how America maintains roughly a thousand military bases around the world, and as you as you mentioned in the movie, you graphically demonstrate this essentially noose around China. To what extent are these new US military bases as opposed to leftovers from World War Two?
John Pilger: Well, very, some are leftovers, I mean, Okinawa is, if you like, a leftover from World War Two. The Marines took it and almost claimed it as their own and really haven't given it up even though it's a state, a province of Japan. So, but, you know, from this so-called leftover base Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq and Afghanistan have all being attacked by the aircraft that are based on Okinawa.
And at the moment, as I learned when I was on Okinawa, the whole configuration of these bases is towards China and North Korea and down the road on Jeju Island on the southernmost tip of Korea is a new base built by the South Korean navy, purpose-built for the US to, where nuclear submarines and destroyers equipped with the new Aegis missile will be based. That's about 400 miles from Shanghai. And this necklace of bases, some of which, as you say, left over, but why weren't they dismantled, that's the question, but many others built, such as this new one in Korea.
Also on Korea in the mainland, we're about to see these THAAD missile defense systems ostensibly aimed at North Korea to protect South Korea. Well, that's nonsense. They're aimed at China
Thom Hartmann: Yeah.
John Pilger: And when we, that's the same missile defense system that they're talking about putting into Europe. It's not a defense system, of course. It's very provocative.
Thom Hartmann: You interviewed a former aide of Deng Xiopeng named Zhang Weiwei and he had this to say about China in your film:
If BBC broadcast something they're happy to always mentioning this communist dictatorship, this autocracy. Actually with this kind of label, you know, you cannot understand this China as it is. But if you watch BBC or CNN or read Economist and try to understand China it will be a failure. It's impossible.
Thom Hartmann: So, John Pilger, why does the West struggle to understand China and how does that relate to our current tensions?
John Pilger: The West struggles to understand China because the West doesn't have a free media, and that's it in a nutshell. And those who haven't woken up to that, especially given recent events, when you had an entire US election campaign with these great issues of war and peace effectively left out, not up for debate. We do not have the kind of free movement of information that we're so proud that we do have. That's the short answer to that.
Why is it that, as I mentioned at the beginning, that the news talks about the airstrips that China is building in the South China Sea but anything to do with the US build up, this so-called pivot to Asia, which I would suggest most of the American public has never heard of, and yet it represents the biggest buildup of air and naval forces in the world since World War Two. It wasn't an issue. It's not discussed. It's downplayed, and that includes the respect - I'm not talking about Fox News here, I'm talking about the so-called respectable media if you like: New York Times, Washington Post and the rest. We seem to be in that, at least it's familiar to me, it may be familiar to you, that catatonic embrace of the Cold War, what it was.
The difference with the Cold War - the old Cold War - is that there were red lines, then. There were red lines that you only crossed at your extreme peril. And both sides knew where they were. These days, there are no red lines. You have NATO, American-led NATO forces on the western borders of Russia. That would have been unheard of during the old Cold War. You have - as I just mentioned - a great armada of US Navy ships now heading for China. You have the greatest military - seagoing military - exercise in recent memory, Operation Talisman Saber which rehearsed a blockade of China across the Straits of Malacca. That happened only last year.
We don't know about this. That's my point. And why don't we know? And it's a question for us.
Thom Hartmann: Indeed. After the break, more with John Pilger on this extraordinary documentary that premieres in the United States Saturday night right here on RT America.
Thom Hartmann: And welcome back to The Big Picture. I'm speaking with legendary filmmaker and journalist John Pilger about his brilliant new documentary, "The Coming War On China" which will play exclusively in the United States here on RT America starting Saturday night at nine p.m. Eastern time.
And John, in your film, social scientist and businessman Eric Li had this to say about the relationship between the United States and China.
There never have been two countries more interdependent on each other than China and the US in history. And China is the largest trading nation in the world and in history. So China's economy and their society, their lives, are are linked to the entire world including America and the West and all the other countries. So I think interdependence between these two countries and among all the nations of the world speak to peace.
Thom Hartmann: John Pilger, given that, why are we threatening China with this naval Asian pivot and I guess it goes beyond just the Navy, and why has the US surrounded China with military bases given that?
John Pilger: There's a long answer to that, Thom, and it doesn't have to do with Donald Trump or really any other president. It's about a rapacious foreign policy that's run pretty well in a straight line since the Korean War. And it's about dominance. Listen to Ashton Carter, the present defense secretary, and he's made it very clear. He's a very verbose provocateur. He likes speaking in public - speaking his mind, as he says. And he says those who confront us, wishing to deny our dominance - my paraphrasing - then they will have to deal with us. And he was referring to China and Russia, but mainly China.
Now, that's an attitude, that's a policy that has become almost vivid since 9/11. It existed before that. It's existed actually since 1950. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, which cost probably a million lives and dispossessed about four million people, all of it based on deception. That was part of that policy. So there's a long answer to your question, but the short answer is that China has become the second biggest economic power in the world. It may well be the biggest economic power now. There's never been a rise like it. It's happened in a very, very short time and the US knows that its dominance across, for instance, trade deals, goodbye to all those US-dominated trade arrangements and banking arrangements.
The Chinese have set up a parallel banking system that challenges the whole Bretton Woods architecture of banking. And China has become the developer, the builder, not only the workshop but the builder, leaving the United States with one well-defined power: that of its military. That's why the sabers are being rattled, because that is the power of the United States. This is not to say that anyone wants to have a nuclear war, but it doesn't work like that.
There was a panel in the US, I think last year, in which general James Cartwright made some very interesting remarks about the the interval of decision-making when a country knows that it's possibly going to be attacked with nuclear weapons. It's about 12 or 15 minutes. China until recently, according to the literature, used to keep its, kept its nuclear weapons on low alert. That means they separated the missiles and the warheads.
They're now on high alert. Why?
In China there are many like Eric Li. He was educated in the United States. They admire so much about the US. One strategist said to me, 'look, we're not your enemy, but if you want us to be your enemy we have to prepare'. And that's, I think that is certainly the reluctant view in Chinese ruling circles.
Thom Hartmann: So, China has, you know, the Great Wall. In fact, one of the points made in your documentary is that the Great Wall was defensive, that China has always been more inward-looking than outward-looking. They have, at least to the best of my knowledge, and I'm not a China scholar, you've done the research on this, but they have never done the Great British Empire kind of thing, you know, that was done back in the 18th century. So what is, (a), is that still the case, that they're not expansionist, and if they're not, then why the Spratly Islands? And (b) what is an appropriate American response to the Chinese economic growth that you were just talking about.
I was in China, in fact, I lived in China for a month back in 1986 and it was just a, you know, it was dirt lanes kind of thing. And now it's this, you know, it's exploded. How should the United States respond? Two questions there.
John Pilger: Well, the United States should stop threatening the world, in my opinion, and stop threatening nuclear powers. There's a very good interview, I think, in my film with Professor Ted Postol who was a former advisor to the head of US Naval Operations, now at MIT, and he said, why is this happening? Why don't we sit down with people? Why don't we connect, have a world in which we connect? The reason to that is that the US still operates a kind of nineteenth-century foreign policy. It's a gunboat foreign policy. It's so out of date that no one wants it, because everybody knows where it could lead.
Is China expansionist? Yes, China has secured its borders, as the example of Tibet, taking over Tibet and its sphere. But beyond that, apart from one small installation I think in Djibouti, there are no Chinese bases, military bases. There is a lot of economic and infrastructure activity around the world, especially in Africa. Africa is very interesting, where the Chinese have gone in, instead of the old western routine of really saying countries can only develop on our terms on World Bank terms, IMF, the Chinese have gone in and said let's have your raw materials and we'll build roads and bridges and ports for you. And that's what's happened.
The US response to that has been entirely military. So you have right through Africa, Africom, which is the newest US military command with headquarters now in Addis Ababa, has a military presence in almost all the major countries, all the major countries in Africa. A military presence, in which military hardware is given to often unstable governments and that old, that's a colonial, it's a 19th century imperial way of dealing. The Chinese, on the other head, yes, they're expanding, they're there, but they're expanding in business terms. It's not in military terms.
Now, they're a big power. They are probably, as I said, the biggest economic power in the world now. So they're going to expand. But no one wants expansion in military terms, because it's dangerous. And that's what US expansion is. Unless the world is run the way the US wants it run, they get the US Navy. That used to be known as gunboats. And people used to wear pith helmets. They don't need more. They wear rather more frightening uniforms and they have rather more frightening weapons.
Thom Hartmann: Indeed. I, in fact I was recently in Kenya and South Sudan and up on the border with Darfur. I was amazed, the Chinese economic presence in that part of Africa.
There, you mentioned in the last block, we both mentioned that we both remember the Cold War. I remember the 'duck and cover' in the 1950s in elementary school here in the United States. At that time I don't think we knew about nuclear winter. You can correct me if I'm wrong on this, but I think that the knowledge of that came along more like in the sixties or seventies. But you reference this in your film. There's something here in your film that I just found shocking. I'd like to play this clip.
The scientific studies that I teach by the scientists that predict that the earth can be made essentially uninhabitable for nuclear war. The scientists have been begging the Obama administration, well, they wouldn't say begging, but they've made multiple requests to meet with him and discuss these predictions because they're peer-reviewed studies and they've been turned down over and over again.
Thom Hartmann: Now, was that because it's just conventional wisdom already or is there some denial here? What's going on?
John Pilger: That's a denial. That's a denial. That's Steven Starr who is an expert on this field. He is not giving an opinion, he's stating what everybody knows would happen. He says that, you know, smoke would cover the earth with one exchange between China and the US and it will be too cold for 10 years to grow food crops. Now, this information, this information has been known for a very long time but there is a denial. You're right. And, you know, if that denial is admitted, an entire industry then is threatened. What was it, in 2014 there were federal grants of 444 billion dollars to arms manufacturers. The complex, the great complex, whatever it's called, national security, military-industrial, but this great landscape of armaments and war-making and intelligence that really runs the United States and especially now with the Pentagon long in the ascendancy. And look at Donald Trump's cabinet, looks like a cabinet of generals to me.
You know, that inherent part of the US, the reality of the US, is threatened by this, because without a threat I think as James Bradley says at the beginning of the film, 'without a threat, what does it do?'
Thom Hartmann: Yeah. It's a remarkable, an absolutely remarkable piece of filmmaking that you have done here, John. In, we just have 10 seconds. Are you optimistic or concerned?
John Pilger: Oh, I'm optimistic, because the film shows a fantastic resistance in Okinawa, in Korea, in the Marshall Islands. You know, we have so much, these are island people who are resisting this.
Thom Hartmann: Yeah.
John Pilger: It's actually quite an optimistic film.
Thom Hartmann: That's great. That's great. John Pilger, thank you so much.
John Pilger: Thank you.
And that's the way it is tonight. Don't forget, democracy is not a spectator sport. Get out there, get active. Tag, you're it!
Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.