John Pilger, and making war on China

Why is New Zealand taking part in military war games aimed at our main trading partner?
by Gordon Campbell

In July, the New Zealand Defence Force is scheduled to join the latest round of Talisman Sabre, a huge training exercise that Australia carries out biennially in conjunction with all four arms of the US military. Last time around in 2015, New Zealand contributed 650 personnel, 45 vehicles and two of our $NZ771 million dollar fleet of NH90 helicopters to this regional war game.

What’s weird is that Talisman Sabre is actually a rehearsal for an assault on China and its ability to defend itself. You know, China – the regional and global powerhouse aka our main trading partner. China’s emerging middle class happens to be the biggest potential growth market for Fonterra, our largest multinational. In addition, China provides the second largest bloc of foreign tourists to this country.

To cap off this love fest, the media has been agog all week with China’s potential to be our new BFF in building (and rebuilding) this country’s essential infrastructure. Apparently, our government is also very keen to upgrade our Free Trade Agreement with China, especially now that the TPP has gone south. Our corporates are also angling to get a slice of the business opportunities being created by China’s huge One Belt, One Road land and maritime project.

China is now our investment partner, too. In 2015, we joined the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIIB) and invested $NZ125 million in it. Why, we love China!

Except, that is, when we’re war-gaming alongside Washington and Canberra to finesse the ways to invade China and subjugate it. New Zealand’s active participation in this pantomine of military aggression underlines the total disconnect that exists between our trade and defence policies. New Zealand is staking its economic future on China, but it also chooses to collude with the United States in the Pentagon’s anti-China military planning and security intelligence surveillance while doing so.

That’s the conundrum. On trade and investment issues, we send air kisses to China at every opportunity while busily spying on it through our role in the Five Eyes intelligence network, and practising with our former ANZUS allies on how to intimidate it at best, and invade it at worst. Maybe New Zealand – and Australia too, for that matter – should stop trying to hedge its bets in this peculiar fashion.

There are excellent reasons for doing so. Australian journalist John Pilger has just completed a major documentary called The Coming War On China. The film addresses the threat posed to the planet by the menacing trajectory of the military stance the US and its allies have adopted towards China, in order to ensure that the US remains the sole military and economic superpower in the Asia-Pacific.

Usefully, the film begins by tracing the ongoing harm being done to the people of the Marshall Islands, as a result of the US programme of nuclear and missile testing which (among other things) has poisoned the Marshallese with radiation and destroyed their home environment and traditional food chain. The social upheavals caused by the US bases within the Marshalls, on Okinawa, and in the Philippines is also a key part of Pilger’s story. To mark the Wellington screening tonight of The Coming War on China, here’s a a brief email interview I conducted on Monday with Pilger :

Campbell : In July, the Asia Pacific region will see the latest round of Talisman Sabre, the huge biennial US/Australian military exercise – which will include Indonesia this year, presumably for reasons related to the South China Sea disputes. What do you see as the purpose of this event, and why should New Zealanders be trying to ensure that our country plays no further part in it?

Pilger : A principal purpose of Talisman Sabre is to rehearse a blockade of the Malacca Straits and the Lombok Straits – effectively cutting China’s lifelines through the South China Sea and beyond. Talisman Sabre derives from the US Air/Sea Battle Plan for a war with China. It is wholly provocative. Why is “independent” New Zealand taking part?

Your film is called The Coming War On China. Yet as you’ve said in other interviews, you don’t believe that military conflict is inevitable. Ultimately, do you think military conflict between China and the US is more likely to occur by accident than by design?

None of us is a futurist. There are and always have been “chest-beating gorillas” in Washington, as a former Pentagon strategic planner refers to them in my film. History is important to consider here. The United States has no living memory of catastrophic war on its own soil; indeed, its greatest war, 1941-45, was nationally profitable in contrast to the devastation of Russia and China. However, US society is gun-saturated and violent and US culture zealously plays the game of war, casting itself as “exceptional” and heroic. The US armaments and “security” monoliths are unaccountable and a foundation of the US economy and US political life. This is a potent blend for the making of what you describe as an “accident”.

The Soviet Union used to be a nuclear-capable US rival ringed by US bases, and yet with a large dollop of good luck, the world avoided nuclear catastrophe. Why should we treat this current US/China rivalry as any more fraught than the Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union – which supposedly, “our” side “won”? Might not, as happened with the Soviet Union, a combination of military, diplomatic and economic pressure eventually bring about positive political change in China?

The word “our” was important in maintaining Cold War propaganda. “Our” propaganda was that Moscow was conspiring to take over the world; the Russians were always coming. It was a fantasy. “Our” propaganda also promoted the threat of a Soviet attack on western Europe, which was discredited immediately official files were declassified. One file, quoting the British General Staff, derided it as “without evidence”. No one “won” the Cold War. The Soviet Union withdrew from the great game. Vladimir Putin is currently the object of Cold War-style propaganda and threats purely because he and his government restored Russia as a regional power, along with its independence. Who has a divine right to bring “pressure” on nuclear-armed China? The serious question is: how can humanity stop the United States taking us to a catastrophic war?

As your film shows, China and the US are mutually entwined on trade and economic issues. In your film, the Chinese entrepreneur Eric Li compares the US – where the parties change but the economic policy doesn’t – with China, where the economic policies change, but the party doesn’t. Given Li’s point that political authority in the US is shaped by mega-wealth, is the economic self interest of the US ruling elite really one of the few restraints that’s currently preventing the Pentagon from going to war with China?

In some respects, yes. One of the key moments in the long campaign to get the United States out of Vietnam was when 100 of the most powerful “businessmen” went to see President Johnson and implored him to withdraw. Wars are often bad for business. The main reason President Trump wants to make peace with Russia is that there are deals to be done.

Vietnam was invaded by China in 1979. The enmity between Japan and China goes back centuries. Don’t other countries in the Asia Pacific have historical reason to fear that the US may not be the only major power in the region with imperial ambitions?

China invaded Vietnam, in secret collusion with the United States, as a payback for Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, and was given a bloody nose. That brief episode had everything to do with the aftermath of the American war in Indochina and nothing to do with an “imperial ambition”. Japan is the only modern Asian power that has excited fear and loathing in those countries occupied by Japan during the Second World War. My sense of Asia today is that states want regional solutions to disputes: witness China and the Philippines under Duterte.

The Pentagon’s current enemies du jour – Iran and China – have responded to US threats by bolstering their anti-access/area denial capabilities. In turn, these efforts by China have been met by the American Air Sea Battle strategy (and related diplomatic efforts) which has sought to counter China’s ability to deny hostile military access to the South China Sea. Given the risks with this escalating conceptual arms race, what can small countries like New Zealand do to rachet back the likelihood of conflict?

Well, New Zealand can start by speaking with an independent voice, decoupling itself from the American train. Perhaps New Zealanders imagine their government resigned from the ANZUS Treaty in the 1980s. In fact, the treaty was never abrogated and New Zealand has remained a willing participant in the most important US-invented strategic network, known as Five Eyes. New Zealand could take positive regional initiatives to protect its vast environment from war games, such as speaking out about the US taking control of nine million square mile of the Pacific — an area double the size of the mainland United States — as a “marine range complex” run by the Pentagon and spun by President Obama in 2014 as “the world’s largest marine reserve”. Why not a “zone of peace” in the South Pacific, proposed by New Zealand?

The Air/Sea Battle Strategy

As the Pilger film says right at the outset, the Western media almost uniformly reports on the tensions in the South China Sea in terms of Chinese “provocations”. Usefully, Pilger asks us instead to consider the view from China, which looks outward to see itself ringed with US military bases, in a region within which Washington and its allies are constantly war-gaming… with China routinely cast in the role of military target.

There is another way of regarding the situation. Maybe China’s actions are the response of a target that’s been singled out as a rival by the neighbourhood bully. As this useful analysis explains, both Iran and China looked at the display of immense US power during the Desert Storm campaign in Iraq in 1991, and began to plan accordingly.

Both countries independently adopted an asymmetric pattern of warfare called A2–AD, for anti-access, area denial. In the Persian Gulf, Iran has pursued this strategy, notably utilizing small and mobile seacraft against the bigger, more powerful US fleet. So has China in the South China Sea. Here’s an explanation of how this tactic began to unfold:

According to a highly placed defense consultant who advises the Pentagon on military developments in China, senior officers of the Chinese Academy of Military Science, the country’s most prestigious military think tank, “had watched the January 1991 attacks with dismay” and started a weapons development program to challenge the U.S. Navy’s access to the Strait of Taiwan and the waters of the South China Sea. “Iran did the same,” this official says, by starting “a modernization and anti-ship missile program” to contest U.S. military access to the Persian Gulf. The new weapons included increased numbers of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, more submarines and surface ships, technical upgrades in electronic warfare capabilities, the development of advanced sea mines and the use of more sophisticated command, control, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

By the mid 2000s, the US had devised a de-stabilising counter to this essentially defensive A2-AD military tactic, in the form of its Air Sea Battle strategy. This became the military lynchpin of US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” that’s discussed in Pilger’s film. China’s subsequent efforts to militarise the disputed islets and shoals in the South China Sea is its latest tit for tat response to the US Air Sea Battle plan.

US bases in the Asia-Pacific

Back in 2011, Obama had framed the “pivot to Asia” very much in economic terms, as an overdue recognition of the Asia- Pacific’s predicted evolution into becoming the epicentre of the 21st century global economy. If that was the real intention, the pivot’s strong military component virtually guaranteed it would fail:

By putting Asia at the center of its security strategy, the Obama administration inadvertently made the entire enterprise seem to Beijing like an effort to contain China militarily. This led China to respond by becoming more aggressive, helping to undo the general tranquillity that existed before 2008.

Emblematic of this mistake was the roll-out of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine. First outlined in a then-classified memo in 2009, ASB became official doctrine in 2010. From the beginning, it was an effort to develop an operational doctrine for a possible military confrontation with China and then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates openly discussed the need to counter China’s growing military capabilities. The signal received in Beijing was the U.S. had hostile intentions toward China and was trying to contain it militarily. The result was that the entire pivot was seen by Beijing as part of a broader effort to encircle China.

If Obama had ever truly wanted the pivot to reap the economic benefits of a rising region, he would easily have (a) invited China into the Trans Pacific Partnership as an equal partner and (b) joined China in a similar partnership within the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As mentioned, New Zealand joined the AIIB. But the US and Japan didn’t. As for the late and unlamented TPP, it was always a method of containing China, not partnering with it – and throughout 2016, the Obama administration’s pro-TPP rhetoric became increasingly militaristic. In March 2016, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said the pact was of equal worth to him as another aircraft carrier group.

In the year 2017, the Asia-Pacific – and especially the contested South China Sea region – has become the equivalent of the Balkans, just before World War One. i.e. it is now a tinderbox of mutual suspicions, militarism and nationalism ready to flare into conflict at the drop of a hat – either directly, or through proxies like Taiwan, which has just concluded a $5.9 billion arms deal with the US. Pilger’s film provides a historical context and a vital counter to the tone of media coverage of the South Chinas Seas disputes, which routinely casts China as the prime aggressor.

To be fair, China is not simply a passive, merely reactive player in the region’s affairs. In the South China Sea, as some observers have pointed out, China now enjoys a huge and growing power disparity compared with much smaller states—Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, most of whom strongly contest China’s claims to the region and its resources:

If China can impose its will in the South China Sea, at least five rival claimants—all much smaller, weaker Asian states—will be limited to a narrow band of the sea along their coastlines. China would gain greater security for its crucial supply lines of oil and other commodities; exclusive access to rich fishing areas and potentially vast undersea oil deposits; a much larger buffer against what it regards as U.S. naval intrusions; and, not least, the prestige and standing it has long sought, becoming in effect the Pacific’s hegemon, and positioning itself to press its decades-old demand that Taiwan come under its control.

As Pilger says, the likes of the Philippines – under its new leader Rodrigo Duterte – have been seeking a regional solution to its frictions with Beijing over the disputed territories in the South China Sea, and its resources. To some observers, Duterte is also trying to play China and the US off against each other, in an effort to secure economic rewards from both of them. Two steps forward, one step back. For example: Duterte chose in early March to ban one projected new US base (the Bautista Air Base in Palawan) while simultaneously giving the greenlight to two other US military installations, the Basa Air Base in Pampanga and the Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro.

For New Zealand, its own attempts to be all things to the Chinese – nice Dr Jekyll on trade and evil Mr Hyde on defence and security intelligence -– is not sustainable. Talisman Sabre in July will be the next occasion when this dangerous split in our national identity becomes open to challenge.

The Coming War on China begins a season at the Cuba Lighthouse in Wellington tonight, and from April 6 at the Academy in central Auckland, the Rialto in Newmarket, the Bridgeway in Northcote, the Monterey in Howick, the Rialto in Dunedin….and later in the month at the State Theatre in Nelson, among others.