The Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews Simon Winchester

Press Release – The Nation

In a run of remarkable journalistic good fortune, hes covered Irelands troubles, Watergate, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was even captured by the Argentine army at the start of the Falklands War.On The Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews Simon Winchester

Youtube clips from the show are available here.

In a run of remarkable journalistic good fortune, he’s covered Ireland’s troubles, Watergate, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was even captured by the Argentine army at the start of the Falklands War.

He’s gone on to author books such as ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, ‘Krakatoa’ and now this book ‘Pacific’.

It covers the dangerous madness of North Korea, the rise of China, and much more.

So when he was in New Zealand recently Simon Shepherd spoke to him and asked if the Pacific is a single entity of just a jumble of cultures and countries.

Simon Winchester: It’s much more than that. I mean it’s where, if you like, the world comes full circle, where literally East meets West. And so in a very different sense from the great seas of the world, the Mediterranean, which used to be the inland sea of the classical world; and the Atlantic, which is the inland sea of today’s world, this is where the world finally closes the gap between East and West. And that gives it, I think, a unique identity. These people, the Westerners, sitting on the east side of the Pacific, and the Eastern people sitting on the west side of the Pacific, finally meeting each other. That gives the Pacific its unique place in the world.

Simon Shepherd: Do we see this actually taking place now? Where there’s been talk about a union between Pacific nations? Now we have the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Could that actually bring the region together politically and in a trade sense, somewhat like the EU?

I don’t think so at the moment, for one hugely important reason, and that’s because China’s excluded. China’s not a member of the TPP and won’t be until all the requirements of the requirements of the TPP for working conditions and unions and all the rest of it apply to China as well, which clearly is not going to happen for a generation, at the very least. And excluding China from any agreement renders it not truly pan-Pacific because of the vast influence that China has wielded and is increasingly going to wield in the region.

Okay, look, we’ll talk about China a bit more soon, but one of the things that does link everybody around the Pacific is the climate. We seem to have more and more extreme weather events there, but you said the ocean could actually, sort of, save the world, from a climate point of view?

Well, it’s a complicated situation. The last American admiral who—based in Hawaii who commands all American forces in the Pacific, a chap called Samuel Locklear, said that of all the potential problems confronting the Pacific and indeed the world, China, Korea, disputes between, over islands and so forth pale into insignificance compared to the problems caused by the climate. And within the Pacific, that means rising sea levels, of course, and recent reports suggest they’re going to rise by four foot by the end of this century; increasing temperature of the sea, increasing acidification. This is having all manner of effects, not the least of which is drowning various islands like Kiribati and the Islands and the Marshall Islands. That, said Admiral Locklear, is going to cause far more of a national security problem and international security problem than any of the other regional conflicts. But at the same time, the Pacific uniquely, because of its size and the 64 million square miles, acts as a great heat sink. It traps the heat, and much of it will, in the future, be absorbed by the ocean and dealt with. It’s a somewhat technical discussion, but basically, the world heals itself, and the Pacific is a part of the world irrelevant to our existence. We may long have gone, but the world will take care of itself, and the Pacific, because of its size, is one of the mechanisms that’ll ensure that will that that happens.

And yet we don’t seem to appreciate how important the Pacific is. Because we’ve just treated it as dumping ground and a testing ground and scant disregard for its people. We don’t realise what is actually—how important the Pacific is.

Well, you’re absolutely right, and that’s one of the thrusts of this book I’ve written, that we Westerners, I mean, we—You know, it was Balboa who first came to the Pacific in 1520 and Magellan who first crossed it in 1529 – and since then, we Western peoples have colonised it, have disrespected it, have polluted it, tested all these atom bombs and Bikini and Christmas Island all these various places where the French have tested their weapons more recently. We’ve overfished it, we’ve polluted it, we’ve caused all manner of problems. So you’re absolutely right. And if you go to a place like the Marshall Islands in the Northwest Pacific and see the ruin that we – when I say ‘we’, I mean largely Americans – have caused there by testing these weapons and irradiating the people and the landscapes and ruining islands, making them uninhabitable for centuries to come, we should feel, I think, pretty ashamed of ourselves. The Pacific – the biggest ocean in the planet – I mean, it can absorb all the continents easily – is a beautiful thing full of amazing wildlife and extraordinarily talented, remarkable people, has been disregarded and disrespected by Westerners. It’s a shameful story. The book isn’t entirely doom and gloom, but what we have done to the Pacific is, generally speaking, pretty shameful.

You mentioned Korea, you mentioned China. Throughout the book, there’s a certain feeling of tension about the future. I mean, Korea, in particular, you have a great story about how there’s a tension point because one particular American colonel just drew a line through the map and split the nation in half?

It is an extraordinary story, really, that North Korea, which we know of as being this rogue state, this isolated, extraordinary, very dangerous part of the Korean Peninsula, was created by a man with a wonderful name. He was called Charles Heartwell Bonesteel III – I mean, you don’t get much better in nomenclature than that – and he drew, in 1945, a line, a chinagraph pencil line, across a National Geographic map of the Korean Peninsula and said, in the closing stages of World War II, that the Russians take control of the north of that line, and we Americans to the South. That created two states that then went to war with each other in the early 1950s, and now that line is the most heavily fortified line in the world. And to the north of it we have now Kim Jong-Un, with these missiles, which he says are nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, and everyone’s getting very afraid of this. I often think if Bonesteel had not drawn that line and the Russians—the Soviets had taken control of the entire peninsula and made it into a Communist Korea totally, yes, it would have been impoverished, yes, for many years it would have been Soviet, but like Vietnam and Cambodia, the Communism would have withered away, and it would now be a relatively impoverished state, but it would be unified, and it would mean that there would be no fortified line across the middle of it and no need for 35,000 American soldiers and no nuclear weapons to the north. So that line is a classic example of Western interference in the affairs of the Pacific Ocean, which, if it hadn’t happened, would have left the Pacific in a far more stable situation than it is today.

Let’s talk about Western influence. Is it being pushed away by a more assertive China? I mean, you talk about China’s naval expansion, a potential new flashpoint in the new South China Sea. Can you answer the question that you actually posed in the book about China? What does China want? What is it planning?

Well, it’s an interesting subject, divided into two, effectively. There’s the South China Sea, and there’s the Pacific. And all of this strategy was dreamed up in the 1980s by an admiral, now recently died, a man called Liu Huaqing, who said that China needs to protect herself and protect her maritime coastline. Previously, she didn’t care very much about the sea, but now she is caring. She wants the South China Sea for herself, and we’ve seen all this business of putting up lighthouses and beacons and radar stations and airfields and docks on these hitherto unpopulated, almost unnamed little coral reefs all over the South China Sea. And the Americans are getting very upset about it. On the other hand, there’s a rather more potent problem, which is based on what are known as the ‘three island chains’, which China—they’re sort of imaginary island chains out into the Pacific – the first island chain going into Japan down to Northern Australia. The second island chain going from the Aleutians down to New Zealand, and the third going from Alaska down through Hawaii to the Antarctic. China says, and this goes back to Liu Huaqing’s strategy, that by 2049, the Chinese Navy, which at the moment has one aircraft carrier, but four are being built, will be able to operate with impunity, first of all to the first island chain, then to the second. By 2049, which is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, they will operate right up to the third island chain, to Hawaii. And this gives the Americans nightmares. But I say, and I’m not alone in saying this, why bother? The Chinese are not going to do to the Pacific what we Westerners have done. They have no intentions of colonising, dropping nuclear weapons, overfishing, polluting. They simply want maritime equivalence.

Yeah, but you talk about China’s turn in the Pacific – maybe the West should let China have a turn. But why should anybody have a turn in the Pacific? Most of the island nations have returned to indigenous populations – the Western influence has gone. Why would they want China coming in instead?

Well, it depends how China does come in. I mean, if China follows the model of what the West has done to the Pacific, then the Pacific Island nations might well feel apprehensive about it. But America has 835 bases dotted around the world. America seeks superintendence of an enormous amount of this planet and brings with that superintendence all kinds of cultural and quasi-imperialistic attitudes. China – yes, we know about Tibet; yes, we know about Northern Indochina; in her entire history – 5000 years, compared to America’s 250 years – has not, generally speaking, misbehaved. So I would say that the Pacific Islanders should not feel particularly apprehensive that the Chinese are, as you say, going to come in and somehow change their lives. They’re not. They’re simply saying the ocean is a place where we can all operate, and I think they should be allowed to do so.

What about New Zealand in this? I know we’re a small nation in the rim of the Pacific, but what’s our role here? Do we have to walk this line between these two great powers – a sort of balancing act?

I don’t think so. I was here in New Zealand when David Lange declared it a nuclear-free zone, and I think this idea of being a nation committed to peace and also committed to enhancing and also promoting the Polynesian way of life is utterly admirable. I think New Zealand, being part of this Polynesian community, and being committed to this peaceful, non-nuclear line, is an admirable way of not straddling a line between East and West, between China and the United States, just showing what the Pacific, quite literally the Pacific peaceful people, can stand for. So I think New Zealand’s position in the ocean is an admirable one and a lesson for us all to follow.

Simon Winchester, author of Pacific, thank you very much for your time.

Thanks a lot.

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