As my aircraft banked low over Bikini Atoll, the emerald lagoon beneath me suddenly disappeared into a vast black hole. This was the crater left by the Hydrogen bomb known as Bravo, exploded by the United States in 1954, the greatest man-made explosive force the world had seen.
When I stepped out of the plane, my shoes registered “unsafe” on a Geiger counter. Almost everything was irradiated. Palm trees stood in unworldly formations, unbending in the breeze. There were no birds.
Bikini is one of the Marshall Islands, which are strewn across the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Once known as “the gifts of God”, the necklace of islands from the air are of pristine beauty. Their people were once skilled navigators who sailed by the stars, and sustained themselves with abundant fish, breadfruit and coconuts.
That idyll has long gone; today, many islanders carry the poison of radiation. The Marshall Islands are America’s secret, its strategic stepping stones to Asia and China.
Occupied in the Second World War, the islands were turned into a laboratory for the testing of nuclear weapons. Sixty-seven nuclear bombs – each of them massive – were exploded here between 1946 and 1958: the equivalent in explosive power of one Hiroshima bomb every day for 12 years.
I was on Bikini to film for my ITV documentary, The Coming War on China. I trekked through the jungle to the deserted concrete bunker where, at 6.45am on 1 March 1954, the button was pushed to ignite a rehearsal of Armageddon.
To the people on neighbouring atolls and islands, the sun rose twice that morning, the second time with a spectral mushroom cloud that filled the horizon.
There was a “miscalculation”, according to the offical history of the tests; the wind “changed suddenly”. Gene Curbow, a meteorologist assigned to monitor the test site, is adamant there was no mistake: “The United States needed some guinea pigs to study what the effects of radiation would do.”
The secret of the Marshall Islands is Project 4.1, a scientific programme that began as a study of mice and became a study of human beings exposed to the radiation of a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, 1946
Rare archive in my film describes the islanders as “amenable savages”; and a US Atomic Energy Commission official says that Rongelap Atoll is “by far the most contaminated place on earth”, adding, “It will be interesting to get a measure of human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.”
Holding a photograph of herself as a child, with terrible facial burns, islander Nerje Joseph told me, “We were bathing at the well. White dust started falling from the sky. I reached to catch the powder. We used it as soap to wash our hair. A few days later, my hair started falling out.” Lemoyo Abon said.
“Some people were in agony. Others had diarrhoea. We were terrified. We thought it must be the end of the world.”
The US military watches an explosion at Bikini Atoll aboard the USS McKinley, 1946
The islands were, until 1986, a Trust Territory administered by the US with a legal obligation to “protect the inhabitants against the loss of their land and resources” and to “protect their health and wellbeing”.
The Americans relinquished direct control after the Marshallese agreed to accept a huge US missile base on Kwajalein Atoll, with its “mission to combat Communist China”. Known as the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, the base commands the Pacific all the way to Asia, and China.
It is a surreal place. There are swimming pools, a cinema and a restaurant playing 80s hits; every day people from nearby Ebeye island are ferried to wait on tables and water the golf course. Test “shots” are fired at night, spectacularly.
In 2002, the cost of firing one missile was estimated at $100 million – two-thirds of the compensation paid to the entire population for their irradiation and dispossession.
The base at Kwajalein is one of more than 400 US military bases that encircle China in what has been described as a perfect noose: from Australia through the islands of the Pacific to Japan and Korea and across Eurasia.
In 2011, President Obama announced that almost two-thirds of US naval forces would be transferred to Asia and the Pacific. Last year, in high secrecy, the US staged its biggest single military exercise since the Cold War.
An armada of warships and long-range bombers rehearsed an “Air-Sea Battle Concept for China” – known as ASB – blocking sea lanes in the Strait of Malacca and cutting off China’s access to oil, gas and other raw materials from the Middle East and Africa.
China, the world’s greatest trading nation and soon to be an economic power greater than America, is cast as an “existential threat”. Why? In January, the US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, made a revealing speech in which he said US policy was to confront those “who see America’s dominance and want to take that away from us”. He was referring to China.
The top dog is feeling insecure. In fact, China offers no comparable military threat to the US, but since Washington’s “pivot to Asia” the Chinese defence budget has risen to $150 billion, compared with the Pentagon’s $573 billion.
A Chinese strategist told me, “We are not your enemy, but if you [in the West] decide we are, we must prepare without delay.”
“For the first time,” wrote Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “China is discussing putting its nuclear missiles on high alert so they can be launched quickly on warning of an attack… the nuclear weapon policies of the United States are the most prominent external factor influencing Chinese advocates for raising the alert level of China’s nuclear forces.”
Professor Ted Postol is a former scientific adviser to the head of US naval operations. An authority on nuclear weapons, he told me, “The United States has gotten into a situation where there’s a lot of sabre-rattling, and it’s really being orchestrated from the top.” I said, “This seems incredibly dangerous.” “That’s an understatement,” he answered.
I filmed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, 500 miles from Shanghai. It has 32 American military installations; their principal “mission” [target] is China. Military aircraft fill the sky.
One of the leaders of an indefatigable resistance movement is Fumiko Shimabukuro, aged 87. A survivor of the Second World War, she had taken refuge in beautiful Henoko Bay, which she is now fighting to save.
The Japanese government wants to fill in much of the bay in order to extend runways for US bombers. “For us,” she told me, “the choice is silence or life.” Across the East China Sea lies the Korean island of Jeju, a semi-tropical Unesco World Natural Heritage site declared “an island of world peace”.
On this island of world peace is one of the biggest military bases in Asia, aimed at China – purpose-built for US aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and missile destroyers.
For almost a decade the people of Jeju have been peacefully resisting the base. Every day, twice a day, farmers, villagers, priests and supporters from all over the world stage an extraordinary Catholic Mass that blocks the gates.
Every day, police remove the priests and the worshippers, bodily, and their altar. It is a silent, moving spectacle.
From Jeju I flew to Shanghai. I was last in China in 1976. The loudest noise I remember was the tinkling of bicycle bells; Mao Tse-tung had recently died, and the cities seemed dark, forbidding places. Nothing prepared me for the astonishing changes that have since taken place.
I met Lijia Zhang, a Beijing journalist who is typical of a new class of outspoken mavericks. Her bestselling book has the ironic title Socialism Is Great! She grew up during the chaotic, brutal Cultural Revolution and has lived in the US.
A critic of her own country, she also rejects out-dated stereotypes. “Many Americans imagine,” she said, “that Chinese people live a miserable, repressed life with no freedom whatsoever. The idea of the yellow peril has never left them… They have no idea there are some 500 million people being lifted out of poverty.”
China today presents exquisite ironies, not least the house in Shanghai where Mao and his comrades secretly founded the Communist Party of China in 1921.
Today, it stands in a very capitalist shipping district; you walk out of this Communist shrine with your plastic bust of Mao into the embrace of Starbucks, Apple, Cartier.
Eric Li, a venture capitalist and social scientist, told me, “I make the joke: in America you can change political parties, but you can’t change the policies. In China you cannot change the party, but you can change policies. The political changes that have taken place in China this past 66 years have been greater than in probably any other major country in living memory.”
The world is shifting east and this, it seems, is barely understood in the West.
China’s “New Silk Road” across the roof of the world, from Beijing to Berlin, is a ribbon of trade, new cities, new ports, new pipelines and highspeed trains that will reach up to 400km per hour on routes to Europe.
It is as if the “American Century” – proclaimed in 1941 by Henry Luce, owner of Time magazine – has ended almost without notice. “We need victories,” said Donald Trump as he campaigned for the US presidency. “We need to make America strong again; we need to make America great again.” What did he mean? And at what cost? The Chinese – indeed all of us – await the answer.