December | 2012 | The Asia Institute

Seminar with


Professor of Linguistics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 October 22, 2012

Emanuel Pastreich (professor, Kyung Hee University; from United States):

We are gathered here at  Kyung Hee University’s Graduate Institute of Peace Studies with a  group of students from all over the world, but particularly from Asia. We welcome Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thank you, Professor Chomsky for taking the time today. The students with us today are all interested in peace and how we can create a more sustainable, peaceful world. I know they have many questions for you, so I will let them start asking and engage you in discussion on this critical topic.

Noam Chomsky:

Pleased to be with you.

Nazzina Mohsin (student, Graduate Institute of Peace Studies; from BANGLADESH):

Good morning Professor Chomsky. Do you think that American presence in Korea is detrimental to sustainable peace in East Asia? If yes why do you think so? And if not,what would be your advice to the Obama administration in terms of engaging with North Korea. What steps do you think the Obama administration should take in its second term to engage with North Korea, China and other nations in East Asia for a more sustainable future?

Noam Chomsky:

I think that if we are looking ahead over the longer term, there is no more reason for US forces to be in Korea than there is for Chinese forces to be in Mexico. Of course there are particular problems that have to be dealt with. Every opportunity should be taken to try to assist Koreans to achieve what has been a long standing goal of unification. It’s not going to be easy. Right now they are two very different societies. Nonetheless, there have been opportunities in past years and I think that those opportunities could be pursued successfully to bring about the unification with North Korea and greater independence for all of Korea—as well as a lessening of tensions between the great powers. Not only the US and China, also Japan, and Russia are in the background in this discussion. If we can remove some of the sources of tension and conflict among these nations,  which are quite a few, we will make real progress.

So for example, to take one concrete case, the construction of a naval base on Jeju island, against the strong opposition of the population,  which has been engaged in civil disobedience and protest for years, can only be regarded as a threat by China and by North Korea.  I think that above all the wishes of the islanders should be observed in this case. Similar things can be said about Okinawa. Okinawa serves as a huge US military base and the population has been strongly protesting against the local bases for years. One reason for the protests is that the primary marine base is right in the middle of the city of Futenma, so helicopters and planes fly constantly over heavily populated areas. Okinawans have tried to have the base moved out completely.

Again, China can only regard the American insistence on these bases as a serious threat. In fact, although it was barely reported, we are now commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, which is generally regarded by historians as the most dangerous moment in human history when we came very close to a nuclear war , an event that would have had consequences of destruction which cannot be grasped.

A few months before the Russian missiles were placed in Cuba, the US had placed offensive missiles in Okinawa and in Taiwan in a period of extreme regional tension. That aggressive act by the United States was pretty serious, more serious than the Russian missiles set up in Cuba. This story is a bit of the context of that crisis. Maybe Americans don’t pay much attention to that story, but I would be surprised if the Chinese don’t pay much attention to it either. You are right to posit Korea as a major area for conflicts and tensions with ramifications that extends much further.

So let us consider another lively point of tension, the Daku Islands in the Philippines. Now Daku Island is an interesting case. The Daku Islands are not far from Taiwan, but very far from Japan. The Daku Islands are a bit closer to Okinawa, and they were made part of the extensive Japanese system for  controlling the waters far beyond their territories. That system is the residue of Japanese militarism from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century.  One Australian scholar, Gavan McCormack, who is a Japan specialist working on Okinawa, has recently published a study showing that China and Japan have practically equal coast lines, but that Japan has a vastly greater control over the waters extending far into the Pacific and many other places like the Daku Islands.

So it is quite natural that China isn’t happy about that arrangement dating back to the colonial period. It is also not surprising that China isn’t happy when the US sends the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington to waters that are in range of Beijing. The US has never tolerated anything remotely like that by other countries.

There are plenty of points for possible conflict to worry about, and the one you mentioned is one of the major ones. But there have been opportunities in the past 20 years for steps towards reconciliation, such as the framework agreement between President Clinton and North Korea. That agreement was more or less holding, not perfectly, but it was holding, until George W. Bush threw it out and North Korea responded with very aggressive steps and boosted its offensive military capacity.

Anette Hansen (student, Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, from Norway):

Last year the Japanese media was criticized for its coverage of the accident of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. There was a sense that the failure of the media to report accurately on this crisis was a major security issue that had consequences far beyond Japan’s borders. Could you elaborate on the media’s responsibility for public safety, in Asia. What are some possible ways of improving transparency in the Asian media. I would also like to hear your opinion about the closed Japanese press system.

Noam Chomsky:

I don’t monitor Asian media closely, but I have paid some attention to it, the English language press, and from what I have seen it’s not very impressive. The media, from what I’ve seen, tends to adhere, pretty closely, to a nationalist line, wherever that media outlet is located. But I should say that the same is true for most Western media, so I am not making a criticism of Asia. So that nationalist perspective means an unwillingness to see things from the other point of view, which is regarded as the opponent’s point of view by the national state.

After all, to see things from only one point of view can only be harmful. For example, if you read the US media you will not find anything about how things might look from the Chinese point of view; all you see is Chinese hostility. When I contrast  the English language Chinese media  I find that the story they tell does not resemble  what is happening in the world. To give an example, a few years ago there was an incredible traffic jam from Mongolia to Beijing which had trucks lined up for days. Traffic could not move and the consequences were serious. I was there the whole time, but never saw a word about it in the Chinese press. I learned about the event when I got back to the US. It simply not reported at home, at least in the English language press—a nd people didn’t seem to know about it.

And when you turn to foreign affairs things are even worse. It is generally the same for Western media and US media, so I am not suggesting that China is behind: there are many things of extraordinary importance that simply are not reported. Let me give you an example; you say you’re from Norway so you can tell me something about Norway. In the West and the US and its allies, the greatest threat to peace right now, by far, is considered to be the Iranian threat, that happens to be a Western obsession, the rest of the world doesn’t see Iran as such a threat. But somehow in the West Iran is the greatest threat to peace. If you listened to the last presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy, the Iranian threat was by far the top issue. Whatever you think of the threat, the question that remains is whether there is a way of dealing with it. Most people are for establishing a nuclear weapons free zone in the region, and in the entire world. Moreover, there is overwhelming international support for that project.  But the US won’t permit discussion of that proposal.  Israel won’t permit it; they are blocking it, and that’s been going on for some years.

There’s a way of dealing with the Iran problem that is coming up very soon: there’s a conference in Helsinki next month, maybe January if it’s delayed, to try to mass international support under the auspices of the United Nations to move toward a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. Do a search of the US media on the internet, there is barely a word that pops up about this conference that  that is coming up, and which could be an important step towards mitigating or ending what’s claimed to be the most significant threat to peace. Now that’s the kind of achievement you could barely hope for from a totalitarian state, and this is a free country with no government pressure. The censorship has been internalized. The last time I checked it was the same thing in Norway. There is a lot to criticize in the Asian media but it’s useful to look at ourselves.

Tatyana Dekhnich (student, Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, from RUSSIA):

What should be the role of government regarding environmental change, environmental damage and environmental refugees?

Noam Chomsky:

That’s probably the greatest problem that the human species has faced in its history. We are now in a position for the first time in human history where we are on the verge of destroying ourselves. It’s not a joke. The changes in the climate referred to as “global warming” are by now a phenomenon now that can only be questioned by fanatics; unfortunately there are plenty of them.

But climate change is happening in spite of what they say, and it’s happening quickly. There are plenty of signs of it. To take one example, the Arctic icecap melts during the summer and the melting came to an end two months ago. There are studies by experts that trace the process closely. They found that the melting of the icecap broke all previous records and in fact that the rate was far beyond what was predicted by the most alarmist computer models on global warming. Now that’s quite serious. When the Arctic icecap melts, for one thing, that’s a sign that global warming is taking place. But the melting can an accelerating effect because when the icecap melts the dark water is exposed, and the dark water absorbs sunlight; the icecaps reflect sunlight. So you get an accelerating process of global warming that may turn into what’s called a “non-linear process” whereby suddenly it explodes out of sight.

In the Antarctic comparable things are happening, the total icecap is shrinking rapidly and that may mean that most dire predictions are underestimations. What is interesting to observe is how the media treats this process; I’m talking about the the New York Times, the most important journal in the world. The front page article concerning the melting of the Arctic icecap reported how the rate of melting was far worse than what had been predicted by computer models—that was the first half of the article. The second half describes how wonderful this tend is because it opens up opportunities for mining in the Artic Circle—including the extraction of fossil fuels which will accelerate the catastrophe.

We find that sort of reporting frequently in the New York Times. It is pretty much their general reaction to such things. I mentioned that I visited Norway recently and learned that at the university I visited there is a group that considers Arctic rescue operations. They have had to accelerate their programs because there is increased commercial traffic in the areas where the icecaps have been melting and there are a lot more accidents because the commercial vessels aren’t familiar with the floating icebergs. They have increased their helicopter fleets in order to try to assist the commercial ships. These new commercial passages are greeted with great enthusiasm by many countries because they facilitate trade and so on.

But these are signs not of an age of prosperity but rather of impending disaster. How are governments reacting to this? Europeans have done something. The countries that are in the lead in dealing with it are those with large indigenous communities. Around the world, the indigenous aboriginal societies are the ones that are the best prepared to recognise the necessity of dealing with these problems. One country with an indigenous majority, Bolivia, has melting glaciers and so on. In Bolivia, the indigenous majority happens to be the dominant force in the government. So the nation has passed a constitutional provision that guarantees the rights for nature, not just human rights, but rights for nature. They have it right. We have to preserve Mother Earth.

Many Westerners kind of laugh at this approach, but the Bolivians will have the last laugh.  Climate change is happening all over the world, so yes we are like the proverbial lemmings marching towards the cliff cheerfully ready to jump off.

The US is going backwards in many respects. The Republican Party in congress has moved so far to the right that it is now dismantling environmental protection legislature that was introduced by Richard Nixon, a Republican president. It is very dangerous to deny that it is happening. I don’t know of any governments that have an admirable record on response to climate change. Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile and perhaps leaders.

Dianne Co Despi (student, Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, from the Phillipines):

So Americans perceive some sort of a “China threat.” Do you think there really a threat?

Noam Chomsky:

Well, the Philippines think there is a threat. Let me tell you a personal anecdote that bears on this. I visited Hanoi in 1970. I visited during a period when the US bombing of  heav Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was heaviest. The situation was horrific, literally wiping out whole regions. And when I arrived in Hanoi, the first thing I was taken to see, the morning after I arrived, was the National War Museum. I spent a couple of hours listening to lectures and looking at the dioramas. So what were the lectures about? The lectures where about how Vietnam fought off China in the 12th century. There was a message and it was clear: “You Americans are now destroying our country, but in time you will leave, China is going to be there forever. That’s the problem we’ve got to keep in mind.”

It is understandable that the countries on the periphery perceive China as a threat. The US sees China as a threat as well, but in a different sense. You can learn about the American perspective by reading the National Security Journals and professional journals on security issues. The articles generally describe the US/China conflict as what security experts call a “classic security dilemma”: each side sees something of existential importance in the areas of conflict, something they can’t give up. What the Chinese see is the need to control, or at least to have easy access, to the waters near China which are their major trade routes, that’s their demand.  What the US sees is the right of the US to control those waters—that’s the classic security dilemma.

But the funny thing about the American perspective on the “China threat” is that there is no security dilemma about the coasts off of California or about the Caribbean. The classic security dilemma of the security needs that the United States cannot give us refers to the waters immediately surrounding China.

I wouldn’t say there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to China. China has undergone substantial growth in recent years and its growth includes overseas expansion, its imperial expansion if you like. That expansion is primarily with gaining access to raw materials and making foreign investments, expanding its influence.

The main Chinese thrust today is towards Central Asia with its rich resources. You can take a fast train from China to Kazakhstan—there are no fast trains in the US! At present the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a loosely structured,  but evolving international system located in China of course, which includes all the Central Asian countries; Russia’s part of it. India, Iran and Pakistan are observers. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization excluded the US;the US wanted to be an observer and they refused.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization growing international organization based in China that has some limited joint military operations but is primarily a commercial system. That is the main thrust of Chinese policy and that’s roughly the current state of things.

STUDENT (Wang Yu, Kyung Hee University, from PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA):

What do you think of Chinese military capacities, especially since China recently acquired an aircraft carrier? How significant is Chinese military expansion in the surrounding region?

Noam Chomsky:

Well, the aircraft carrier is an old Ukrainian vessel which was about to be scrapped and China purchased it and it is being remodelled.  That is China’s only aircraft carrier. The US, by contrast, has 11 huge carriers all the most advanced in all of the world. US aircraft carriers In the Persian Gulf have enough firepower to destroy the whole world, while China has reconditioned one single carrier—that’s pretty symbolic of the relationship.

Again, as I said before, the countries on the periphery of China have reasons to be weary of China, thousands of years’ worth of reasons in fact. But to compare Chinese and US military strength doesn’t make any sense. The US spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on military and is far more technologically advanced—incomparably more. It’s got about 1000  military bases all over the world and many of them surrounding China. I mentioned a couple: Okinawa, South Korea, maybe Jeju Island pretty soon, Japan, Australia.

China doesn’t have any military bases anywhere overseas. It has a set of sea lanes to the Middle East known as the “string of pearls, ” and it’s establishing a presence in Sri Lanka and other places, but those are its trade routes, those are its trade routes and they are hemmed in. From the Chinese point of view those islands are contained. Much of their trade routes are through the Straits of Malacca which are narrow straits and which are copiously controlled by the US. What if China controlled the Panama Canal? The US wouldn’t like that obviously. So you are right to bring these issues up and we should keep an eye on what China is doing, but the disparity is enormous and the conflict is set in the waters of China…not the waters off the Los Angeles or New York City.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Professor Chomsky, I would like to thank you very much for joining us today here at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at KyungHee University. We are all of thankful that you have taken the time to speak with us. This is the next generation here of Asia and they are all thinking very seriously about these issues and with your advice we can go forward.