Fire in the water: ‘Pacific Rim’ and tectonic geopolitics

Guillermo del Toro is a remarkable film director. From Pan’s Labyrinth to The Shape of Water del Toro has delighted viewers and critics alike with spectacle, intrigue, and (for want of a more precise word) humanity. So when he made a science fiction blockbuster about great big beasts (Kaiju, from the Japanese, ‘giant beast’) emerging from a tectonic rift to another world only to fight great big robots (Jaeger, from the German, ‘hunter’) in the Pacific, there was some surprise. Del Toro was approaching tried-and-tested Godzilla narratives from his own humanistic standpoint of artistic storytelling. The result is something profoundly political. Let me explain.

United against the darkness.

Above all, this is a feel-good blockbuster as it should be: bluntly but genuinely witty, expressive and compelling characters, and a human story about overcoming fear and confronting our inner demons. ‘Inside we feel the same / There’s no dividing us / We feel it all / The rise and fall / United we can never fall’, as the outro song ‘Drift’ goes, following the idea of two human beings ‘drifting’ minds with each other to pilot robot Jaegers in the face of the Kaiju apocalypse.

But underneath this emotional simplicity, which is rather beautiful, there is a conceptual truth about political action. Cooperation is hard at the best of times, and may in fact be found most in the worst of times, when external competition in the face of a common crisis compels internal cooperation. The people of Earth uniting against an external nemesis — and yet, even this unity is fragile and elusive. In the film, the politics are brushed aside to focus on the fraternity of soldiery and giant co-piloted robot Jaegers making an epic CGI stand against the Kaiju — whose image harkens to the next year’s Edge of Tomorrow, which fuses del Toro’s plot from Pacific Rim with that of Groundhog Day. You can see the appeal.

But Edge of Tomorrow paints the alien enemy as akin to Nazi Germany, and the day caught in a time loop for Tom Cruise is equivalent to D-Day. Pacific Rim could be read as the second world war in the Pacific theatre, but I think it looks much more to the future. Leads Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi play characters from both sides of the Pacific Ocean (the actors being from Britain and Japan, respectively), and, under Idris Elba’s mentoring leadership (actor and character championing the British legacy), lead the fight to the invaders from another world.

So there is a futuristic, science-fiction aspect to Pacific Rim. But what might the Kaiju be metaphors for in our world? There is the Tolkien-esque idea of battling the beast within. Evil and good become psychological categories rather than political entities. But what more might be said about this conflict — beyond good and evil, to follow philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

I have previously identified three common crises on this blog: climate change, the rise of China, and capitalism. In some respects, climate change and capitalism are so big in their socio-ecological impact that their Kaiju status is off the charts. How could we fight an enemy so systemic and all-encompassing? That’s right: we probably can’t — at least not without massive additional incentive to do so.

University of Cambridge’s Professor Helen Thompson has argued that climate change and China pose a contradiction: the West must choose between dealing with the geopolitical economy of China’s rise, on the one hand, and dealing with the energy implications of man-made climate change, on the other. But what if this choice is illusory, and what appears as a contradiction is in fact a coincidence of interests?

Unfortunately, it is not in China’s own immediate interests to address climate change by moving away from fossil fuels. Despite its increase in renewable energy technology, its coal dependence is likely to translate into oil dependence in the future as its ongoing industrialisation and financialisation run up against the limits of national resources. As happened with western countries towards the end of the nineteenth century, the threat of industrial contraction in the core will compel imperial expansion into the periphery. Indeed, this has already begun. And one vitally important location for the discovery, extraction, and transport of global oil supplies is the South China Sea — or, to put it another way, the Pacific rim.

America has its own Shale gas supply to bolster the decline in Middle Eastern and Russian oil supply in the face of the intransigence of OPEC, dating to the turbulent aftermath of the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, which was followed by ‘stagflationary’ hikes in oil prices. Today’s world echoes this era, as Thompson has noted at length.

University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer does not do nearly as much to situate the rise of China in the complex context of climatic and capitalist instability, but he does employ a comparable knowledge of international history to lay out some important facts, which I interpret as follows. The economic rise of Germany after its unification in 1871 was the key to its geopolitical challenge to British hegemony, ultimately catalysing two world wars. The economic rise of China since its acceptance into the WTO in 2001 has similarly sprung a geopolitical trap in east Asia that has global implications. ‘China cannot rise peacefully’, Mearsheimer declared in 2005. Perhaps it cannot. But that is assuming it continues to rise.

What if the current trade war between China and America were escalated to such a level that China lost its economic empire overseas? If America made strategic alliances with Japan, east Asia, Africa, Europe, and Russia, then China would find itself alone and isolated, and would be compelled to acquiesce to any demands made of it. Immediate denuclearisation and demilitarisation are quite possibly key, with the possibility of the division of China into protectorates to be governed over by the American alliance if this stern course is not followed through. War must be avoided.

After the world wars, Germany was divided up but not deindustrialised. Some say it should be the other way around — but the messy Versailles treatment of Germany was stuck in the middle, between placating and punitive measures, paving the way to the next war. If we are to avoid war with China, a war that would be more certain to bring down world trade, peace, and prosperity than any further sanctions would do, we must lean towards preemptively strict measures to ensure history never repeats itself.

And to those who say China is different than the West and this renders ‘western’ realism defunct, note that Mearsheimer’s reception in China is more sympathetic than in the West, despite his siding with America in this geopolitical crisis. Sun Tzu wrote down some of realism’s fundamental lessons a long time before Machiavelli, Mearsheimer’s inspiration, did. China as a state is rational in a way western states often aren’t. It will do whatever it needs to survive. And although the wellbeing of the Chinese people should always take precedence over the autocratic PRC government, it is clearly better to lay the foundations of peace by way of cooperation, not conflict. It is also true that, as the ancient Romans said (and, I am almost certain from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the ancient — and, probably, modern — Chinese would agree), si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war. Or face the Kaiju of the Pacific Rim, with no Jaeger to defend you.

Peace in all places and the wellbeing of all people of planet Earth are too precious to be cautious about containing crises, as and when they arise. In Pacific Rim, the sea wall cannot keep the monsters without or within from consuming cities. Only the offensive grasp of the co-piloted Jaegers can do that. The best defence remains a sensible stance of offence, to ensure that, when the compromise is made, sensible terms for all sides can be put in place. Otherwise, weakness will be met with weakness, and all will come to ruin. Only common strength of all people — and, I hope, all polities — can stand against the coming darkness.

Humanity stands at the edge of a cliff. We must unite to face our common cataclysm, while bearing in mind the need to manage, by way of considerable resolve, the disunity within our fraying global civilisation. We must do all this, and we must maintain a sense of humanity and empathy for our fellow beings on the journey of life. To be at once ruthlessly realistic and deeply humanistic in our approach to the gods above and the demons within — this is the balancing act of the third millennium, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Rim. Shall we begin?

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