New Zealand is nearly "beckoning China as an enemy" by taking part in US military exercises on the country's doorstep, Australian journalist and film-maker John Pilger says.

Ahead of the New Zealand premiere of his new film The Coming War on China tonight, Pilger said New Zealand was precariously placed in its dealings with the US and China.

Just last week, the Government made ambitious new economic commitments with China, now New Zealand's biggest trading partner.

Yet New Zealand was undermining this relationship through its growing support for American provocations in the disputed South China Sea, Pilger said.


"This film carries an urgency for New Zealand, which appears to be playing a precarious game," he told the Herald via email.

In July, the New Zealand Defence Force will participate in Operation Talisman Sabre, a US air-sea exercise which Pilger described as a rehearsal for blockading key shipping routes to China, the Malacca and Lombok Straits. It follows similar exercises in the South China Sea last April.

Operation Talisman Sabre was based on a battle plan for a war with China, and according to a US Marine Corps assessment would cause "incalculable human and economic destruction".

"It almost seems that New Zealand is beckoning China as an enemy," Pilger said.

The film, which opens in Auckland next week, gives a stark warning about the rising possibility of a full-scale conflict between the US and China. A nuclear war was "not unthinkable", Pilger says at the film's opening.

But while media and political attention has focused on China's reclaiming of disputed islands, Pilger said there was very little reporting on the United States' enormous, growing military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. As part of a "pivot to Asia" announced by former US President Barack Obama in 2011, the US has gradually transferred its naval and air force bases to the region, and more than 400 military bases now encircle China.

China has mostly been portrayed as the aggressor in the South China Sea. But Pilger asks in the film how the US would feel if Chinese destroyers routinely sailed off the coast of California.

Despite the film's title, a US-China war was not inevitable, he told the Herald.


"But while there are flashpoints and provocations, the dangers multiply. The US has begun to install its ... anti-missile system in South Korea, ostensibly as a deterrence to North Korea. In fact, it's aimed principally at China and, in the build-up to war, almost invites the Chinese to attack first."

New Zealand has taken a neutral role on the South China Sea dispute, though last year Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said China's land reclamation was causing tension in the region - a statement which later prompted a sharp response from Beijing.

New Zealand was long ago frozen out of the ANZUS treaty, which bound the US, Australia and NZ to co-operate on military matters. But when asked about the implications of a Asia-Pacific conflict for New Zealand, Pilger noted that New Zealand had remained a willing participant in the US-led intelligence network known as Five Eyes.

"As Donald Trump sends his own provocative messages to China, the implications for New Zealand are serious indeed," he said.

"China is nuclear-armed and, according to specialist literature, has changed its nuclear arsenal from low alert to high alert.

The Coming War On China looks at the impact of US nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 50s, where the equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb was exploded every day for 12 years. Marshall Islanders were later used as guinea pigs to test the impacts of radiation.

It also looks at the resistance of some countries to US military expansion in the Asia-Pacific, in particular on the Japanese island of Okinawa where locals have begun to speak against the 32 military installations on their land.

"Already, the new government in the Philippines is resolving its dispute with China over the South China Sea." Pilger said.

"It's exercising its independence. Perhaps there's a lesson here for New Zealand."

The film begins showing in Auckland on April 6.

The Coming War on China - a film by John Pilger - Official trailer from Dartmouth Films on Vimeo.