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The Fate of a Small Country

World War in Asia?

by LINH DINH

With the Asia Pivot, the US wants to encircle China, and supplies old and new allies with missiles aimed at its main rival. An amped up arms race means cash flow for the world’s biggest death dealer. If all these Asian nations buy as many American fighter planes as Taiwan, US armament workers can knock down a few more Bud Lites, and take their wives and kiddies to Ruby Tuesday twice a week even.

So far, Japan is going along with this plan. The Sensaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute was dormant until stirred up recently by Tokyo. As tension heated up, the US then shipped missiles to Japan, with the lame explanation that it was meant to deter North Korea. Newly elected Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe lost no time declaring that Japan will increase defense spending, that China is “wrong” in this dispute and there’s nothing to negotiate. By contrast, Abe said he could sit down with South Korea over another sea breeze stare down, since “both nations share liberal and democratic values, and have respect for basic human rights and the rule of law,” unlike China, that is.

Such a verbal reverse kick won’t soon be forgotten, especially from an adversary whose meat and bone crimes are still fresh. Three quarters of a century ain’t ish in Asia. The chiefs of Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Sony and Sanyo, etc., must be gagging at Abe’s posturing, for it’s never wise to give your best customer the finger, and over what, a few symbolic rocks, with a fistful of tuna thrown in, wasabi not included? It’s understandable that Japan is reluctant to yield its primacy in Asia to China, but these provocations surely won’t reverse the tide, only yield dire consequences.

A chunkier China is certainly something to dread, as it has already knocked aside its first victims, the Southeast Asian flyweights bordering the South China Sea, or what is called “the East Sea” by Vietnamese. This oil rich and strategically important territory has been claimed entirely by China, including islands just off the Vietnamese coast, explored, mapped and exploited by the Nguyen Dynasty since the 17th Century. By contrast, the official Chinese map from 1904 still showed Hainan, much further North, as China’s southernmost point. Whatever. With its much improved navy, China sees precious oil within reach, so it simply shoves Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei out of the way. No profit sharing agreement here. Everything will go to the new boss, same as the old boss, what East Asia has had to contend with for millennia.

If the American Empire can claim the Persian Gulf as a key territory to be defended and exploited, what’s stopping China from doing the same to the South China Sea? But this is not really about logics, only might. One does what one can get away with. America has also inserted itself into the South China Sea fracas, and has even conducted joint military exercises with its former enemies, Vietnam and Cambodia, all to counter China.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was groomed by the Vietnamese to be their ally, after an invasion to dislodge Pol Pot, who was backed by the Chinese. For smoking Pot, Vietnam was invaded by China in 1979, during a 28-day war that caused 6,000 Chinese deaths, with Vietnamese casualties unknown. (In 1995, locals in Sapa told me everyone just ran for the hills, and the Chinese simply destroyed everything in their paths, including the church in the middle of town, and bridges they had themselves built during the Vietnam War.) Sen, once dubbed “The One-Eyed Lackey of the Vietnamese,” then became friendlier towards the deeper-pocketed Chinese, and even allowed a Chinese navy ship to dock in Sihanoukville in late 2008. Now he’s getting chummy with the US, thus pissing off China, but not totally. A very corrupt man, Sen will hug anyone or anything if you shove enough bills into his pocket, but these strange maneuvers are also not untypical of the complicated flirtation, hedging and whoring of many small countries. To survive, they must latch on to various patrons, even those who have screwed them royally not long ago.

Which brings us to Vietnam. For the last month or so, the Vietnamese blogosphere has been howling over a leaked tape by one Colonel Tran Dang Thanh, of a rambling speech he gave to Hanoi’s university professors. In it, Thanh revealed Vietnam’s stance towards Russia, Iran, North Korea and, most interestingly, China and the United States.

Thanh praised Iran and North Korea, “someone we must emulate,” for standing up to a super power, the US, but went at extreme length to explain why Vietnam must yield to China, whom he waxed poetically as “a friend whose mountain joins our mountain, whose river joins our river, who shares with us the East Sea, a mutual friendship,” then added this joke as coda, “though our hands may shake, our legs still kick furiously,” prompting chuckles from his audience. The bottom line, though, is that Vietnam can’t go to war against China because it will get its ass kicked. China is simply too big, Thanh said, stating the obvious. As for leaning on the US, Thanh declared that America is simply an unreliable ally, that it will only use Vietnam as a pawn against China. Further, “They have never been truly good towards us [!], their crimes the heavens won’t forgive, and the earth won’t pardon.” Evoking Vietnam’s struggle against the West, Thanh reminded his audience of China’s contributions, “During our four-year fight against the French, our 21-year fight against the Americans, the people and government of China had sacrificed their rice and torn from their own shirts to give us each grain of rice, each gun, each pair of sandals so that we could be victorious against the French and Americans.” Thanh did admit that China has invaded Vietnam about twenty times altogether, and is encroaching now, but still, it is a neighbor, a huge and permanent nuisance that Vietnam must forever deal with, and it would be foolish to expect help from America, a distant pseudo friend that not so long ago tried to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age.

Soon enough, though, we’ll see Chinese oil rigs erected off Vietnamese coastline. Humiliated by China, and pressured by domestic disgust at governmental, or rather, national impotence, Vietnam may just turn to the US to help it deal with its recurrent foe.

Such is the fate of a small country. To be born small is to have a handicap one must live with. Collectively, Americans are spared from this condition, hence our swagger, although individually, we can feel pee wee enough, especially as we are jettisoned, individually, from all collective aims that make any sense. Our economy is illusory, our government puffed up by slogans and lies, and there’s no national agenda beyond boundless corruption and endless war, against much of the world, and even ourselves.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union