Most opponents of the American Empire are cheering for China in the South China Sea faceoff, but Vietnam, the only country to have fought and defeated outright this empire, is forging closer military ties with the United States, all because of China. To a Vietnamese, the white man will come and go, but China is an eternal shadow menacing his identity and existence. From 111BC to 938AD, China occupied Vietnam almost continuously, with only two breaks, of three and 58 years. To gain final independence, Vietnam defeated China in 938AD at the Battle of Bach Dang. After planting steel tipped stakes in the river, the Vietnamese lured Chinese boats over this watery trap, and at low tide, these boats were pierced and their soldiers killed. In 1288, the Vietnamese repeated the same trick, at the same river, to vanquish the Mongols. One ignores history at one's peril.
Le Loi and Tran Hung Dao are the leaders of those two battles, and there is hardly a Vietnamese town without streets and schools named after them, and by the Saigon River, there's a statue of Tran Hung Dao. Every so often, I'm harranged by a Westerner about my flawed reading of Vietnamese history, though his knowledge of the subject doesn't extend beyond Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnam War. Beyond the racial chauvinism that comes from several centuries of being on top of the world, this attitude also betrays the progressive bias that deems much the past as simply a repository of absurd habits, mistakes and superstitions. Mumford calls it "anti-historic nihilism." Writing in 1944, he comments, "During the last generation, particularly in the United States, it became popular to say that only contemporary history was important; whereas the truth is that all of history is important because it is contemporary and nothing is perhaps more so than those hidden parts of the past that still survive without our being aware of their daily impact. He who knows only the events of the last generation or the last century knows less than nothing about what is actually happening now or what is about to take place." In this age of geriatric sex change, Kim Kardashian's bulbous buttocks and endless porn for everyone, including nuns and tots, your average American doesn't remember what he half read half an hour ago, much less know anything from another century. He wouldn't be surprised to be informed that this big, beautiful orb of polluted dirt he's standing on is only a few thousand years old. Wow, that old?!
While most Americans are only becoming aware of the tension in the South China Sea, Vietnamese know that the trouble started in 1974, when China wrested control of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam. In that one-day battle, 74 Vietnamese and 18 Chinese died. Though the US 7th Fleet was in the area, it did nothing to intervene and even refused to rescue South Vietnamese sailors. Nixon had visited China in 1972, and so Vietnam, all of it, was becoming superfluous to Uncle Sam. In 1988, China attacked a Vietnamese garrison in the Spratly Islands, and in that one-day battle, 64 Vietnamese and six Chinese died. In the last two years, Chinese ships have rammed Vietnamese ships just off the coast of Vietnam, and they have also rammed Filipino fishing boats or used water canons against them. Boarding some boats, the Chinese have tossed their catch overboard.
On November 1, 2014, there was an official ceremony in Hanoi to honor the 74 South Vietnamese soldiers who died defending the Paracel Islands, and this is remarkable because it's the only time the Communist government has acknowledged its former South Vietnamese foes as nationalists in any way. As fate would have it, the colonel of the capsized ship is named Ngụy, the same word used to denigrate South Vietnamese troops as "fake." Equally weird, the site of the most horrific American atrocity against Vietnamese civilians, Mỹ Lai, means "Half American." The gods are sick.
Odds are high fighting will break out again in the South China Sea. Pushing weapons of mass destruction, Uncle Sam rakes in many coins from all crises, so he has billions of reasons to stoke the flame, but it's anybody's guess if he'll risk his turkey neck when the missiles fly. Though America needs to defend its ebbing hegemony, its manufacturing base has been mostly relocated to China, and China is its biggest creditor. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet clipped an American spy plane near Hainan Island, and its pilot, Wang Wei, was killed. Forced to land in Hainan, 24 Americans were kept for ten days, then released after the US agreed to a letter expressing "regret and sorrow." A Chinese demand for a token million dollars in compensation was ignored. Hardly any American remembers this incident, but the Chinese haven't forgotten, and the next time planes collide, expect a much bigger explosion. In 2014, a Chinese jet swerved within 30 feet of another American spy plane.
All sides in this brewing fiasco have reasons to act the way they are, and though each will cite law or logic to defend their actions, it doesn't matter who's right or wrong, only what the winner, if any, can get away with. The Vietnamese have a saying, Nine men, ten opinions. And also, When buffaloes collide, flies die. While leaning militarily on an unreliable United States, East Asian countries continue to be integrated into China's (and Russia's) economic sphere. Perhaps they will take their losses and accept being lesser partners in this new world order. As a castrated ex champion, the United States might have to do the same. It's a good bet, though, she won't go down so quietly.
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