The good news is that the United States has spoken out against China’s belligerence. Danny Russel, tapped to become the next assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, lambasted China for “coercion and bullying” in the China Sea region and said it was “unacceptable” for it to demand only bilateral talks with claimants of the disputed territories. He affirmed US support for the efforts of Southeast Asian nations to negotiate as a bloc, an initiative the Philippines has embarked on.
“I will do everything in my power to try to lower the temperature, push claimants, including China, into a diplomatic track and continue to warn them that the region in which China will flourish is a region of law, a region of order and a region of respect for neighbors.”
It’s a welcome statement, one that helps to internationalize the issue. Indeed, one that helps the Southeast Asian countries, with the exception of Cambodia which is only too willing to do China’s bidding, mount a common front against China. True enough, the Middle Kingdom has been engaged in coercing and bullying its Southeast and East Asian neighbors and can do with being stopped dead in its tracks by world condemnation. We need all the help we can get, and if the United States is willing to go out on a limb here, we’ll take it wholeheartedly.
The willingness to go out on a limb comes from the fact that the United States is currently locked in a love-hate relationship with China, with love being more in the agenda of late. The Economist in its June 8-14 issue had this for its main story, depicting in its cover the American and Chinese leaders in “Brokeback Mountain” poses. Its title went: “The Summit: Starring Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.” With the blurbs: “He stole his heart (and then his intellectual property)” and “‘Team America’ meets ‘Kung Fu Panda’.”
The hate owes to China becoming a growing power, which has American and Chinese hawks warning of an eventual military confrontation between the two. The love owes to the doves trying to prevent such a pass, and indeed proposing that cooperation between the two countries should immensely benefit both. The bilateral summit between Obama and Xi earlier this month was meant to push the latter idea.
Russel’s statement comes amid that context. Of course he’s not exactly high up in the bureaucratic ladder, but his words do carry weight, his office being directly in charge of these affairs. Of course too, the United States has been known to say one thing and do another, condemning Tiananmen and various human rights abuses in China while its businesses push and shove to gain a foothold into the coveted Chinese market. Russel’s statements look more like an attempt to score brownie points with the beleaguered Southeast Asian nations than anything else. It’s part of the game superpowers play.
The bad news is that these statements may spark more hilarity than comfort in the hearts and minds of these nations. The United States isn’t exactly the most credible entity to say those things, or it is credible only in the sense that it takes a thief to recognize a thief, or it takes a thief to catch a thief.
One of the Southeast Asian nations is Vietnam, a country that may not thoroughly appreciate America’s proffered role of nemesis of coercers and bullies. Not too long ago, at least as the Vietnamese memory goes, which is unlike the Filipino one, aided in no small way by nearly every Vietnamese family losing a member during the War, the United States was busy torching Vietnam’s forests with napalm. A thing that did not just raze down the trees, thereby leaving the Vietcong with no cover to hide under, but peeled off the skin of men, women, and children, quite apart from those of the guerrillas and wild animals, thereby giving to know horrible deaths. Coercing and bullying are benign words to describe that atrocity.
The reason for it was to give the Vietnamese freedom and progress, both of which they’ve had, quite apart from pride and dignity, after they kicked the coercers and bullies out. Indeed, the reason for it was to prevent China from spreading communism from Vietnam to the rest of Southeast Asia, called the domino theory, which never happened long after the Vietcong won in 1975. What happened in fact is that Vietnam is now locked in enmity with China. To this day, the United States has not apologized to the Vietnamese.
Just as well, it wasn’t too long ago—only 10 years last March in fact—when the United States shocked and awed the Iraqi population into submission with smart bombs that smartly killed far more, including children, than those in 9/11. It shocked and awed the world as well not just for the murderousness of the attacks but for the willingness of the United States, under the leadership of the demented Dubya, to defy the United Nations and mount the invasion on the grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Naturally, they were never found. They never existed.
To call the Iraq invasion coercion and bullying is to call the Holocaust an exercise in lack of restraint.
The point is simple: China is a threat. It is growing and flexing its muscles. We need all the help we can get to push it back, not least from America. If Vietnam can welcome such a support, all of us can. But we need to exercise discernment too, we need to exercise shrewdness too. It’s one thing to welcome that support, it’s another to sing the praises of that particular supporter. A thing that particularly applies to us, believing as we do that the one country to have subjugated us and robbed us of our pride and dignity is our eternal patron and friend. We do need to affirm that our region is a region of law, a region of order, and a region of respect for neighbors. But that doesn’t just apply to China.
That applies to every bully and coercer.