Toothpicks now available

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,” proclaims a  granite tablet fronting New York’s 43rd Street entrance to the United Nations. “Nation will not take up sword against nation.” These lines are from the prophet Isaiah.

They’re reflected on a statue that dominates the UN park along East River. Sculpted by Evgeniy Vuchetich, it depicts a man shattering a bent sword with a hammer. “Never again will they train for war,” the prophet Micah wrote.


Those hopes seemed elusive as ever this week. The Taliban-fanned war in Afghanistan continues. North Korea and Iran forge ahead for a nuclear trigger.

South Sudan, which has oil wells, battles northern Sudan, which straddles pipelines and refineries. Instead of becoming a glue, oil is a sputtering fuse, notes New York Times. In Syria, suicide bombers blew up 55 people, adding to a casualty list of 9,000  in over 14 months. “Has the Arab Spring become a Balkan winter?” ask observers.


“The only conflict, not in this map, is the incoming Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney ‘nuclear war’,” a late night show wisecrack says.

Or the tension between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal? The name Scarborough comes from an 18th-century  tea trade ship that smashed into its reefs. Filipinos call it Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc. The Chinese have named it Huangyan Island. Both the Philippines and China claim ownership over it.

Beijing cites history, flagging a Yuan dynasty 1279 map. Manila insists on geography. The reefs are about 123 miles (198 kilometers) west of Subic Bay—and 350 miles from China.

These are rich fishing grounds where, between 1998 and 2001, the Philippines arrested Chinese fishermen catching endangered and protected species using banned methods.

The shoal is well within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) defines, the Philippines notes. Not valid, replies Beijing whose claims abut the EEZ of other Asean countries.

Vietnam bristled when China announced plans to develop tourist facilities in Paracel Islands. Forcibly taken over by Chinese troops in 1974, Vietnam continues to claim the Paracels. Chinese and Vietnamese hackers attacked each other’s websites last year, as Filipino and Chinese hackers did in 2012.

China jacked up the number of its ships at the shoal, from 14 to 33; the Philippines keeps there a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel and a coast guard rescue ship.


China’s foreign ministry demanded that its boats “be left alone to go about their normal activities.” But Philippine vessels must scram—out of our own seas? No, said Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario. Manila would seek instead a rules-based approach to all disputes in accordance with the Unclos.

In stark contrast, “war talk, it seems, is all the rage in China,” British Broadcasting Corp.’s Damian Grammaticas notes. “There are serious people in serious publications seriously advocating war” over those rocks—and potential oil deposits.

China has “made all preparations to respond to any escalation,” its foreign ministry warned. Controlled media clobber the Philippines. Imports of Philippine bananas and travel of Chinese tourists to the Philippines are squeezed.

China reels from the Bo Xilai scandal and its once-in-a-decade transition even as the United States plunges into elections. “There will be two elephants in the same room.” How the next US president “manages emergent China will have global repercussions,” write Kenneth Lieberthal, Joshua Meltzer and Jonathan Pollack of the think tank Brookings Institute, noting as well that Asian countries view China’s power ascendance with growing concern; that all feel they can benefit from some level of US-China competition; but no one wishes to face an “either-or” choice between Washington and Beijing. The near-term possibilities for full cooperation with China seem doubtful. Nonetheless, the “need for China’s active participation in building a more durable and stable regional order remains beyond dispute. The question is how to realize this fundamental objective.”

Both Republican and Democrat parties center America’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region on their foreign policy priorities. “(But) there will be more posturing than thoughtful analysis during the campaign. And these could exacerbate tensions.”

Chinese foreign policy has proved prickly, especially on regional issues. Obama sought to advance presumed common (or at least complementary) interests, as a resolution of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or “contested maritime domains in the South China Sea.”

“Long-term investments in military modernization, ratchet prospect of Beijing’s being able to restrict US ability to conduct uncontested operations in waters and air space contiguous to Chinese territory.” These “enhance the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation that neither state seeks.” Defense officials of both countries meanwhile are “engaged in a dialogue of the deaf.”

China’s gains, during the global financial turmoil, ignited gripes about unfair trade practices, like its foot-dragging on the appreciation of the yuan, large-scale subsidies for state-owned industries, and roadblocks to accessing China’s domestic market. Obama skewered  Beijing’s skewed trade surpluses.

“For years the only commodity I couldn’t find in Chicago was the good old toothpick,” my friend and retired Col. Julian Ares e-mailed. “Lo and behold, they’re now available. Made in China.”

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Email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Afghanistan, Middle East War, Mitt Romney, Taliban, United Nations, US elections
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