There’s the Rub

David and Goliath, sort of

Malcolm Gladwell, the guy who made “tipping point” a byword ages ago, has an interesting thesis in “David and Goliath.” The traditional way we understand “David and Goliath” is that it is a drastically unequal fight between an awesome party and a puny one. Which, in the Biblical case at least, had the surprising, and happy, result of the fight being won by the puny one, David.

In fact, says Gladwell, the result isn’t really surprising at all, we just read the situation wrongly. The fight remained one between an awesome warrior and a puny one, but the question is, who was the awesome warrior and who was the puny one? Contrary to popular belief, the first was really David and the second Goliath.


As a shepherd, David had killed lions with his sling, and slingers in his time were regarded as lethal hunters. They could hit targets from far away, including birds in mid-flight, with deadly accuracy. By contrast, Goliath was a lumbering warrior who probably suffered from some form of pituitary tumor which made him outsized but gave him vision problems. The description of his movements—he was being led by an assistant and he couldn’t see David clearly until he came near—suggested it. Goliath would have won handily if it had been close-quarter combat. But it wasn’t. It was another thing entirely.

David had changed the rules. He had turned the fight into one where “Goliath had as much chance against him as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol.”


I remembered this in light of our confrontation with China. On the face of it, it’s a David-and-Goliath fight, an upstart taking on one of the most formidable countries on the planet. China is the second biggest economic power in the world and the most dominant force in Asia. But all that power is only apparent at least in the context of our dispute with it. China could very well be the Goliath in this fight, as Gladwell interprets Goliath. I just don’t know that we’re the David here.

Like Goliath, China suffers from several weaknesses, not least a gigantism that may owe to cancerous origins. Certainly, it suffers from impaired vision, which has manifested itself in hubris of eye-popping proportions, believing as it does that it can just sweep off other countries’ claims to certain territories in the South China Sea. It has been so blinded by hubris it can no longer see a fundamental tenet of strategy espoused quite successfully by one of its founders, Mao Zedong.

That tenet is to not take on several enemies at the same time but only one by one. Mao’s metaphor was this: If you try to pin down fleas with 10 fingers, you will end up not pinning down any. That’s the underlying principle of the “united front.” First, unite with the least of your enemies to fight off your biggest enemy. Then repeat the process until you have won against all of your enemies.

China’s policy of antagonizing Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines all at once by trying to seize some of their long-held territories, quite apart from the other Asian countries by claiming practically the whole of the South China Sea for itself, and quite apart from the world by unilaterally, arbitrarily, and imperiously asserting sovereignty over the disputed areas, is trying to catch a flea with 10 fingers. China hasn’t even made overtures to some of the countries to win them over diplomatically. All it has by way of an ally is Laos. Everybody else it has made a point of pissing off. Mao at least had no doubt where that strategy would lead to.

Of course, China seems to think it is not clinging to that strategy by insisting that Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines as well as the other Asian countries deal with it bilaterally, or on a country-to-country basis, and not multilaterally, or as group or bloc taking a common position. Additionally, it seems to think it is not clinging to that strategy by refusing to acknowledge any international arbitration on the dispute. Thereby giving it the illusion that it is still fighting enemies one by one.

But which only drives home the point about its spectacular blindness. Of course, the other countries will try to draw global opinion to this, as we recently and quite forcefully did by laying the Ayungin case at the doorstep of the World Court. China has responded by declaring that it will never accept international rulings on this and warned us “to stop going any further down the wrong track so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations.” Like water-cannoning Filipino fishermen is not a wrong track and doesn’t further damage bilateral relations. All China does by its diplomatic belligerence, alongside its military one, is to show the world that its claims to the South China Sea are so pathetic they cannot stand up to its scrutiny.

Mao himself called Gladwell’s Goliath a “paper tiger.”


But like I said, I don’t know that we ourselves fit the role of David to a “t.” Our sling can always be an ability to persuade the other aggrieved Asian countries to join our quest for resolution, for justice, in the courts of international law and the courts of international opinion. But our diplomatic skills have never been honed over the years, our diplomacy having been confined to dealing with the United States, and our independence has always been suspect, laboring as we do under the reputation of being the voice of America in Asia.

Japan and Vietnam have not exactly rushed to follow in our footsteps at The Hague, nor have they acclaimed our initiative with the blaring of trumpets. Why should they, like Saul, think we are the David on which to rest their hopes of bringing the Goliath of China to its knees?

As it stands, we’re just David and Goliath, sort of.

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TAGS: Bronze Age, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, Mao Zedong, South China Sea, Tipping Point
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