People’s Republic of China — The Pirate of the South China Sea

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On July 12, 2016, a landmark event occurred for the South China Sea — the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against the People’s Republic of China in a case filed by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rejecting China’s claims to western Philippine islands.

 

China's Maritime Claim (red) UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zones (blue) Image by Goran Tek-en, wikimedia commons.

China’s Maritime Claim (red)
UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zones (blue)
Image by Goran Tek-en, wikimedia commons.

 

In 2013, the Philippines filed the case as a direct challenge to Communist China’s expansive territorial claims that stretch to within a hundred miles of the Philippines west coast.

The court’s ruling makes it clear that the international community has rejected China’s imperialist aggression in the South China Sea. There are no enforcement provisions in the UN convention, so the court ruling against China does nothing to directly prevent it from continuing to expand its presence in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, the ruling is a major diplomatic and public relations disaster for China’s imperialist agenda.

The ruling matters to several countries for several different reasons.

It completely validates the positions of Communist China’s opponents in the dispute. Since the ruling, Indonesia, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Borneo have experienced an increase in public interest in opposing the China’s aggression.

In the Philippines, the public celebrated the ruling while protesting against China.

Interestingly, the current administration in the Philippines has, with less fanfare, increased its efforts to negotiate economic sharing of the South China Sea. China is happy to play along with negotiations, but their word will be about as good as it usually is, which is not at all.

In Vietnam, the response has been less public.

Vietnam continues to oppose the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea dispute, but it has been careful this week to not allow public anger against China to manifest in the form of protests at Chinese diplomatic facilities in Vietnam. For the moment, Hanoi is taking a quiet but determined approach in dealing with China and is happy for the conflict to be framed as a Philippine-China problem on public relations terms. Vietnam’s caution is understandable. The closest points of land between the Philippines and Communist China are over 500 miles away from each other. The distance from China to Vietnam is only an inch.

The government of France made what might appear to be a surprising, or perhaps comical, move by announcing that it will support free navigation in the South China Sea by conducting freedom of passage exercises.

France has stated that it remains devoted to international law and order . . . Right. Maybe so. But for the moment, I’ll view France’s “freedom of navigation plans” in the South China Sea with a bit of historical context.

For reasons of free trade, France, along with nearly everyone on the globe, has a legitimate interest in the free navigation of the South China Sea. Additionally, France understandably wants to maintain maritime communications through the South China Sea between its colonial outposts in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, as far as France’s noble and rather sudden religious devotion to global peace law and order, I remain skeptical. This is the same nation that wanted to deliver two Mistral class carriers to Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Currently, the French government is continuing to do all that it can to support the French defense industry through the export of warships, fighter planes, air transports, armor, artillery etc. If it could convince anyone that croissants or French lingerie were useful defense products, they’d be busy boxing some up at this very moment. Come to think of it, French lingerie would be a major improvement at all those damned boring European defense industry expos. I’ll take a French lingerie model over a skanky Airbus 400 any day.

French freedom of navigation exercises won’t do much to dissuade Beijing’s imperialist agenda, but they might drum up some nice weapons sales for French corporations.

I’m not at all opposed to France competing in the world arms market. For one thing, people that are forced to share a planet with the likes of Communist China, North Korea, Russia, and the various Jihadistans have a right to defend themselves. Some of the less fortunate countries don’t have a Lockheed Martin, an Airbus, or a Finmeccanica on which to lavish trillions of dollars or euros. These less fortunate nations must lavish their paltry billions on foreign suppliers.

When the capitalist warmongering US or the holier-than-thou peace loving European nations manage to sell their defense products on the international market, it enables their defense industries to maintain higher quality and innovation in the weapons that their own militaries use.

France is, after all, an ally of the US and an important member of NATO. So that’s fine if the French can drum up another big defense contract. I just don’t want to gloss over France’s arms sales campaigns with anything like “…devoted to international law and order,” or any other pseudo socialist pabulum.

In China, the response has been predictable and highly managed as ever.

The People’s Republic of China has allowed an egg throwing festival-type protest against the demon aggressor Obama. The government provided members of its public with large quantities of eggs and posters of Obama to use as targets. If China didn’t have nuclear weapons, they’d be so damned funny.

In Beijing, no protests were allowed at the US or Philippine embassies. Also, China has minimized the rage factor against Obama and the Philippines on the internet. The interesting thing is that China is choosing not to overextend its credibility with the Chinese public by overplaying the old “rage against the capitalists” routine.

That restraint tells us something important — Communist China is not as confident as it likes to pretend to be about its ambitions in the South China Sea.

While swearing that it will never back down an inch, it in fact is hoping to negotiate a face saving way out of its South China Sea public relations disaster. Otherwise, it would be encouraging a much more toxic rage in the Chinese public.

The People’s Republic of China routinely relies on manufactured outrage to try to manage public and international policy. It’s a tough habit to break, even momentarily. For Communist China, its most dangerous and vicious opponent in the South China Sea remains Communist China. That is perhaps the one thing that it and the US have in common in the South China Sea.

So what does all this mean to US taxpayers?

The US administration won’t gloat about the ruling against China. Along with everyone else, the US expected this result, but the US will continue to encourage Communist China’s neighbors to better develop their own defenses to deal with that country’s imperialist agenda.

The US will continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but at the same time, this administration and congress won’t take the obvious steps for opposing China’s imperial agenda by withdrawing its “most favored nation” status.

Corporate America and American consumers will continue to support Communist China’s economy by purchasing low quality overpriced junk from it. The trade balance between the US and China will remain hideously unfavorable to US taxpayers and the US economy, but don’t expect this congress or this administration to do anything about it. They won’t.

The important silver lining to all this is that although the People’s Republic of China will never admit it to the Chinese people, it clearly does not intend a major military escalation in the Pacific.

Its usual temper tantrums are not working, and in China, as on Wall Street, money talks. The shrill Communist Chinese rhetoric will continue, but expect some quiet back alley diplomacy from the Chinese in the next few years.

The People’s Republic of China will demand everything, but it will take what it can get.

US-Vietnam Relations — The Healing Power of Cash

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Due to Communist China’s aggression in the South China Sea, or as the Vietnamese call it, the Eastern Sea, the US has become interested in building a closer relationship with Vietnam. Despite strong emotions on both sides, the changing relationship with Vietnam is less complicated and less subtle than the relationships that the US has with other South Pacific nations. However, it is not without obstacles.

 

US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016 Image public domain.

US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang
Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016
Image public domain.

 

Understanding the forces that drive the US/Vietnam relationship is easy if we consider a few key events since the end of the US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973.

From the point of view of many US citizens, building a working relationship with the communist Vietnamese government is something new and innovative. From Hanoi’s point of view, it is something natural that should have happened a long time ago.

It might surprise many Western Cold War survivors to know that Hanoi fully expected to quickly normalize relations with the US once it was able to capture and control South Vietnam. US President Richard Nixon had ordered an increased bombing campaign against North Vietnam to force Hanoi to return to the Paris Peace Talks. Both the North Vietnamese government and the US government understood that those peace talks were pure theater and without any potential lasting value, but Nixon felt he needed to create the appearance of a peaceful settlement to the conflict. All Nixon really wanted was for the US to pull out of South Vietnam.

When President Nixon told the South Vietnamese government that the US military would return if North Vietnam broke the peace treaty, he knew that he was lying. The South Vietnamese government knew it, as well, but there was nothing it could do about it. Years of blatant corruption and criminality in the South Vietnamese government, combined with the thousands of deaths of young Americans, had left much of the American public unwilling to continue to support South Vietnam. Nixon fully understood that the US public was done with Vietnam.

Westerners understood that Nixon was clearly using a “big stick” approach against the North Vietnamese government in order to force them back to the transparently farcical Paris Peace Talks, but most were unaware that Nixon and his soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were also quietly holding out a large carrot to the North Vietnamese government. That carrot was a normalization of relations with the US, trade agreements, and US influence to allow North Vietnam access to the International Monetary Fund.

The North Vietnamese government carefully considered the offers from Nixon, and after about two minutes fully agreed. What could be more splendid than the US showering North Vietnam with cash instead of bombs? In response to Nixon’s offers, Hanoi suggested that the US quickly develop offshore oil reserves in Vietnamese territory with a perfectly reasonable revenue sharing formula. The communists in Hanoi were clearly in love with capitalism.

Hanoi wanted to become something like a new Saudi Arabia.

The automobile-addicted Yankees would get more oil, and Vietnam would get cash. And here is the subtle little detail that mattered most in all this. Hanoi expected its “capitalist Yankee dog” enemies to become Vietnam’s beloved allies against Vietnam’s problematic neighbor, the People’s Republic of China.

It might be difficult for Americans that remember the Vietnam War to believe that the Hanoi government would have been capable of an alliance with the US after the Vietnam War.

If we consider the North Vietnamese view for a moment, it’s a little easier to understand how they might have hoped for our bombing campaigns to be converted to cash-dropping operations. From Hanoi’s perspective, the US had spent more than a decade lavishing cash, equipment, and young American blood on a wildly corrupt South Vietnamese government in exchange for nothing.

So why then would the Yankees not do the same for a wildly corrupt communist Vietnam in exchange for oil rights?

It made perfect sense to the pragmatic Kissinger, the impatient Nixon, and to everyone else involved in the Vietnam quagmire. It would have worked except for another critical event. To the surprise of no sober adult in Vietnam or the US, the North Vietnamese could not resist invading and conquering South Vietnam after the US military went home. They miscalculated. Oil or not, the US was not going to become close friends with Hanoi once Hanoi so completely violated the Paris Peace Treaty.

So, all “that” explains why communist Vietnam would pretend to be our friend now. Now let us consider why the US government might be willing to pretend it believes that the Vietnamese are our friends.

The answer is simple enough to express in one word – China.

It is easy for the Vietnamese communists to abandon their own dogma and do business with their old “Imperialist Yankee dog” enemies in the face of the more avaricious Communist Chinese imperial aggression. In the face of that same Chinese Imperialist campaign in the Pacific, the US government is willing to cooperate and even aid its old “communist terrorist” enemies.

Vietnam understands that the USA does not wish to install a “Pax Americana” in the South Pacific. It understood that we weren’t even willing to install a “Pax Americana” in South Vietnam, and it counted on that fact in its strategy in the 1960s and 1970s. For other South Pacific nations, an escalated conflict with China is future possibility to be avoided. For the Vietnamese, it is a reality that they have experienced many times over, and as recently as 1979, when China again invaded Vietnam. For the Obama administration, convincing the Vietnamese to take the Chinese Imperialist agenda seriously is about as difficult as convincing a teenager that sex is good.

Changes in the US-Vietnam relationship can be measured by key steps the two countries have taken.

On January 13, 1993, the US Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave a favorable final report that cleared the way for the Clinton Administration to resume IMF and World Bank lending to Vietnam. For Americans such as me, who were still waiting for a loved one to return from Vietnam, the fact that Vietnam had conducted a visible long-term effort to account for all US MIAs in Southeast Asia mattered a great deal. For the Vietnamese, access to the IMF and World Bank mattered a great deal financially.

On February 3, 1994, US President Bill Clinton partially lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam. This was a boon for the Vietnamese economy and provided US corporations with an alternative to cheap Chinese manufacturing labor.

On July 11, 1995, US President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

In November 2003, the USS Vandergrift became the first US Navy vessel to make port call in Ho Chi Minh City since 1975. This initiated a regular schedule of US Navy calls at Vietnamese ports.

The US Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations for Vietnam in January 2007. This further boosted US Capital investment in Vietnam.

In early October 2014, the United States approved a relaxation of its arms embargo on Vietnam.

In May 2016, President Obama announced the full lifting of the embargo during his visit to Vietnam.

Thus far, there has been little practical impact from lifting the embargo because Vietnam prefers to purchase less expensive weapons and systems from their Russian allies. However, one sign that that the trade agreement might benefit the US economy is the $11.3 billion pending Vietnamese agreement with Boeing for the purchase of 100 airliners. It is not clear to me where the cash will come from to make this deal a reality, but time will tell. There is also optimistic chatter about Vietnam purchasing P-3 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance planes, but I can’t see Congress and the DoD signing off on the sale of such high tech military systems to a close ally of Russia.

Many human rights groups feel betrayed by the Obama administration.

Critics of the lifting of the embargo feel that Obama could easily have demanded human rights reforms in Vietnam in exchange for such a lucrative agreement for Vietnam. Vietnam has clearly demonstrated that it is in no rush to improve human rights for their citizens. From a political point of view, Vietnam remains very similar to Communist China. The one difference is that Vietnam is reliably anti-Chinese, and, therefore, this administration and previous administrations have been willing to ignore Vietnam’s transparently horrible human rights record.

It’s tough to not see the parallel between current US Pacific strategy and the US strategy in Central America during the Cold War.

Then, as now, we have often been willing to tolerate wildly corrupt governments when they have opposed major enemies of the US. The philosophical and moral questions surrounding the current US administration’s willingness to do business with a despotic Vietnamese government are beyond the scope of this article and this series of articles. In the European tradition of “Realpolitik” and in step with the worldwide practice of self-interested political policies, the US has chosen to strengthen ties with Vietnam.

In my estimation, the relationship between the US and Vietnam will continue to grow. The next US presidential election will not likely disrupt this trend, regardless of which candidate wins.

In our next article, we will consider the relationship between the US and India, and India’s huge potential influence on South Pacific affairs.

 

When China Spanked Vietnam

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

February 17, 2016, marks the 37th anniversary of the Communist Chinese invasion of Vietnam – the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. In Communist China, as in the rest of the world, it will be ignored.

 

1979 Chinese Invasion of Vietnam Map by Ceresnet, wikimedia commons.

1979 Chinese Invasion of Vietnam
Map by Ceresnet, wikimedia commons.

 

In Vietnam, the communist government will not focus much attention on the anniversary, but many of the Vietnamese people that reside in the northernmost provinces will commemorate the day with visits to the graves of family members that died during the 1979 Chinese invasion.

In the West, the Sino-Vietnamese War is largely misunderstood or simply forgotten. The most obvious question is, “Why did it happen?” How is it that fraternal communist states managed to go to war with each other in the midst of the Cold War between communist and capitalist nations?

The first part of the answer is that many fraternal communist states were not as “fraternal” as they wanted the world to believe.

Vietnam and Communist China had never had warm relations. Vietnam saw its powerful neighbor to the north as a constant threat to its security and was leery of Chinese military assistance during the French-Indochinese War. The USSR and Communist China had also failed to realize anything like “fraternal warmth” and were occasionally involved in military skirmishes along their shared border.

As the French-Indochinese War played out, the USSR and communist North Vietnam developed close relations. The USSR was the main provider of military and economic aid to North Vietnam. That close relationship continued during the American-Indochinese War.

When the US abandoned Vietnam, the communist Vietnamese government wanted to consolidate communist revolutions in Laos and Cambodia under Vietnamese hegemony with support from, and allegiance to, the USSR. The Vietnamese viewed this as the most obvious strategy for keeping China out of Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately for Vietnam, China had its own plans for Southeast Asia.

Modern Communist Chinese are fond of portraying themselves as being something like a neutral and peace-loving country. They are quick to claim that they have never “exported revolution.” The inference is that, while the Soviets pursued imperialist aims, China was busy experiencing a joyous cultural revolution and building a better workers’ paradise. The reality was that, unlike the USSR, Communist China was simply unable to realize its own imperialist aspirations. That didn’t keep them from trying.

While the communists in Vietnam were dealing with the US in South Vietnam, the Chinese were building a Chinese-aligned communist regime in Cambodia.

In 1975, with the help of China, genocidal maniac leader of the Khmer Rouge communist movement, Pol Pot, came to power in Cambodia. He renamed Cambodia “Kampuchea.” Pol Pot consolidated his position, and, assured of full support from China, he cut off relations with the communist regime in Hanoi.

 

Skull Map of Cambodia Made with 300 skulls of Pol Pot's victims to memorialize over 1 mil murdered. Image by Donovan Gavan, wikimedia commons.

Skull Map of Cambodia
Made with 300 skulls of Pol Pot’s victims to memorialize over 1 mil murdered.
Image by Donovan Gavan, wikimedia commons.

 

In 1976, the ruthless Communist Chinese dictator, Mao Zedong, finally succeeded in doing something positive for China. He died.

When the dust settled, a new and vastly more effective oligarchy led by Deng Xiaoping rose to power in Communist China. Deng had a better grip on reality than Mao ever had. He and his supporters grasped the concept of China as a big country in a bigger world. Deng was more concerned by Soviet aggression.

On the surface, his regime had to maintain a veneer of good old-fashioned communist hatred for capitalist demons, but in practice, they quickly began to emulate those “capitalist demons.” Deng was not in love with capitalist philosophy. He simply admired capitalist results and wanted to improve China’s pathetic economy.

Deng and his supporters were either unwilling or unable to substantially improve relations with the USSR and they quietly made overtures to the US.

Communist China’s continued support for the Pol Pot regime would seem inconsistent with the modernizations and limited liberalizations that were being implemented at home. However, Deng chose to ignore the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal conduct because they were the one non-Soviet-controlled option in Cambodia.

In 1978, with the “filthy American imperialist dogs” gone and the South Vietnamese government vanquished, the Vietnamese decided to try their own hand at a bit of fun-filled filthy imperialism. They invaded Cambodia.

The USSR provided financial and military support for the operation. The Chinese were infuriated. They responded by reinforcing their military along their border with the USSR.

In 1979, much of the Vietnamese Army was in Cambodia chasing down Khmer Rouge forces and trying to install a Vietnamese-controlled government. Deng’s military leaders decided that the time was ripe to invade Vietnam.

The Communist Chinese military leadership correctly predicted that the USSR would not attempt to invade or attack China, because the USSR needed to maintain its military focus against well-equipped NATO forces in Europe. The Communist Chinese military incorrectly predicted that Vietnam would quickly recall all of its troops from Cambodia to defend the motherland from the Chinese invasion, and that this would save the Khmer Rouge.

While visiting the US in January of 1979, Deng Xiaoping told American President Jimmy Carter that, “The little child is getting naughty; it’s time he be spanked.” It was not a bluff.

 

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter January 29, 1979 Image Nat'l Archives & Records, public domain.

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter
January 29, 1979
Image Nat’l Archives & Records, public domain.

 

On February 17, 1979, Communist China invaded Vietnam. The details of that war, as with all wars, depend on whom you ask.

The Vietnamese version of the story is that 600,000 of China’s best troops invaded Vietnam and raped, pillaged, and murdered women and children. Due to the superiority of the courageous Vietnamese local militia forces, the cowardly Chinese suffered massive casualties and were forced to retreat.

The Chinese version of the story differs a bit. They invaded politely with about 200,000 troops, quickly vanquished the Vietnamese, and, although the path to Hanoi was open, chose to be magnanimous in victory and withdrew from Vietnam.

The truth is that Communist China did mobilize 600,000 troops in Southern China, but only 200,000 crossed the border. Thanks to Soviet satellite imagery, the Vietnamese calculated that the Chinese lacked the required strength and logistical support to actually attack Hanoi. The Vietnamese did not withdraw all of their forces from Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge did not regain control of Cambodia.

The Communist Chinese suffered about 6,500 fatalities and perhaps 15,000 wounded. China claimed to have counted 57,000 dead Vietnamese soldiers and 100,000 dead Vietnamese militia members. The Chinese claims are likely wildly exaggerated, but they may have counted the many unarmed Vietnamese civilian casualties as militia.

China did not withdraw due to a manpower shortage. It withdrew because it lacked the logistical capability to continue the invasion.

On their way home, the Chinese did their best to destroy anything useful in northern Vietnam. China could easily tolerate the casualties in Vietnam, but it could not tolerate the economic costs. By March 16, 1979, China had withdrawn from Vietnam.

The Western media coverage of the war was mostly amateurish, somewhat creative, and often inaccurate. They lacked enough sources in the war zone, but that didn’t stop them from making wild assumptions.

Many in the media focused on the theory that the US Intelligence Community had “failed completely” in predicting the Chinese invasion. The Intelligence Community hadn’t failed at all. When Deng chatted with President Carter in January 1979, Carter told him that the US was aware of the Chinese mobilizations in progress along the Vietnam border. Deng didn’t deny it. He was frank with President Carter about his intentions.

As they usually do, the Western media assumed that, since the CIA had not reported anything to them about the Chinese buildup, it meant the agency was once again blindsided by world events. The media then, as now, was unable to fathom that the Director of the CIA reports to the US President (and now to the Director of National Intelligence) rather than to the Press Corps. What the President decides to tell the media is up to the President.

In the aftermath of the war, Vietnam conducted reprisals against non-ethnic Vietnamese that were assumed to have supported the Chinese invasion. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands were resettled to work camps in southern Vietnam. The economic damage that the Chinese had inflicted had a long-lasting negative impact on the economy of northern Vietnam.

For their part, the Chinese instituted a modernization campaign of the military, but that modernization had to wait for the Chinese economy to recuperate from Mao’s highly destructive “cultural revolution.” Only after decades of very profitable trade with capitalist Western nations has that long awaited military modernization finally come to fruition in China.

In 1979, the Vietnamese loathed and feared the Chinese. In 2016, they fear the more powerful, modernized Communist China even more. The 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam was not the first. It might well not be the last.