Thingish Things

As the World Turns

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Jun• 23•11

I had the good fortune of spending a week in Hanoi in 2002 (and not 1972) with my sister Priscilla.  Priscilla, who works in the travel business, arranged the trip and hired an extraordinary guide named Trinh Huy Tho, with whom I made fast friends.  We are still in occasional touch today.

One gets dozens of takeaways from a journey like that – dog meat and rattlesnake wine taken together, for example, cannot long co-exist in the occidental stomach – but something Tho said to me near the Chinese border on our last afternoon there is what I will most remember from the trip.  It was the simplest observation;  I am almost embarrassed to relay it. But it was indicative of the stark difference in our national mindsets, or at least between his mindset and mine.

We were visiting a 1,000-plus-year-old Buddhist temple near the border.  Mammoth stone slabs with historical records chiseled into each of them dotted the site, about half written in Chinese characters and half in the Latin Alphabet, which the Vietnamese have used since the early 1500’s.  Tho explained that the Chinese had invaded this area of his country a dozen or more times during the last millennia, and while occupying the ground it erected its own stone tablets to mark the conquests.

“How do people here get along with the Chinese today?,” I casually asked, knowing full well that China and Vietnam are staunch allies. “Very well,” he said, “until their armies next come back.”

It was the way he said it that got to me.  There was no humor or irony in his voice.  It was meant to be a simple statement of fact.  Tho’s world comes with protean borders, where the ebb and flow of history is accompanied by armed troops.  China always comes back where he comes from.

I had never before realized – even as someone interested in world politics – just how much I had always perceived history as more or less settled, ridiculously. That silliness with Canada in 1812 or Mexico in 1848, is ancient history.  Our borders with those nations will always be as they are, just as England will always be our staunchest ally. History, to my mind, had, in effect, stopped. At least in the Western World.

I was reminded of Tho’s remark three times this week. The first when I read that Vietnam is asking our assistance in a territorial dispute with China. The second when I saw a report of Chinese warships passing near the Japanese island of Okinawa, and then again this morning when reading this piece on North Korea in World Affair Journal. It is a long and thoughtful article on the possible impending collapse of North Korea and the affect that will have on all of Southeast Asia.

The North Korean population is once again beginning to experience widespread famine, which is expected to decimate the population unless massive international assistance is assembled.  But many experts are seriously discussing regime collapse within the next couple of years, and how unprepared the world would be to deal with it. Or as one top American policymaker, who asked not be identified in the piece put it, “We can be unprepared, or we can be really unprepared. Let’s hope it’s the former.”

It is fascinating and terrifying to watch history unfold.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Your Friend says:

    I can’t imagine a future world in which North Korea is not taken over by China. The odds must be even at this point. How will we react to that? If Tibet is any indication, with a yawn and a shrug. It takes a despot to know a despot.

  2. Jobert says:

    The Philippines is also staking its claim on the Spratley group of islands in the South China Sea (or as some Filipinos now call the West Philippine Sea). This tussle also involves Malaysia and Brunei as well as China & Vietnam. China’s naval force outweighs the Philippines’ 600 to 1. If China forcefully exerts its dominance in that area of the sea who’s gonna stop them? We Filipinos might as well just roll over and play dead. Americans might be better off watching this from the sidelines rather that getting actively involved in settling this dispute… you don’t want to piss off the Chinese lest they redeem all their U.S. debt papers and leave the Treasury in an abyss.

    • Your Friend says:

      They’ll never redeem the debt. They would chase the dollar down, reducing the value of the debt as they call it in. It’s a no win. They have to hold it. More importantly, though, will we ever stop settling disputes with force?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.