Commentary: Mahjong on the sea – A reinterpretation of Lui Lui’s ‘Beijing 2008’

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Last of 2 parts
IN the first part of this article (June 6, 2017), I focused on the first two players in this strip mahjong: Japan and Russia. In this second part, I’ll now focus on the USA, China, and Vietnam.

China is impressive. Despite being the longest surviving player in the game, she still managed to keep her skirt and undies. Among the characters in the painting, she’s the only one whose face we can’t see. Yet we see her tiles: “China ‘tripled’ the Dong tiles (East Winds, this is a double up),” according to the anonymous essay. This symbolizes the re-emergence of China, the wind blowing geopolitical ripples. The three tiles display China’s growing global influence in three arenas— economic, diplomatic, and military. It looks like China is doing fine, but we can’t see her other tiles.

She has two tiles behind her. The anonymous essay interprets it as “Russia passing tiles to China.” But it seems Russia is just as clueless as other powers of what’s behind China. Thus, discreetly, Russia extends her body in an attempt to take a peek at what China may be hiding. After all, there are also fears in Russia about China’s re-emergence. Thus, while Russia’s left hand is reaching towards China, her right arm extends towards somewhere else. Russia is also hedging, as she either deepens or establishes new ties with other Asian nations — Vietnam, Japan, India, and the Philippines.

USA’s garb appears to be the most complete. Probably because she still has the most powerful military. Her navy has a global reach and a number of battle force ships (228) unmatched by any country. However, her private parts are already exposed. For among the four, America’s domestic politics is the most accessible to the world. As Antonio Rappa wrote in Globalization: Power, Authority, and Legitimacy: “…many know more about America than they know about their own countries.”

USA looks as if she’s about to remove her blouse—but she might as well be tightening its strings. She appears confident but faces great danger. If she loses this game, she loses her dominant position. During Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, Zhou Enlai, China’s Premier, was asked what he thought was the significance of the 1968 Paris protests. Zhou reportedly said: “Too early to say.” In a similar vein, I would say that it’s too early to say whether China will now eclipse the USA as the new world superpower — for good. If China is a sleeping dragon that’s now awake, the USA might just be an eagle taking a short nap rather than entering a long slumber.

In the anonymous essay, the little girl holding a tray of fruits in one hand and a fruit knife in the other, looking quietly at China, with resentment, is Taiwan. In this re-interpretation, she’s Vietnam. She’s not in the game, perhaps too little to play with the big girls. She’s standing on a rocky surface. On top of that surface, the women are playing mahjong on an elevated area covered by a blue fabric, rippling like waves of the sea. Meanwhile, the sky is a blanket of nimbus clouds. The brooding setting symbolizes the possible violent struggle in the South China Sea akin to the Peloponnesian War.

Just apt that Vietnam is standing on this rocky surface as she is the preponderant power in the Spratly islands. As David Shear, former US assistant secretary of defense for Asia and security affairs, told the US Senate committee on foreign relations on May 13, 2015: “In the Spratly islands, Vietnam has 48 outposts; the Philippines, 8; China, 8; Malaysia, 5, and Taiwan,1.” Vietnam’s position was largely enabled by the enormous aid flowing from the Soviet Union during the Sino-Soviet rift phase of the Cold War.

USA is looking at Vietnam, perhaps trying to attract her closer to her, in order to counter China’s ascendance. A difficult feat, not only because of the wounds of the Vietnam War, but also because of Vietnam’s ever-growing relationship with Russia, whose body in this painting extends towards her. Still that didn’t keep USA from luring Vietnam: in May 2016, President Barack Obama lifted the decades-long arms embargo on Vietnam.

The setting of this game is also very significant to China’s national identity dressed by the “century of humiliation” narrative. The sea has been China’s source of vulnerability. A lot of the humiliating wars China suffered were all because of her weak maritime capabilities. Thus, a significant aspect of China’s military modernization involves strengthening her navy and control of her near-sea. As Michael McDevitt and Frederic Velluci Jr wrote in The Evolution of the People’s Liberation Army Navy: The Twin Missions of Area-Denial and Peacetime Operations:

“Vulnerability to attack from the sea has been a problem for Beijing since at least 1842, when the Treaty of Nanking ended the First Opium War. This three-year conflict with Great Britain exposed imperial China’s military weakness to attacks from the sea and ushered in the so-called century of humiliation by triggering a sequence of military and diplomatic humiliations perpetrated by Westerners and the Japanese that came primarily from the sea.”

Who will win this game? Just like in any struggle: the one who has the greatest resolve.

(Published in The Manila Times, 8 June 2017)

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