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27 January 2013

Lessons from Vietnam: “Musings on the Territorial Disputes between the Philippines and China”

The first Battle of Bạch Đằng
river in 938. Image part of
public domain 

For many Filipinos, fighting an emerging superpower like China seems daunting. How can a small country like the Philippines stand a chance against a huge country? The Philippine navy is ill equipped and minuscule compared to the might of the Chinese navy.  Do we just stand and watch as another superpower bully us into submission?  Throughout history, Filipinos have been bullied by bigger nations, starting with Spain, then the United States, Japan and now China is flexing its muscles and using the smaller nations of Southeast Asia as target practice. 

The issue of legality of our claim over Spratly Islands and Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) is a matter left for lawyers, diplomats, politicians and historians. I do not claim to be an expert on this matter.  However, this issue reminded me of a story I once read as a child.

Kublai Khan, the great Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China, controlled most of Asia.  In 1288, Khan’s forces decided to conquer the small kingdom of Đại Việt (present-day Vietnam).  Commanding the greatest naval power at that time, The Yuan forces could have easily invaded a weaker kingdom.

This historic battle is known as “The Battle of Bạch Đằng.”  Bạch Đằng is a river in northern Vietnam. The Mongol fleet consisted of 500 ships and in the end, more than 400 ships were destroyed and the Mongolian general was captured. The Vietnamese people triumphed for three reasons.
  • First, they were lead by a brilliant moral leader.
  • Second, the attack and defense of their country was meticulously planned and it was a concerted effort of all Vietnamese, soldiers and ordinary people.
  • Third, the Vietnamese people had an unwavering determination not to be conquered or bullied.

The Battle of Bạch Đằng in 1288. Image part of public domain  
The plan began with a small number of Vietnamese boats engaging the bigger Mongolians warships in the sea.  The small boats lured the big warships to the river by pretending to retreat. The Mongolians took the bait. Once the invading ships entered the river, they were caught by surprise. Small boats from both sides of the river emerged and began attacking the enemy ships.  Ordinary people threw almost everything they could. The goal was to keep the ships on the river until low tide. Unprepared, the Mongolians began to flee back to open sea. However, unknown to them, the Vietnamese people had planted numerous sharpened stakes on the riverbed. The sharpened wooden stakes remained invisible during high tide.  As the invaders fled, the tide began to ebb and the stakes punctured the Mongolian ships, trapping them in the river. The Vietnamese people continued their assault. Fire rafts were also deployed to burn the trapped warships.   The Mongolian soldiers aboard the ships panicked and jumped overboard only to face more resistance on land.  The Vietnamese victory was decisive.

Certainly, others will claim that Kublai Khan is a Mongolian and not Chinese.  However, the 1288 “Battle of Bạch Đằng” was actually a repeat of an earlier and more significant battle in the same river in 938.  Using the same tactics, the Vietnamese led by King Ngô Quyền foiled an attacked by the Southern Han (a kingdom in Southern China).  The Vietnamese victory in 938 is significant because it ended the 1,000-year Chinese domination of Vietnam.  In 938, the population of the Chinese Han kingdom was 57 million compared to 1 million Vietnamese.

History shows us repeatedly that Goliath can be beaten; all you need is to take advantage of the enemy’s arrogance and overconfidence, and fight them with the element of surprise and calculated tactics. 

Fortunately, modern countries have better, more civil and intelligent ways in resolving territorial conflicts with their neighbors.  However, we Filipinos should draw inspiration from the Vietnamese.  The size of the country is not a factor in winning a battle.  It is the people and its leaders.  2013 is election year.  With all the hullabaloo concerning our Senate President and other senators, perhaps we should rethink how we choose our leaders.  We remain weak because we choose morally weak and self-serving leaders.  If we lose our battle here in the home front, how can we even begin to win our battles across the seas?


Non-sexist, multi-racial, multi-cultural stories for children

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