Scramble for The New Pacific: Asia’s Cauldron (pt I)


Hugh Paxton’s Blog was in Hanoi recently and one of the places I most enjoyed visiting was the Fine Arts Museum. It is housed in one of Hanoi’s rather charming French colonial-era buildings, and was once the slightly Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Information. Over the road is the Temple of Literature (I enjoyed visiting that, too).

In addition to many echoing, all but deserted galleries displaying sculptures, paintings, ceramics, statuary, jewelry and other artefacts, the Fine Arts Museum has a shop. It is a good one. A lot of replicas of exhibits are for sale and I went a bit wild in the porcelain and silk painting department (I never regret going wild when I’m on my foreign travels – if you see something you like, buy it, who knows when you’ll come back, that’s my motto – and I have no shelf or wall space left unoccupied in my study and library to prove it. No regrets either.)

The shopkeeper was a rather grim, austere-looking woman in her late fifties, perhaps early sixties. An ex-bowl of rice a day, black pee-jay I guessed, not gone to fat and seed like so many of her former comrades in arms who still clog the bureaucratic corridors of power in northern Vietnam.

She watched us without motion, expression or comment as we moved around the room but when I reached a stack of propaganda she stirred and there was a flicker of interest. I scrolled through the posters expecting the usual America-bashing 60s and 70s stuff and was not disappointed. What intrigued me however were the other posters. These were more recent and there was a crude ferocious simplicity to them. No captions, no speech bubbles, but they all said, shouted, one word to me.


My eleven-year-old daughter, Annabel, was not impressed. I knew what she was thinking when I selected one poster, reached again for my wallet and approached the grim guardian of the cash register. She was thinking, “Daddy’s gone bonkers! These are rubbish! I could paint a better picture of a shark trying to swallow a bomb!”

She was right. She could.

I decided to explain.

“See that black shark?


“Describe it.”

“It looks dumb. Its mouth is too big. Its eye’s too small. Umm…the body’s too small. It doesn’t really look like a shark.”


Brief explanation from Annabel detailing why the cartoon shark doesn’t have enough fins, doesn’t have gills, the tail’s all wrong, the teeth aren’t right, the mouth’s too big, bigger than the body, twice as big, etc. My daughter knows all there is to be knowed about sharks. She’s seen them in real life, swirling in the huge tank at the Bangkok aquarium in Siam Paragon, in the sea off Sulawesi, in fish markets and she’s seen them in books and on Discovery Channel.

“So it doesn’t look like a shark? Why do you think it is a shark if it doesn’t look like a shark?”

“Because it IS a shark!”

I sense imminent boredom and increasing impatience with my obviously half-witted questions. Mustn’t lose my audience! Time to move on!

“How about the bomb with the burning fuse? What does that look like?”

“The guy can’t paint inside the lines. You can see the pencil… It’s going to explode.”

“Why’s the bomb red with a yellow star?”

Easy one! My daughter’s seen hundreds of them and she’s only been in Hanoi four days.

“Vietnamese flag.”

“What’s going to happen when the shark swallows the bomb?”

“It can’t. The bomb’s too big.”

“OK, fair enough. What will happen if the shark TRIES to swallow the bomb?”

“It will blow its head off.”

“What’s that one word written on the shark’s body?”

“China. Can we go now?”

When we left, the woman in the shop was smiling at me.

I’m back in Bangkok now. The shark is still trying to swallow the bomb. Written on the back of the picture which hangs by my desk is the following sentence:


Fortunately (and helpfully!) there is a second sentence


BLOG ED NOTE: This Hugh Paxton Blog series will follow the unfolding, dripping tap and largely ignored events, currently occurring in the northern Pacific. There are numerous players: Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, the US, other regional powers and interests and, of course, Hong Kong and mainland China. The series unashamedly takes its title “Asia’s Cauldron” from the book of the same name, written by Robert D. Kaplan ( ), a prolific author and former member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board. “Foreign Policy” magazine named him one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. Asia’s Cauldron is published by Penguin.

PT II: Asia’s Cauldron: Mischief Reef and Other Islands coming soon.

Thoughts for the Day: I will leave you with two things that caught my eye, both in today’s edition of The Bangkok Post (Sat June 6 2015).


1.Front Page Header: “Chinese Ship ‘fires shot at trawler’

……………Aquino mulls defence pact: Page 4.

2. From PostBag (Letters to the editor): “Chinese Takeaway”

“The growing tensions in the South China Sea provide a great example of ‘sabre rattling.’ Armed conflict will break-out there –it’s inevitable…Here’s a sobering statistic: 5,000 rai of those rocky outcrops were covered in sand by Chinese dredgers in the past 18 months. China tells everyone to be patient. What it doesn’t say is: It gives them more time to pour cement – for runways, military barracks and bunkers… I’m resigned to military action, because that’s the only action which will kick China back to its territorial waters.”

Kip Keino

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