Tag Archives for " China "

February 21, 2017

A revealing history of U.S.-China relations

U.S.-China relationsThe Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s.

The world’s wealthiest nation

Few Americans are aware that in 1800 China was the world’s wealthiest nation. Its factories produced one-third of all the world’s goods. The world’s wealthiest businessman was a Chinese trader. And a single Chinese city—Guangzhou (formerly Canton)—harbored a population of one million people. That was the equivalent of one-fourth of the U.S. population. Though China’s relative position in the world economy declined rapidly in the course of the 19th century, the country still loomed large in the eyes of American business and represented the number one target of the fast-growing evangelistic faiths that dominated religion in the U.S.

The central importance of bilateral trade

Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of that history. Many great American fortunes were built on the opium trade, which dominated bilateral commerce throughout the 19th century. In more recent years, beginning in earnest in the 1980s in the wake of Deng Xiao-Peng’s economic reforms, trade has loomed large in the economies of both countries. Today, of course, the U.S. exports more than $100 billion annually to China—and imports $400 billion. “America has been China’s top trading partner since the 1990s,” Pomfret writes. “China surpassed Canada to become America’s top partner in 2015.”

Missionaries and education in U.S.-China relations

Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. As Pomfret writes, “During the heyday of American missionary activity from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, Americans funded a majority of China’s colleges and high schools and scores of . . . YMCA and YWCA centers as well as agricultural extensions, charities, and research institutes.” Even today, privileged young Chinese commonly seek out higher education in the U.S. Pomfret: “From Deng Xiaoping on, every Communist leader has sent at least one of his children to the US to study, including the Harvard-educated daughter of the current president, Xi Jinping.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, American-educated Chinese played outsized roles in their country’s history. In the closing years of the 19th century and the first several decades of the 20th, most of those who attended American colleges and universities were Protestants. The range of their studies was as broad as that of American students. In more recent decades, a large proportion of Chinese students in the United States have obtained degrees in science and engineering. As a result, they have helped China attain ever-growing prominence in the sciences. And those who have chosen to remain in the U.S. have played a role in building the American high-tech sector far out of proportion to their share of the population.

An intimate relationship despite outward hostility

Pomfret emphasizes that the current hostility between the U.S. and China is largely a recent phenomenon. Until the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the U.S. was generally held in high regard in China despite episodes such as the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 when American troops invaded China. While Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and Japan repeatedly carved out portions of Chinese cities where their own laws applied, the anti-colonial U.S. rarely collaborated. This helped Americans gain a reputation as friendy and respectful by comparison.  American support for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government, the U.S. role in the Korean War, and the Communist Chinese government’s need to elevate a single foreign enemy as a scapegoat were principally responsible for souring the relationship. Outwardly, the two countries have been hostile in recent decades. However, in reality, the relationship in recent years has been more intimate than ever.

The high regard in which most Chinese held Americans was not reciprocated. America’s attitude toward China and the Chinese was dominated by racism throughout much of the last two-and-a-half centuries. It’s well known that immigrant Chinese laborers played a major role in building the transcontinental railroad, less widely recognized that the same was true of the Western mining industry. Yet, as Pomfret notes, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to combat the so-called Yellow Peril “resulted in an epidemic of mass roundups, expulsions, arson, and murder that spread from California to Colorado, from Washington state to the South. The scattered violence of the 1870s turned into a systematic purge.” The law was not repealed until 1943. “The vast federal bureaucracy designed to limit immigration to America,” Pomfret explains, “was originally created not in response to Mexicans [and now Muslims], but to the Chinese.”

A lively account of U.S.-China relations

Pomfret’s account of U.S.-China relations is lively. Working chronologically, he paints sketchy portraits of many of the fascinating characters who have dominated this still unfolding drama. All the familiar names are there, of course—from the Dowager Empress Cixi, Sun Yat-Sen, and Mao Tse-Tung to Pearl Buck, John Dewey, and Richard Nixon—but most of the people who played major roles are unfamiliar to American readers. There are a lot of them: The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom consists of 700 pages of densely written text.

There are many surprises in the book. For me, the biggest of these was the revelation that, contrary to generally accepted scholarly opinion, the Chinese resistance to the Japanese was not led by Mao’s Communists but by the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. The Red Army rarely engaged the Japanese, while the Nationalists lost hundreds of thousands of troops doing so. Another surprise was to learn that Barbara Tuchman’s laudatory biography of U.S. General Joseph (“Vinegar Joe”) Stillwell was based in large part on misinformation. Pomfret documents the general’s repeated strategic and tactical errors in “advising” Chiang Kai-Shek. Pomfret concludes that “Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work on Joseph Stilwell was magisterial but deeply unfair.”

The title of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom reflects the English translation of the names by which the two countries are sometimes rendered in Mandarin. “The Beautiful Country,” of course, refers to the United States, as it was regarded by many Chinese visitors beginning in the 19th century.

About the author

John Pomfret speaks, reads, and writes Mandarin as well as several European languages. In an Afterword, he writes “As a reporter for the Associated Press, I was tossed out of China in 1989 following the June Fourth massacre. The government accused me of being one of the ‘black hands’ behind the protests. Later, as the China bureau chief for the Washington Post, I had my share of run-ins with China’s security services . . .” He researched The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom as a Fulbright senior scholar in China.


Koreans, Chinese, and Mongolians clash in a disappointing murder mystery

disappointing murder mysteryA Drop of Chinese Blood (Inspector O #5), by James Church

@@ (2 out of 5)

Get this: the principal characters are named Bing, Ding, Jang, Wu, Hu, and O. Perhaps Chinese or Korean speakers can keep all these names straight, but I sure couldn’t. Of course, I might have found it easier if the plot were comprehensible. It was anything but. Even after reading through to the last page (for reasons that escape me now), I didn’t really understand what had happened. A Drop of Chinese Blood is that confusing.

A murder mystery for Inspector O to solve

In the fifth (and to date the last) novel in the Inspector O series, James Church introduces Inspector O’s nephew, Major Bing, the long-suffering chief of the Chinese Ministry of State Security operations on the border with North Korea. Uncle O himself plays a subordinate role. As we learned in the previous four novels, O was a highly unconventional policeman. He was often out of favor with key members of the North Korean regime. O survived for many years only because his grandfather had been a hero of the revolution. In the end, though, even that wasn’t enough. He was forced to flee to China, where he now lives with his nephew.

Koreans, Chinese, and Mongolians

So far as I can tell, the story in A Drop of Chinese Blood revolves around a plot by the Chinese government to outmaneuver the South Koreans in obtaining coal and iron ore from Mongolia. Police officers and intelligence officials from all three countries get involved somehow. So does “the most beautiful woman in the world,” a beauty queen who has ties to the underworld. There are a great many crooks on the scene as well. The action unfolds in a small town in northeast China near the North Korean border, in and around Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and, briefly, in North Korea as well. What happens in all these places, much less why, is a mystery.


November 1, 2016

“Who lost China?” Nobody.

Who lost China?The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley

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One of the conspiracy theories popular on the Far Right is that Franklin D. Roosevelt engineered the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to ensnare the US in World War II. Like so many Right-Wing fantasies, this story is nearly 180 degrees distant from the truth. (OK, many Left-Wing fantasies are, too.)

The power of the China Lobby

As James Bradley makes clear in The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, FDR steadfastly resisted the aggressive, well-funded campaign of the China Lobby to force the U.S. government to embargo oil sales to Japan in the late 1930s. However, when the President was out of town for a week to meet with Winston Churchill early in 1941, future Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other powerful bureaucrats affiliated with the China Lobby contrived to put the embargo in place against Roosevelt’s express wishes. It was that action which triggered Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor and attack the Dutch West Indies (now Indonesia) to secure an alternative source of oil.

FDR and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had insisted at every turn that cutting off oil to the Empire of Japan would force the Japanese military to strike out southward. Inevitably, they calculated, had they agreed to an embargo, the US would have been drawn into war in the Pacific at the same time as the country was gearing up to take on the fight against the Nazis in Europe. While they didn’t discount the possibility of war with Japan even without an oil embargo, their hope was that it could at least be postponed for long enough for the Allies to prevail in Europe.

Three unnecessary US wars in the Pacific

These circumstances describe one of the principal conclusions that Bradley has taken from his study of US policy toward Asia in the twentieth century. The China Mirage argues that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to US involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary.

The China Lobby

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became law. As a result, nearly all Americans — including the country’s most senior officeholders — shared profound ignorance of Chinese reality. Bradley traces the roots of this ignorance to two sources: the wishful thinking of the many US Protestant missionaries sent to China in the last half of the nineteenth century, and a lavish public relations campaign on behalf of the Chinese government in the 1930s. The government, nominally headed by the self-styled Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, was in fact run by the wealthy and powerful Soong family, which headed a network of warlords and criminal gangs. Mayling Soong was Chiang’s wife; her older sister, Ailing, was the head of the family and directed affairs from behind the scenes. Ailing’s husband and brother held the two top positions in Chiang’s civilian government.

According to Harry Truman, later evidence showed that the Soong family had stolen $750 million of the $3.5 billion in American aid the Chinese government received to support its nonexistent war against Japan. Henry Luce apparently knew none of this; in fact, he knew practically nothing about conditions in China, other than what Chiang and his wife told him. Nonetheless, Luce used his powerful magazines, Time, Life, and Fortune, and his newsreel, The March of Time, to propagate the myth that Chiang was a democratic hero leading a heroic resistance against Japanese aggression. To spread the message further, and to lobby Congress and the White House, Luce and the Chiang-Soong syndicate created the China Lobby, which remained a dominant force in American foreign policy from the early 1930s to the 1960s.

The China Mirage

Compounding the challenge for American policymakers were the preconceived notions that dominated the thinking of key actors in the drama. Luce was the son of a Protestant missionary in China and carried with him throughout his life the conviction that Christianity and American values would spread throughout the vast expanse of the Chinese heartland and turn the country into America’s best friend in the world. To bring this about, all the US needed to do was help Chiang Kai-Shek defeat the Japanese. Similarly, FDR drank in a similar fantasy about China on the knee of his beloved grandfather, Warren Delano, who had gained not just one but two immense fortunes smuggling opium into China. These delusional beliefs constituted what Bradley calls The China Mirage. Since Chiang and the Soong family represented the pro-American China of their dreams, they easily swallowed the Generalissimo’s claim that he was fighting the fast-spreading Japanese invasion. In reality, Chiang avoided every opportunity to confront the Japanese. He was hoarding his resources for what he hoped would be a decisive civil war with Mao Zedong and his Communist forces — after the Americans chased away the Japanese. That was China’s, or at least Chiang’s, “American Mirage.”

“Who lost China?”

Another favorite topic on America’s Radical Right is the question posed by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1949: “Who lost China?” McCarthy and his allies, notably including Richard Nixon and the luminaries of the China Lobby, such as Mayling Soong, Henry Luce, Henry L. Stimson, and Dean Acheson, argued that the US hadn’t tried hard enough to support Chiang Kai-Shek. In the course of pursuing this question, McCarthy, Nixon, and Luce singled out a small group of men known as the Old China Hands.

This was a handful of Chinese-speaking experts deployed by the State Department  in China during World War II who conveyed to Washington a very different story than that told by the Chiang-Soong government. To anyone with eyes open in the Chinese hinterland, where the Old China Hands were deployed, the truth was blatantly obvious. Chiang was not fighting the Japanese, he and his government were boundlessly corrupt, and Mao was attracting followers by the tens of millions among the peasantry because Chiang’s troops plundered their homes at every opportunity. Mao was growing stronger militarily with every passing month while Chiang’s soldiers were deserting in large numbers. But virtually no one in Washington, DC, wanted to hear such things — and the men who were reporting them were later singled out by McCarthy and the China Lobby as those responsible for “losing China.”

Did America bungle US-China relations?

Sadly, one of the central themes in reports from the Old China Hands was Mao’s eagerness to collaborate with the US, not just to receive weapons but to obtain American capital to rebuild the shattered Chinese cities after the war. On numerous occasions throughout the 1940s, Mao pleaded with State Department and Pentagon officials in China to arrange a meeting for him with the White House. Naturally, any knee-jerk anti-Communist, even today, is likely to look at such statements as lies and manipulation. To those Americans with hours of direct, face-to-face experience with Mao himself, and months of experience living with his army, the requests seemed obviously heartfelt. Despite the misconception in Washington that Mao was a puppet of Stalin, the two men in fact despised each other. Mao was extremely eager to avoid dependence on the Soviet Union.

Grounding his argument in these facts, Bradley implies that the US might have spurned Chiang and the Soongs and allied itself instead with Mao. This, he seems to be suggesting, could have ended the war with Japan years sooner, avoided the worst of the Chinese civil war, and shifted the People’s Republic of China from its alliance with the Soviet Union and into the hands of the US. However, given the depth and persistence of anti-Communist hysteria in America that long predated the Second World War, all this seems highly improbable to me. I’m confident that both FDR and Harry Truman fully understood this. Supporting Mao would have been political anathema to the American public. Even had there been no China Lobby, I strongly suspect that Chinese history would have unfolded in much the same way as it did.

A fascinating Chinese detective novel

Chinese detective novelA review of The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1), by Robert van Gulik

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Robert van Gulik’s series of 16 Judge Dee mysteries are set in China sometime during the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They’re grounded in his intensive scholarly study of ancient Chinese detective stories, some of which he has translated into English. The Chinese Maze Murders was the first novel in the series.

The book’s historical basis

In a postscript to the book, Van Gulik explains that the character of Judge Dee is loosely based on a Chinese magistrate who achieved fame as a detective some hundreds of years before the Ming Dynasty. Judge Dee was a favorite protagonist in detective novels written for hundreds of years thereafter. He also explains that “In most Chinese detective novels the magistrate is engaged in solving three or more totally different cases at the same time.”

Many mysteries in a Chinese detective novel

In The Chinese Maze Murders, there are six interwoven mysteries that Judge (magistrate) Dee must solve with the help of his four trusted lieutenants. However, the judge himself recognizes only “three real cases. First, General Ding’s murder [in a locked room]. Second, the case Yoo versus Yoo [over an inheritance]. Third, the disappearance of [blacksmith] Fang’s daughter. [The other three] must be viewed as local background. They are separate issues and have nothing to do with the substance of our three cases.” Nonetheless, every one of the six cases posed a puzzling mystery.

Oh, and by the way, there are two additional problems confronting Judge Dee and his colleagues: a criminal has seized power in the border town where Judge Dee has been assigned and is terrorizing the populace, and a conspiracy is afoot to enable the hostile “barbarian” tribes to invade and plunder the town. In other words, The Chinese Maze Murders is unlike any present-day detective novel. No contemporary writer of detective fiction would attempt to maneuver through so many plots and subplots in a single volume. But Van Gulik pulls it off.

Assessing the book as literature

Van Gulik’s depiction of the customs and the criminal justice system of ancient China is fascinating. As a mystery story, it’s less successful, if only because Judge Dee proves to be impossibly discerning, combining the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the combat skills of a Special Forces officer. The author’s writing is also annoying at times. The book is laced with typos and hard-to-explain grammatical errors, and Van Gulik has the exasperating habit of placing an exclamation mark after almost every sentence uttered by Judge Dee.

About the author

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch novelist, diplomat, and musician who authored 16 Judge Dee novels after translating an 18th century Chinese detective novel on which he based the series.


August 9, 2016

Do property rights explain why capitalism works in the West but not in the rest?

property rightsA review of The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando de Soto

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

One of the world’s enduring mysteries is why there is such a wide gap in prosperity between the developed nations and those so often referred to as “developing.” Two centuries ago, China was the world’s wealthiest nation, and many of today’s developed countries were still poor by the day’s standards. Including the USA. There exists a plethora of explanations for this discrepancy, which has emerged over the last 200 years. Included are neocolonialism and the ascendancy of the multinational corporation in world affairs. Neither is especially convincing. But one of the most satisfying explanations comes from a noted Peruvian economist named Hernando de Soto. He spells it out in detail in The Mystery of Capital, the second of his books describing his life’s work.

Property rights lie at the core of the problem

The gist of de Soto’s argument is straightforward. Developed nations have over time adopted a system of property rights that enables those who possess them to unlock their potential as capital through such means as mortgages. Developing countries lack the infrastructure to enforce the property rights of the billions of people who have crowded into shantytowns in major cities or work the land they occupy in rural areas without acceptable documentation. As a result, they do not “own” their land or the improvements they have built on it and cannot capitalize on them. Thus, trillions of dollars in capital remain locked up in the homes of many of the world’s poorest people. Unlock that potential, and economic growth will soar, he contends.

De Soto’s solution to this quandary is to put such a system of property rights into place. The premise of his argument is undeniable. Anyone who has worked in any one of the scores of developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the former Soviet satellites should be well aware of the problem. Unfortunately, de Soto’s proposed solution poses several problems.

(1) In most of the world, respect for the rule of law is lacking.

Simply putting a new legal regime in place is unlikely to clear this hurdle. Many if not most developing nations have admirably crafted laws which are routinely ignored. De Soto claims that he and his team have demonstrated the feasibility of his approach in Peru and several other nations. In fact, there is evidence that they have succeeded in Peru, at least to a degree. Peru is now one of the world’s fastest-growing nations; perhaps at least some of the credit belongs to de Sot0. And the heads of state in many other countries have hired him to consult on the reforms he proposes.

However, I’m unaware that any of de Soto’s efforts have been effective nationwide anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Peru. I can easily imagine countries like Estonia, Uruguay, or Tunisia adopting such an approach; perhaps they already have. But it strikes me as unthinkable that Zimbabwe, Somalia, South Sudan, or Haiti, much less North Korea or Cuba, would ever consider such reforms anytime in the foreseeable future. Surely the world’s failed states or those that are nominally Communist will not do so without enormous changes in governance. Even India seems unlikely to me; one-third of the world’s people who live on $2 a day or less live there. Economic reforms in India require years of negotiations and often fail, even with a pro-business Prime Minister on the scene.

(2) Dominant elites find it to their benefit to sustain the status quo.

De Soto argues that conferring property rights on the poor would, in fact, benefit everyone, because it would dramatically lift the level of a nation’s economic activity. He asserts that elites can be educated and will come to understand the benefit, and he claims he has succeeded in doing this in Peru. Apparently, that is true to at least some degree. However, my observations above about other countries are applicable here, too.

(3) Entrenched bureaucrats benefit from the existing system by holding scarce jobs and securing bribes. 

De Soto and his team have studied four countries most closely: Peru, Egypt, Haiti, and the Philippines. He makes abundantly clear that in every one of them it can take years — as many as nineteen in one case — for poor people to complete the innumerable forms and secure the permissions needed to establish title to their land and homes. Simply put, property rights are entirely out of reach for huge numbers of the world’s people. Surely, dozens of bureaucrats are involved in some fashion in the application process. How likely is it that those office-holders will give up their jobs? Consider India as just one important example: many if not all government jobs are awarded on a quota system to permit the members of oppressed castes to gain access to the secure salaries and prestige represented by jobs in government.

(4) Discriminatory caste and class systems persist in many underdeveloped nations.

Nearly 70 years after independence, India’s caste system remains powerful, seemingly impervious to significant change. In most other poor countries, similarly discriminatory caste or class systems prevent people at the bottom of the pyramid to advance economically. In many, tribal origins or religious differences get in the way. Since such divisions have often persisted for many centuries, it strikes me as unreasonable to expect that they can be quickly overcome. Even higher education often fails to erase such differences.

(5) The biggest problem of all: the fallacy of growth.

Advocates of accelerated economic growth such as de Soto (or the leadership of China) fail to recognize the limits on the earth’s carrying capacity or the environmental damage that results from the rush to big cities and building ever more factories. India will soon surpass China (with one-fifth of the world’s people) in population. Should India ever manage to match the living standard in the Global North, that will represent the equivalent of adding five new USAs, doubling the world’s demand for goods and services. The consequences of such a development are unthinkable. Unrestrained economic growth is not just unsustainable — it’s suicidal.

A flawed but fully engaging book

In most respects, The Mystery of Capital is well written. The exception lies in the author’s tendency to repeat himself. The book reads as though it was adapted from a series of lectures strung together in sequence, with the repetition that is so common in such compilations. A number of de Soto’s key points are repeated several times.

About the author

Though Peruvian, Hernando de Soto was educated in Switzerland. He had left Peru at the age of seven and didn’t return until he was 38. (He’s now 75.) An economist, he specializes in studying the informal economy and property rights. He is considered to be a neo-liberal. The major influence in his professional life was the work of Milton Friedman.



Cold War espionage in search of the H-bomb

Cold War espionageA review of The Whitehall Mandarin (William Catesby #4), by Edward Wilson

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The Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson’s complex and sophisticated novel of Cold War espionage, is the fourth book in a series that began with the The Envoy. That first book centered around the life of one Kit Fournier, an American intelligence officer who rose to become head of the CIA mission in London in the fateful year of 1956. The Darkling Spy followed, featuring Britain’s Will Catesby of MI6 and his boss, Henry Bone. In The Whitehall Mandarin, Fournier’s story lies in the past and the focus shifts to Catesby, Bone, and a new American character, Jeffers Cauldwell. Apart from the overlapping cast of characters, the connecting thread in all three novels is the three-way race among the USSR, Great Britain, and China to produce an H-bomb to rival the Americans’.

Paranoia and class conflict in Cold War espionage

In all three books of Wilson’s trilogy, as I wrote in reviewing The Darkling Spy, “paranoia is endemic. Everyone suspects everyone else, nobody seems sure who’s working for whom, and the only certainty is uncertainty.” The Whitehall Mandarin adds to the confusion by rapidly shifting the scene both geographically and over time. The action spans England, Malaya, the US, Cuba, China, the USSR, and Vietnam. It opens in 1957 and concludes in 1969. And the cast of characters is large.

Class conflict joins paranoia as a second dominant theme in the novel. Catesby grew up poor but gained a superior education through hard work and scholarships. Both Bone and Cauldwell are the product of wealthy, aristocratic families. The distrust and resentment that arises among them colors and complicates their relationships.

About the author

The biographical sketch of Edward Wilson that appears on his website reveals that he was an honored American Special Forces officer in Vietnam. Given the prominent role in The Whitehall Mandarin of Will Catesby’s time in Vietnam during what appears to be the same period, this experience of the author’s is clearly significant. Wilson gave up his US nationality to become a British subject and has lived principally in England but also in Germany and France for more than thirty years. It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to think that his experience in the Vietnam War, and the disgust with US policy that seems to have led him to renounce his American citizenship, is reflected in his description of the conditions confronting Will Catesby in the novel. Here is Wilson commenting on the war through one of his characters, a senior CIA officer in Vietnam: “This war is America’s Stalingrad. And just like the Germans, we believe our own propaganda of invincible power and have grossly underestimated the enemy.” He might just as well have been commenting on US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Wondering why nearly all my book reviews are favorable?

booksIf you’ve read more than a few of my book reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I rate every book on a five-@ system, and that I usually award books a rating of @@@@@, @@@@, or at least @@@. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve described a book as less than @@@ more than a couple of times since I began posting to this blog in January 2010.

This is no accident, and it’s not because I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. There are hundreds of thousands of new books published in English every year, not to mention the millions of older books that have been republished and are still in print. Well, not to put a fine edge on it, most of these books are crap.

Once upon a time, an educated person could actually read every book in print. Those were the days long before the United States had yet to be born. Most books available to Westerners were published in Latin, and every book was a rare book. That was a very long time ago. What we today call the information glut began no later than the nineteenth century. So, any conscientious reader has long had to be selective. Very selective. Which is the most important factor in explaining the question I posed in the title to this post.

My ratings run very high because:

  • I choose only books I really want to read — because I follow the author or am interested in the theme or setting or genre. For instance, I read a lot of history, current affairs, science, business, science fiction, thrillers, and historical fiction, but never romance, poetry, self-help, cookbooks, or books about sports, gardening, fashion, or art. I’m deeply interested in China, India, and Africa, and in World War II, espionage, poverty, and politics. (You get the point.) Fiction or nonfiction, it almost doesn’t matter.
  • If I find when I’ve read partway into a book that I don’t think it’s worth reading after all, I simply stop reading and turn to another book. And I only review books I’ve finished. Cover to cover. (Well, except for the notes.) This is not a rare occurrence. In other words, I’m a very picky reader.
  • Though authors now sometimes send me their books to read, I rarely accept one for review. It has to meet my standard criteria, or I won’t read it.

So, there you have it.

Competition between the U.S. and China through the lens of geopolitics

GeopoliticsAsia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Despite the “pivot” to Asia trumpeted by the Obama Administration, despite the constant refrain by observers of world affairs that the 21st century is shaping up to be dominated by a leadership contest between China and the U.S., the American news media as well as the public continue to direct their attention primarily to the Middle East. Admittedly, that’s not surprising. After all, ghastly executions and the enslavement of thousands by ISIS, the steady vituperation from Iran, the on-again off-again war between Israel and the Palestinians, and the millions of refugees from the hell of Asaad’s Syria are too dramatic and too newsworthy to be avoided. However, at the top levels of American leadership—in the White House, the Pentagon, the intelligence establishment, and the Department of State—it’s understood perfectly well that strategic considerations force us to look westward, toward Asia, instead for a truly global perspective.

Geopolitics to the fore

It’s geopolitics that directs our attention toward China instead of the Middle East, and there are few more reliable observers of this field than Robert D. Kaplan. Kaplan’s books, written for a general audience and sometimes masquerading as travel literature, force us to look at the realities of global affairs from the perspective of the commander-in-chief. Asia’s Cauldron is an excellent example. The organizing principle of this insightful little book is the South China Sea and the ongoing struggle by the U.S. and the countries that border it to gain advantage over the others.

A simple recitation of the players in this high-stakes game makes it unmistakably clear that the outcome of this struggle will have planetary consequences. Bordering the South China Sea are China itself (population 1.5 billion), Indonesia (250 million), Vietnam (90 million), and the Philippines (nearly 100 million), as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, though all much smaller, significant players nonetheless. Within this explosive mix sits the United States Navy, still the dominant military force in the region.

A dynamic region full of peril

In Asia’s Cauldron, Kaplan first reviews the strategic significance of the South China Sea, which witnesses the passage of a huge proportion of the world’s trade in energy and finished goods. In addition to the sea lanes that are live-or-die considerations not just for China but for Japan and Korea as well are the massive energy reserves bottled up below the sea, estimated by China to total 130 billion barrels of oil. (These estimates are disputed.) And “[i]t is not only location and energy reserves that promise to give the South China Sea critical geostrategic importance, it is the territorial disputes surrounding these waters, home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, only about three dozen of which are permanently above water.”

Many surprises

Later chapters cover the nations around the perimeter, one at a time. Kaplan quickly surveys the history of each country and its relationship with China, then describes in detail its military capabilities (or, in the case of the Philippines, the lack of them).

For anyone who views Southeast Asia as China’s playground, there are many surprises in Kaplan’s account. Americans are well aware that Taiwan has invested heavily in its military to stave off aggression from the mainland. What we are less likely to know is that “it isn’t just China that is improving its military, so are Southeast Asian countries in general. Their defense budgets have increased by about a third in the past decade, even as European [and American] defense budgets have declined. Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have gone up by 84 percent, 146 percent, and 722 percent respectively since 2000.”

Assessing the balance between the U.S. and China

The overarching theme in Asia’s Cauldron is Kaplan’s nuanced assessment of the prospects for armed hostilities between the U.S. and China. He focuses largely on the buildup of China’s navy, pointing toward several strategically significant factors. Among these are the underground submarine base China is building on Hainan Island, which sits astride the Gulf of Tonkin, and the steady growth of China’s submarine fleet, dominated by advanced diesel-powered ships that are much more difficult to detect than the atomic-powered subs of the American fleet. While China moves steadily toward a “blue-water” navy—one capable of defending itself as far from home as the Indian Ocean—budgetary constraints continue to shrink the U.S. Navy. Though he is careful not to predict any outcome with certainty, Kaplan sees it as likely that China will eventually reach naval parity with the U.S., thus reducing the effectiveness of the military shield it now affords our allies in the region, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

In Asia’s Cauldron, Kaplan crams a lot of insight into a very small book. He goes astray only in discussing the history of Malaysia and Singapore, with a lengthy digression into philosophy and political science theory, attempting to justify his extensive remarks praising the authoritarian regimes of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, and Chiang Kai-Shek in China and later Taiwan. This is vintage Kaplan, the geopolitical “realist.”

About the author

For years, Robert D. Kaplan‘s geopolitical analyses have been debated both inside and outside the halls of American government. Often controversial, his views crop up within the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and no doubt the CIA, too, not to mention the think tanks and academic centers where U.S. foreign policy is shaped. Asia’s Cauldron is his 16th book.


January 19, 2016

Chinese history in less than 200 pages

chinese historyA review of China in World History, by Paul S. Ropp

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Far too few Americans are familiar with even the outlines of China’s 3,500-year history. We may have learned a few isolated facts — for instance, that gunpowder, paper money, and printing were all invented in China — but we’re largely unaware of the intellectual and political currents that form a backdrop for Chinese behavior to the present day. Our country is paying the price of that ignorance in the difficulty we face in dealing with China as a reemerging world power.

Chinese history in a nutshell

In China in World History, Paul S. Ropp set out to condense the history of the world’s largest nation within less than 200 pages. At the outset, he makes his case: “An identifiable and sophisticated Chinese culture emerged by 1500 bce and has shown remarkable continuity in its language, cultural values, and social and political organization over the past three and a half millennia.” While this may be the view from 30,000 feet, and no doubt that judgment applies to China’s still-backward rural areas, I strongly suspect that the perspective of the hundreds of millions of Chinese who live in cities might well be different. It’s difficult to see all that continuity in the soaring highrises of China’s newly built cities and their Westernized youth culture.

Undoubtedly, China faces the world with critical advantages: a written language that spans numerous mutually unintelligible languages and dialects; an acceptance of “the world and human existence as facts of life that needed no supernatural explanation or divine creator;” and a contiguous landmass advantageously situated to command much of the Asian continent. Together, these facts help account for the reality that, except for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China was the world’s most advanced and prosperous nation throughout its 3,500-year history.

It’s too easy for Westerners to lose sight of that fact. Only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution late in the eighteenth century did the tables turn. Ropp calls it “a cruel coincidence of history that Qing dynasty decline coincided precisely” with the surge in wealth and power that shifted to the West. In other words, had its leadership not been so corrupt and incompetent, even during the past two centuries China might well have maintained its planetary leadership.

“One damn dynasty after another”

According to its editors, the New Oxford World History series “presents local histories in a global context and gives an overview of world events seen through the eyes of ordinary people.” Disappointingly, Paul S. Ropp’s entry in the series, China in World History, fails to meet this standard. Although the author ventures into social history on occasion, and he pays due diligence to the intellectual and religious currents in the country’s history, most of the book is a recitation of one damn dynasty after another. We’re treated to a seemingly endless list of emperors, broken from time to time with the names of scholars or religious leaders, with “ordinary people” nowhere to be found.

About the author

Paul S. Ropp retired from the faculty of Clark University in 2011. He is a specialist in Chinese history.


December 29, 2015

A thought-provoking look at geopolitics

5157Nzo7uDL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A review of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World, by Tim Marshall

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Most reporting on world affairs, and a great deal of historical and political analysis from academe as well, refers to the interactions of nation states as though they are defined exclusively by the dynamics of internal politics and the actions of other states. However, as any student of geography — or any wise, real-world practitioner of international politics — is well aware, the realities of location, climate, terrain, demographics, and the availability of natural resources constitute more fundamental factors in setting a nation’s policy toward other nations. These are the realities of geography. Together, they constitute realpolitik writ large: geopolitics.

Two approaches to geopolitics

In 2012, Robert D. Kaplan, widely recognized as one of the most provocative analysts of world affairs, explored this too-often-neglected set of factors in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. Kaplan took an historical approach, terming the Middle East the geopolitical center of the Earth and describing, for example, why and how Iran and Turkey emerged as great empires and even today remain regional powers there.

Now Tim Marshall, a British journalist specializing in world affairs, has produced a similar book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. However, Marshall’s approach is different, and in some ways less insightful, than Kaplan’s. While Kaplan turns to history and an analysis of world affairs grounded in geography and minimizing the role of the borders among nation states, Marshall explores the geopolitical realities that confront today’s leading world powers, one after another: the USA, China, Russia, and Western Europe, as well as the challenges faced by the nations of the Middle East, the South Asian subcontinent, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic.

A surprising analysis

For anyone who has not studied world geography, Prisoners of Geography is likely to be full of surprises. Marshall finds that the growth of the United States as a world power is due as much to the abundance of navigable waterways as to its continent-spanning width. He focuses on the flat North European Plain that stretches from France to the western reaches of Russia as the geographical factor of overriding importance in the history of warfare in Europe.

Marshall explains — convincingly — the solid geopolitical logic behind Vladimir Putin’s militarism and Xi Jinping’s drive to control the South China Sea and to maintain Beijing’s control of Tibet (“nature’s version of a Great Wall of China”). In Africa, he points to the virtual absence of long navigable waterways as a major reason for the lack of development of the continent.

Marshall expresses skepticism that China will overtake the U.S. and become the world’s leading superpower in this century; his reasons include the country’s massive environmental challenges, the instability introduced by the absorption of Muslim-dominated Xinjiang, the many years it will take for China to reach parity on the seas with the United States, and perhaps above all the “growing problem for the party [in] its ability to feed the population.”

Though Prisoners of Geography doesn’t rise to the level of insight in Robert Kaplan’s book, it is a thought-provoking effort well worth attention by anyone interested in world affairs.

About the author

Tim Marshall is well known in the UK as an analyst of world affairs. He has held a number of high-profile positions as a foreign affairs reporter and editor for the British news media and has written a total of three books. Prisoners of Geography is his third.


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