Short Reviews

Short Reviews


Shifting Sands in the South China Sea

Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case against China

By Marites Danguilian Vitug

Ateneo De Manila Univ Press, 2018, 336 pages, $93.87 (Paperback)


Books abound on the geopolitics and diplomacy around the South China Sea conflict, most based on secondary sources and media reports. Rock Solid is one of the first detailed accounts from the perspective of a contestant. One of the Philippines’ leading journalists, Marites Vitug, has written a solidly documented page-turner filled with new information.


Her engaging account of the battle grows out of the Philippines’ 2016 international tribunal victory. Copious diplomatic and other material submitted to the court provided a treasure trove to which she added archival research, interviews and reporting. How China built dominance over the South China Sea is broadly well known, but Vitug packs the tale with unknown details, providing fascinating vignettes of the key players. In the Filipino actors’ accounts, their Chinese counterparts too come alive. At a meeting in Beijing, when Chinese vice minister Tang Jiaxuan blurts “get out” of the Scarborough Shoal, Rodolfo Severino gently chides, “Let’s not use such words.”


But Filipino suaveness and diplomatic skills have been no match for Chinese lies and bullying. Whenever China advanced into Philippine waters, there followed the usual pattern of denial, deflection and ultimate control by military and civilian vessels. The arbitral court may have handed the Philippines sovereignty over resource-rich water bigger in area than its land, but in the several years since this book appeared, the “rock solid” legal victory has turned out to be hollow. China’s military superiority, economic coercion and political manipulation seems to have left the Philippines helpless in the end.


Reviewed by Nayan Chanda


US-China Rivalry from a New Angle

US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles

Edited by David Santoro

Lynne Rienner, 2021, 262 pages, $95 (Hardcover)


Of all the complex issues in US-China relations, nuclear weapons were, until recently, relatively understudied in the academy and overlooked in the media. Breathless reporting on hypersonic missile tests and Pentagon estimates of huge arsenal build-ups have changed the public conversation over the China threat in Washington. Yet the novel perception of China as a “nuclear peer” is complicated by expectations that Beijing’s help is required to deal with a range of non-proliferation challenges: pressuring North Korea to denuclearize, preventing Iran from a breakout and stabilizing India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry are the most prominent examples.


How timely, then, to read a dispassionate assessment by experts assembled by David Santoro, president of Honolulu-based think tank Pacific Forum and a leading thinker on strategic issues. The volume is built, elegantly, around the geometrical conceit of a triangle. This triangulation analysis works brilliantly in cases such as John Warden’s chapter on the US-China-Russia “major power game,” but is perhaps less illuminating elsewhere: Robert Einhorn’s framing of a US-China-North Korea triangle, for example, seems to miss an essential factor in leaving out South Korea.


Overall, the strategic triangle approach proves its analytical utility in framing the dilemma of rising US-China nuclear rivalry. Santoro sums up the volume with pragmatic recommendations for how to square the circle (forgive the pun) that should be required reading for policymakers and nuclear strategists.


Reviewed by John Delury, Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and Global Asia Associate Managing Editor.


Conductor Lacks All the Right Notes

Orchestration: China’s Economic Statecraft Across Asia and Europe

By James Reilly

Oxford University Press, 2021, 284 pages, $74 (Hardcover)


From outbound direct investment to the Belt and Road Initiative, China has made no secret of efforts to exploit rising economic clout for political purposes. But how does Beijing actually carry out its ambitious economic statecraft, and how effective is it?


University of Sydney professor James Reilly draws on Chinese-language sources, wide interviewing and experience in China to offer the idea of orchestration, with Xi Jinping and the Communist Party center in Beijing conducting the show as functional ministries, local governments and businesses (state-owned and private) each play their part. There are reviews of four performances, as it were, of Chinese orchestration over the past decade: in North Korea, Myanmar, Western Europe, and the Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC). China’s buying spree in the eurozone crisis was at first appreciated but ended up triggering a backlash. CCEC investment has been profitable in economic and political terms with certain countries but failed as a regional initiative. North Korea’s tight controls have limited space for Chinese economic activity, while Myanmar’s surging civil society forces raised complaint over the corrupting influence of Chinese capital (at least pre-coup).


Further research could extend Reilly’s useful framework to new frontiers where sovereignty is weak, contested or non-existent, like sea, space and cyber.


Reviewed by John Delury


China’s Unstable Steroid High

China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption

By Yuen Yuen Ang

Cambridge University Press, 2020, 266 pages, $39.99 (Hardcover)


University of Michigan scholar Yuen Yuen Ang’s first book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, was hailed as a groundbreaking study, and she has followed it up with a sequel that turns from rags to riches. China’s Gilded Age rethinks the well-known phenomenon of rampant corruption in China in order to explain how it could co-exist with decades of economic growth.


Yuen assembles a formidable research apparatus, based on statistical analysis, close reading of media reporting, original survey data and extensive interviewing. She stresses that corruption comes in different sizes, and she explains her key finding — the solution to the paradox of Chinese political economy — with an ingenious comparison to types of drugs. The kind of corruption endemic in large, struggling economies such as India, Russia, and Nigeria can be compared to toxic drugs and painkillers. But in China, the overwhelming majority of corruption is not stealing, embezzlement or petty bribes, but rather “access money,” privileges offered to government officials by business entities for help securing lucrative deals. Yuen likens access money to the “steroids of capitalism,” which — while it has side-effects — can stimulate growth and project strength.


China’s Gilded Age puts the biggest domestic development in Chinese politics since the ascension of President Xi Jinping — his signature anti-corruption campaign — in a wholly new light by disaggregating the kinds of corruption at play. At the comparative political economy level, her analysis suggests that the closest analogue for early 21st-century Chinese success is, oddly enough, late 19th-century America.


Reviewed by John Delury


‘Navalism’ Rocks the Balance of Power

To Rule Eurasia’s Waves: The New Great Power Competition at Sea

By Geoffrey F. Gresh

Yale University Press, 2020, 376 pages, $21.32 (Hardcover)


Inspired by the grand tradition of geo-strategists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas J. Spykman, Geoffrey Gresh’s To Rule Eurasia’s Waves wanders the seas in search of signs of competition between China, Russia and India. A professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, Gresh traveled widely for his study, allowing him to enliven the narrative of great-power jousting with first-hand anecdotes from outside China’s first overseas garrison in Djibouti or the infamous Chinese port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka.


While these two cases have for years been cited as warning signs of Chinese power projection and debt diplomacy, Gresh’s account of the lessons Beijing learned from the rushed evacuation from Libya in 2011 and the successful buying up of the Greek port at Piraeus are illuminating. His ability to weave in the ambitious maritime visions of Modi’s India and Putin’s Russia lets the reader reimagine how the balance of power is shifting at sea as “navalism” takes hold across Eurasia.


The elephant in the room, however, is the US, acknowledged in passing as the hegemonic sea power, but treated as backdrop rather than central actor in this drama. It is thus hard to disentangle how much of the navalism directed out of Beijing, Moscow and Delhi comes as a response first to the “pivot to Asia” of the Barack Obama era and then the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” of the Donald Trump years.


Reviewed by John Delury


How Covid Upset the World Order

Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order

By Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright

St. Martin’s, 2021, 464 pages, $21.83 (Hardcover)


The Covid-19 crisis shows little sign of abating, with the new Omicron variant raising fresh concerns globally. This book tells the story of how a highly interconnected world has (mis-)coped with a global contagion and assesses the impact on the international order. Colin Khal, national security advisor to then Vice President Joe Biden under the Barack Obama administration, and Thomas Wright, Brookings Institute scholar, argue that today’s pandemic may prove even more consequential for international order than the last one a century ago because it hit a world already teetering on the brink.


The authors observe that in the decade before Covid-19, the international order’s deterioration was manifest on many fronts, including rising global inequality and discontent, democratic retreat, a surge in nationalism and populism, China’s hardening authoritarianism, Russia’s growing assertiveness, and Donald Trump’s pullback from international co-operation and US leadership. As great-power rivalry between the US and China made the pandemic harder to contain, pandemic politics ultimately dealt the final blow to the old international order where the US and its democratic allies had the upper hand in international institutions and where co-operation on transnational challenges, such as pandemics and climate change, were insulated from great-power rivalry. Charting a post-Covid-19 order, the authors suggest that America must work more closely with other free societies and like-minded countries.


Reviewed by Taehwan Kim, Professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy and book reviews co-editor for Global Asia.


Explaining Russia’s Aggression Abroad

Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order

By Kathryn E. Stoner

Oxford University Press, 2021, 344 pages, $24.20 (Hardcover)


Moscow is flexing its muscle again in its near abroad: Ukraine, the Balkans, the Middle East and, of course, cyberspace. It is commonly argued that Russia has a weak hand in international politics but plays it well. Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford scholar, provides a counterargument, with two central corrections.


First, beyond the traditional realist means of power focusing on men, military and money, she introduces a multi-dimensional approach to Russian power resources that includes weighty policy influence in specific areas such as oil and gas, nuclear weapons, conventional military capabilities, and soft and sharp power instruments. Second, Stoner finds in Vladimir Putin’s “patronalist autocratic regime” a crucial source of Russia’s assertive external behavior. No longer able to rely on economic growth to ensure social compliance, it sought a new legitimacy narrative leaning on the historical mythology of a Russia again under siege. She contends that Russia has resurrected itself as a “good enough” power to dramatically alter the balance of power in a new global order. She draws two implications: Russian capabilities have been underestimated due to realist measures of power. Also, because regime type matters, conflict between Russia and the West is not inevitable. If the nature of domestic politics were to change, so would the way Russian leaders employ its power abroad.


Reviewed by Taehwan Kim


Putin’s Exploitation of Identity Politics

The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity

By Gulnaz Sharafutdinova

Oxford University Press, 2020, 256 pages, $47.10 (Hardcover)


How can Vladimir Putin have attained such unprecedented charisma and popularity in Russian society despite deteriorating political and socioeconomic performance over the past decade? Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a King’s College scholar, examines the Putin phenomenon in the framework of Russia’s national identity politics, arguing that it is a result of a sociocultural and political construction empowered by powerful political communications technologies, utilizing old and new media to portray Putin as an irreplaceable national hero.


Resting on social identity theory, she conceives the Russian nation and society as a group, a community that wants to value itself, and the role of Putin’s leadership in making this happen. Since his third presidential term began in 2012, the Kremlin’s legitimation strategy has turned squarely toward collective identity politics. Sharafutdinova observes that by then, the focus of identity politics shifted from combining issues of sovereignty and a strong state with the Western model of development toward proclaiming Russia’s unique developmental path, justifying it by the country’s millennial history and civilization, its Christian values, and traditional family orientations. Putin’s assertive foreign policy, especially the 2014 annexation of Crimea, sealed this identity politics that elevated Putin’s image as an undisputable national leader. But the author further contends that the true greatness of Russia and its people will be tested through its ability to abandon the defensively oriented ideas of “Russia as a fortress” in favor of more constructively conceived ideals.


Reviewed by Taehwan Kim


How ASEAN Is Reaching Out

Winning Hearts and Minds: Public Diplomacy in ASEAN

Edited by Sue-Ann Chia

Singapore International Foundation, 2021, 128 pages, non-commercial distribution


Scholarship has proliferated this century on public diplomacy of the Western and great-power nations. This collection of essays, capturing experiences of leading practitioners, stakeholders and researchers of Southeast Asia, narrows the gap by highlighting the development and practice of public diplomacy by ASEAN member states. This is in transition from a propaganda machine to a tool for reciprocal communication and engagement, bringing the public dimension to diplomacy. But its modality is still rather reactive and responsive than proactive. Malaysia, for example, has largely pursued a more defensive brand of public diplomacy, mainly seeking to justify legitimacy and performance at home and abroad. Another notable common feature is that nation branding goes hand-in-hand with nation building. Singapore, for example, has since independence in 1965 wanted to keep its distinct identity as a non-aligned international trading hub open to all comers, with public diplomacy serving as its discursive fence.


One challenge for ASEAN nations is to iron out public diplomacy’s role in the region amid intensifying China-US geopolitical contest. Wedged between the two, they must rely on multilateral approaches as a balancing act, but public diplomacy could be useful to enhance regional multilateralism by forging regional collective identity and common interests.


Reviewed by Taehwan Kim


What’s Eroding Democratic Values

Democracy Rules

By Jan-Werner Müller

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 256 pages, $16.50 (Hardcover)


Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller revisits his early exploration of populism to consider democratic governance, its vulnerability in the face of a new authoritarianism, and how to safeguard it against core challenges. His analysis ranges across different polities in Europe, America and Asia and the broad theoretical discourse on democracy, whether Athenian ideals, or writers as diverse as Machiavelli, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Hegel and Thoreau.
He rejects sociological arguments that tribalism is driving democracy’s vulnerability, or arguments that attribute the populist wave purely to either mass disaffection or elite manipulation. Today is no carbon copy of the fascist past, as mass mobilization and militarization aren’t at the heart of current trends. The key to democracy’s weakening is an exclusionary, absolutist sense of the “people” that delegitimizes sections of society and a rejection of pluralism by appealing divisively and variously to working-, middle-class and elite communities. Bolstering democracy requires tolerating uncertainty in the political process while defending equality and freedom. Weakened institutions, including parties and mainstream media, need to be bolstered and regulated to guard against marginalization and the distorting impact of social media. Ultimately, institutional reform alone can’t save democracy; it requires engagement by citizens, including a willingness to break the law to resist the covert and overt tactics of the populists.


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Lecturer, University of Cambridge, Korea Foundation Fellow and Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Chatham House, a regional editor for Global Asia.


Coming to Terms With the ‘Other’

Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia

By George Makari

W. W. Norton and Company, 2021, 368 pages, $15.42 (Hardcover)


Psychiatrist and historian George Makari uses his experience as a third-generation descendant of Christian Lebanese immigrants to the US to explore brilliantly the origins and nature of xenophobia and its manifestations. With an approach encompassing philosophy, psychology and sociology mixed with intellectual portraits of cultural, literary and academic individuals as diverse as Sartre, Foucault, Freud, Adorno and Carl Schmitt, Makari argues for an integrated approach to explain why individuals and groups tend to resist the idea of a common humanity.


Biologists, cognitive scientists, social psychologists and cultural theorists provide partial clues to why we may view strangers as a threat. “Othering” can come from unconscious anxiety as well as an overt xenophobia sometimes rooted in a self-hating sadistic impulse or a covert xenophobia that is product of institutions and social structures as well as individuals. To cure these ills, Makari argues, we must re-examine the legitimate basis for identity (expressed in part via nostalgia), while embracing a “meta-morality” rooted in radical egalitarianism and empathy. To avoid divisive populism, countries must foster integration at an individual and collective level with the co-ordinated approach of embracing our commonalities via support for universal rights, while tolerating cultural relativity and local differences.


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright


Saving India from Its Identity Crisis

The Struggle for India’s Soul: Nationalism and the Fate of Democracy

By Shashi Tharoor

Hurst, 2021, 356 pages, $19.97 (Hardcover)


Despite being invited to US President Joe Biden’s recent Summit of Democracies, India, represented by its prime minister, Narendra Modi, is embracing a divisive and exclusionary form of ethnic nationalism that undermines its democratic credentials and departs from the pluralistic values that have shaped India’s identity since the end of British colonial rule.
This hard-hitting observation is at the heart of a detailed but impassioned analysis by Congress party lawmaker and former UN official Shashi Tharoor. He locates ethnic nationalism’s rise in India in the context of the crisis of globalization and emergence of illiberal democracy and authoritarianism worldwide. His analysis documents exhaustively how Modi’s nationalistic and populist Hindutva movement relies on manipulated and mythologized history, explicit vigilante targeting of non-Hindu minorities, and a personality cult to undermine the country’s institutions and federal governance.


In response, he calls for a reinvigorated form of civic nationalism grounded in both a clear sense of citizenship and patriotism. This can be realized by bolstering local political activism and identity formation (particularly in tackling Covid), strengthening weakened political institutions (including a presidential system based on a separation of powers), and retelling India’s history to stress its inclusive, tolerant, pluralistic reality. This urgent plea is underscored by Tharoor’s anxiety that the country’s identity is being radically distorted, but also his cautious hope that activism by younger, educated Indians can reverse these damaging trends.


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright


Know China’s Past, Assess Its Present

The Shortest History of China

By Linda Jaivin

The Experiment, 2021, 288 pages, $10.03 (Paperback)



Few authors would be confident summarizing two millennia of dynastic history in under 300 pages, but Linda Jaivin, with 40-plus years’ experience studying China, has done so with verve and skill. Expertly surveying its political, cultural and philosophical traditions, while highlighting the role of women, Jaivin provides the context for those hoping to make sense of China’s engagement with the world today.


Drawing on established English and Chinese sources, Jiavin spends a third of the book focusing on the modern period since the Chinese Republic’s establishment in 1912 up to Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic of China today. She highlights Xi’s effort to foster a personality cult echoing the Maoist era, efforts to insulate Chinese universities from Western universal values, the re-invigorating of the Chinese Communist Party, and a foreign policy centered on the China Dream, embracing a narrative of global engagement defined in moral, political and economic terms. Propaganda, digital surveillance and a coercive social credit system have helped the CCP limit dissent and promote a political rectification campaign at odds with past hopes of liberalization. Xi may have kept control at home, but Jaivin is less confident that this will enable him easily to dictate developments abroad, and she wisely notes that the New Era under Xi is but a blink in the eye in China’s long history.


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright


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