How to better understand Asia and world
LOS ANGELES ― It has finally hit Washington that Asia will be the major-league playing field for the foreseeable geopolitical future. But why should we complain when Uncle-Sam-comes-lately? Instead, we vow stay ahead of the great global game (and Washington) by reading those writers who are way ahead of everyone else.
So here is my list of nonfiction books published in 2011. These works are deeply informed but also nicely readable. For me, this latter is a big deal: I accept that serious books need to be written seriously but I cannot stand to be bored, no matter how high-minded the author’s intent. You’re rather the same way, I take it?
■ “The Future of Power” by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. This well-known and well-liked Harvard professor is one exceedingly levelheaded thinker. He reminds me of the late George Kennan: always one step ahead of everybody.
Like Kennan with his historic “containment” policy concept, Nye’s repeated iteration of the “soft-power” concept shows us a sensible, balanced way forward. He writes: “The United States is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome or even be surpassed by another state, including China.” This means how we comport ourselves internationally will remain a deal for everyone else as well as ourselves. (PublicAffairs, New York)
■ “On China” by Henry Kissinger. The eternally controversial statesman still packs a terrific intellectual punch. Try (if you can) to forget Cambodia and Chile and Nixon and etcetera: focus on his decades of trying to unpeel the onion that is China. So much is here: Ask yourself, for example, whether China’s recent bumping against neighbors on the South China Sea isn’t an exact reflection of Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of “offensive deterrence.” (The Penguin Press, London, New York)
■ “Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China” by David Wise. The author lives up to his (last) name in this story-studded non-fiction tale of how China does what every other suitably equipped country does when it hopes no one is looking: spies on rivals and enemies and steals secrets. Written with the clarity of a master journalist. Could be a TV series. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston)
■“Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia” by Thant Myint-U. Burma/Mynmar is no more the crossroads of Asia than I am the new Kennan. Still, this is a beautifully written personal introduction to a beautiful country ― if only the old out-of-touch generals would take a backseat, as they may be starting to do. Surely that great lady Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t being taken for a ride by the “softer” generals … or is she? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York)
■“Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe” by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and R. Bin Wong. An odd book, in a way; but intriguing and valuable. Theories on why China was slower than Europe to develop economically abound, but the co-authors probe deeper and emerge with an astonishing analysis: it turns out there were basic economic advantages to living in a peaceful empire that war-torn Europe could not enjoy.
One major unintended consequence of warfare was that Europe ended up with a bias toward capital use and thus technological development. Too bad (up to the 18th century at any rate) fate permitted China to evolve in relative blissful peace! (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.)
■“American Avatar: The United States in the Global Imagination” by Barry Sanders. Tired of seeing old Uncle Sam criticized for this, that and almost everything. This international lawyer is sick of it too, and explains, in his tour d’horizon of U.S behavior and reaction thereto, why much of it is misconceived or unavoidable.
Quite often, he argues, the problem isn’t in the reality of what we do but the mind of the critic: the case of the images on the wall of Plato’s cave. On offer is a superb balancing act of assessment and judgment ― a truly original work that deserves to be widely debated. (Potomac Books, Dulles, Virginia).
■“A Doctor in the House” by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Long-winded, self-indulgent, self-serving, sure; but, hey, it’s an autobiography, not a documentary ― by one of Asia’s sharpest, non-soft-spoken soft-authoritarians. At one point (p. 778), the octogenarian almost (but not quite) apologizes for statements adjudged in the West as anti-Semitic. (MPH Group Publishing, Selangor, Malaysia)
■“Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going” by Han Fook Kwang, Zuraidah Ibrahim, Chua Mui Hoong, Lydia Lim, Ignatius Low, Rachel Lin, Robin Chan. This mega-book of lengthy interviews with founding (and now ailing) Prime Minister Lee treats tiny Singapore as if it were massive China ― almost every issue, problem, crevice is examined by a crack team of editors/writers from the Straits Times, Singapore’s leading paper. But it’s almost never tedious and is often unputdownable. (Straits Times Press, Singapore)
■“Vortex of Conflict: U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq” by Dan Caldwell. About as timely as a book can be: a common-sense conceptual framework for understanding how we got where we are. But deeply disturbing, too, as it’s hard to understand how the U.S. can possibly be successful in Afghanistan if Pakistan’s becoming an enemy. (Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California.)
■“Navigating the Bangkok Noir” by Chris Coles. If you like your art colorful, in your-face, over-the-top, this painter’s crazy Scheherazade of sordid street scenes and up-close-and-poignant portraits of Bangkok’s denizens of the night will be your cup of tequila. I don’t pretend to be an art critic and Coles, a former Hollywood film producer, is a personal friend. But I challenge anyone to look at his artwork and conclude it is more or less like everything or anything else. These snap-paints are total originals of unforgettable scenes. (Marshall Cavendish Asia, Singapore)
That’s it! Read these, get smart ― and make a friend even smarter with a book gift buy. Cheers.
Prof. Tom Plate of Loyola Marymount University is a veteran U.S. journalist and author of the “Giants of Asia” book series. He and his university students have a new place on the web: www.lmu.edu/asiamedia. Recently his “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew” won the first-place People’s Choice Award for Best Adult English-language Book in Singapore. Reach him at email@example.com.