Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific – Robert Kaplan

Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable ...

Robert Kaplan, an American writer, was rated by the Foreign Policy Magazine in both 2011 and 2012 as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers.” A prolific author, his books include “Revenge of Geography” and “The Coming Anarchy.” Kaplan was also on the Defense Policy Board in 2009.

In “Asia’s Cauldron”, Kaplan lays out in a measured and intimidatingly clinical manner the subtle albeit overwhelming undercurrents (no pun intended) characterising one of the most commercially important and relevant maritime mass of our times. The South China Sea is not just the nerve centre of trade and commerce but also a roiling cauldron where nine littoral states lay various claim to various stretches of land and water. Ranging from the outrageous to the outlandish these disputes have the potential to trigger a catastrophe in the form of a full blown naval warfare, in the event things transcend a mere impasse. However, and fortunately, this possibility at the time of this writing is extremely remote. In just under two hundred pages, Kaplan provides a lucid and arresting overview regarding the issues, the players, their tactics that characterize the theatre that is the South China Sea. At the core stand two economic and military behemoths, China and the United States of America. While one is a hegemon not just looking to recapture lost glory, but to attain global dominion in the process, facing it is a weary superpower acting as a moral and mechanical deterrent, trying to reign in the hegemon’s ambitions if not totally putting paid to its hopes. At the periphery lie scattered nation states with their own agendas and aspirations. It does not take more than putting two and two together to arrive at the conclusion that while the hegemon is China, the balancing power is the United States of America. Sandwiched between these two powers are Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam.

The importance of the South China Sea may be grasped from the fact that more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through it. In the words of Kaplan, this phenomenon has transformed South China Sea into “the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans — the mass of connective tissue where global sea routes coalesce,”

Kaplan informs his readers that while China in spite of investing in state of the art sleek submarines & other defense armaments that are varying in their degrees of sophistication and impact, they would certainly attempt what Kaplan terms as ““Finlandizing” Southeast Asia. Similar to what Finland was forced to do in the wake of the former Soviet pressure exerted during the Cold War, the littoral states while maintaining   nominal independence will deign to the diktats of China in so far as foreign policies are concerned. To quote Kaplan, “War in the South China Sea remains a possibility against which all regional powers must always be on guard … China now demands a regional order that it, as the dominant indigenous power, will do the most to maintain. Because Chinese naval power is rising, the situation is in serious flux.”

Kaplan, after setting the context to his contention, goes on to dissect the bargaining powers and pain points of each country vis-à-vis China. While the Chapter on Vietnam makes for some engrossing read in so far as the country poses the most formidable – if not intractable – defense against a burgeoning China, having shared a bitter sweet relationship with China that ranges over many centuries, the Chapters on Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia go more than a bit off tangent. These chapters are more a discussion about the leaders that made their nations than their future over resources and independence in the South China Sea. While the former premier of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew comes for some glowing tributes, the most influential leader in the vicinity of his neighourhood, Mahathir Mohammed attracts an ambivalent opinion making him look like a benevolent dictator. “Lee and Mahathir may have governed in the spirit of Aristotle, with their mixed regimes that prepared the way to democratic rule”

In so far as Taiwan is concerned there is an astringent rebuke of the criticism leveled against Chiang Kai Shek by individuals such as Army Lieutenant Joseph Stilwell. Kaplan relies on two revisionist biographies of Chiang Kai-Shek to defend the character and moves of the man: “Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation” by Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the London Observer and the Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the struggle for Modern China” by Jay Taylor, former China Desk Officer at the US State Department, and later research associate at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. While these make for some absorbing and revealing reading, the reader cannot but wonder at their significance to the topic on hand.

Kaplan also warns about the diminishing if not the waning interest of the United States towards other geographies in direct contradistinction to its fixation with the Middle East. The two Gulf Wars, and an Iranian policy gone awry have contributed to this shift in priorities. However, with a rapidly ascending China, the United States can ill afford to compromise its interest and stake in the South China Sea. For doing so would result in not just compromising the interests of many nations, but threatening their very future itself.

Kaplan also brings to bear the view of a horde of political analysts and military experts to give teeth to his analysis. A name that keeps springing repeatedly is John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago political scientist. Others of reckoning include Yale historian Jonathan Spence, Cambridge University Historian Piers Brendon, President of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessmentsin Washington, Andrew F. Krepinevich etc.

Asia’s Cauldron is a mesmerizing book written by an expert who is in his elements. Forceful, thought provoking and enduring, this book is a must read for every student, political maven, strategic decision maker and all others possessing a keen interest in the affairs of the South China Sea.

The Narrows – Michael Connelly

9781407229904: The Narrows - AbeBooks - Michael Connelly: 1407229907

Detective Rachel Walling of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is woken up from her sleep in the dead of the night. The caller is her protégé Cherie Dei. The mentor has been rudely jolted out of her sleep because “he is back.” Robert Backus or Bob, was at one point in time one of the Agency’s most talented albeit eccentric talents. Suffering from an extraordinary degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Backus would delay meetings because he had to repeatedly wash his hands. His lunch unfailingly was a grilled cheese sandwich day in and day out. A wad of Juicy Fruit gum would be chewed in perpetuity. Now he was back. The only issue with a former agent coming back being the world has still not devised a method to raise people from the dead. Backus was shot by Agent Walling after he turned out to be a serial killer masquerading as an FBI Agent. But the chameleon was not detected until more than half a dozen agents had been murdered in cold blood. Now the cold blooded killer was back in the form of Rachel’s nemesis with a body count that posed a brazen challenge not only to the agency in general but to Rachel in particular.

Detective Harry Bosch a retired cop who was once working homicides with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is now a private detective. Bosch is paid a visit by Graciela McCaleb, the widow of his former partner Terry McCaleb. Graciela informs Bosch that Terry did not die on his boat from a suspected heart attack as was received wisdom. He was in fact murdered. The evidence lay in the fact that the medications he used to take regularly to keep his transplanted heart in working condition were tampered with. Graciela requests Bosch to investigate the circumstances of her husband’s mysterious death.

Bosch and Walling are drawn together in their respective endeavours to solve different riddles. Connecting them both is the dangerous and murky character of Backus, also known as The Poet. Would the duo succeed in their efforts to pin down the murderers or will they both fall prey to the wily orchestration of their enemies. Michael Connelly, as is his wont is in his elements working the nitty gritties in “The Narrows.” Unexpected twists and surprising turns punctuate this racy edge of the seat thriller. Bosch is the atypical, unruffled, unwavering detective who has been wronged by his own folks. He finds an able ally in Rachel who after an embarrassing romantic stint with a reporter has been relegated to man the desk in a territory where there is more grime than glamour or gang wars. For both Rachel and Bosch, the appearance of The Poet provides an opportunity for redemption. A chance to wrest back respect and regard if not their personal moments of glory. However, with the marauding killer seemingly ahead of them by more than just one step at a time, the investigators have their hands full.

The Narrows – A rousing read!

Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer – Stephanie Capparell and Margot Morrell

Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic ...

The famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton now joins the burgeoning ranks of leadership models as Margot Morrell, a financial representative with Fidelity Investments and Stephanie Capparell, a Wall Street Journal writer resurrect the Antarctic hero with encomiums and paeans.

For the unsuspecting, Shackleton is the very stuff of legends. An indefatigable man of the sea, he pulled off what arguably has to be the greatest ever polar escapes. When his ill-fated ship, Endurance was first hemmed in by unrelenting blocks of ice before ultimately breaking up in front of the crew, Shackleton not only ensured that the morale of his men remained intact, but also promised them that he would lead each man to safety. And he more than made good his word. Pulling off what can only be termed an extraordinary feat of human resilience and endurance, he along with a handful of his crew sailed in the boat James Caird to the nearest whaling station located many miles away from where the crew was stranded. Not bothering about either his physical state or mental fatigue, Shackleton proceeded to borrow a ship, coming back to the rescue of his thankful men.

Reconstructing Shackleton’s diary entries, interviewing management, business as well as scientific experts and bringing on their own experience, Ms. Morrell ad Capparell come out with a guide/checklist based on ‘Shackletonian’ values and principles. The fact that Ms. Morrell has studied Shackleton for a decade and a half must not have hurt either.

The authors also supplement their own words of wisdom with the views of a select few business leaders such as include the insights of a handful of modern-day leaders, including James Cramer, of TheStreet.com. As explained by the authors subsequent to the loss of the Endurance, the twenty-seven members of the crew were forced to camp inside makeshift tents on tenuous, shifting blocks of ice. It was during this crucial time that Shackleton brought all of his wit, wisdom and determination to bear. Making the men responsible for their ow fates and ensuring that they grasped the enormity of the tasks on hand, he also put into motion a concrete rescue mission that involved amongst other aspects, the men keeping themselves fit and in good humour. He never allowed the spirits of even a single man to either wither, wane or waver.

Keeping his men engaged in various forms of activities from playing the banjo to celebrating Christmas, Shackleton was the epitome of hope and optimism. Using psychological tactics that would have made even Freud proud, Shackleton ensured that nay sayers and prophets of doom were always in the near vicinity and proximity of the leader himself. This tactic not only ensured that the skeptics slowly turned around to embrace Shackleton’s views, but also there was no transmission of negative feelings and /or acrimony.

Shackleton never indulged in petty politics or blame games. The buck always stopped with him and he assumed total responsibility over the well-being and action of his crew. And as

To quote Nancy F. Koehn a historian and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School who reviewed the book in the New York Times. “As soon as I first read about Shackleton, I was struck by how critical a leader’s personal commitment to his or her mission is,” said Lynne Greene, global president of the beauty brands Clinique, Origins and Ojon, part of the Estée Lauder Companies.

Shackleton also identified, evaluated and approved his crew with great meticulousness and caution. “Science or seamanship weighs little against the kind of chaps they were,” he is famously said to have remarked. Hence a person with a sense of humour secured his place on the endurance as did another who made it on time to an interview on a weekend in battering rain after having had to change multiple trains.

Every Chapter in Shackleton’s way is succeeded by a real life story where the protagonist based his success on the Shackleton Way. For example, Astronaut James Lovell of the disastrous Apollo 13 flight states, “I think Shackleton took the same attitude we took on Apollo 13: You have to look forward as long as there is a chance,” Harvard Business School graduate Luke O’Neill who christened his nonprofit school network Shackleton Schools told the Wall Street Journal “Never give up, don’t be afraid to lead, follow your gut and remember, it’s about people.”

Shackleton’s Way – a fitting tribute to a towering leader.

The Last Sunrise – Robert Ryan

The Last Sunrise by Robert Ryan

Dogfights in P-40s, dalliances with exotic women and wrestling with the controls of a C-47 all make for some riveting reading in Robert Ryan’s thriller, “The Last Sunrise.” The book alternates between the years 1941-1948 and the characters mostly find themselves traversing the terrains that cut across Burma (currently Myanmar), India, China and Singapore. The story begins in the year 1941. The American Voluntary Group, an Air Force unit has been put together by Colonel Claire Lee Chennault. Known as the Flying Tigers, the primary objective of this unit is to aid and abet the Chinese war efforts against the marauding Japanese who after having plundered Nanking, have their sights firmly set on other targets such as Kunming.

A part of the Flying Group set up is the flamboyant Lee Crane. An extraordinary capable fighter pilot, Crane is looking to notch two more kills before he can be designated an ‘ace.’ However, fate and love contrive to put a spanner in the works as Crane develops a dangerous dalliance with a curvy and sultry Anglo-Indian widow named Kitten Mahindra. Falling afoul of Colonel Chennault, when the Flying Tigers are absorbed by the US Air Force, Crane’s flying career almost comes to a careening halt, but for the intervention of Hyram Nelson. A key figure in the Office of Strategic Services, Nelson puts Crane in charge of manning a Cargo plane, to transport men & materiel over the “hump”, – three dangerous ridges forming part of the towering Himalayas. Crane loses touch with Kitten in the process.

On one such trip, Crane is acquainted with a striking young SOE agent, Laura McGill, and her companion a huffing and puffing giant of a man named Walter Gilbert. The trip from Calcutta to Southern China deepens Crane’s friendship with her. This platonic relationship also leads to unintended causal consequences as a chain of tumultuous events are set in motion when Hyram Nelson commands Crane to find out the exact role of Gilbert and Laura in the Asian sphere of operations. And when on a trip his own trusted co-pilot, going by the moniker of Cowboy points a gun at Crane’s temple and asks him to be his perpetrator-in-crime in a daring heist, Crane knows he is living on borrowed time.

Robert Ryan as usual dazzles with his description of various vintage aircraft and their prowess and pitfalls. He is like a fish in water expounding on mid-air combats, cockpit technicalities and payload perils. He manages to maintain his reader’s interest by sticking to a constant pace. Even though the narrative weaves back and forth, just like one of Crane’s aircrafts – between the years 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1948, the plot never gets either overwhelming or confusing.

The encounters between Kitten and Crane are poignant to the point of being tragi-comic. The Indo China geography is described in a marvelous manner that makes a mental visualization of the entire landscape surrounding the three ridges a veritable pleasure.

The Last Sunrise – A soaring read.

I Teach Religiousness Not Religion – Osho

I Teach Religiousness Not Religion by Osho

Warning:

For those of you who are deeply religious and nurse steadfast beliefs, read no further. This book will leave you not merely nonplussed, but downright incensed. Trenchant, provocative, irreverent and radical, “I Teach Religiousness Not Religion” (the book) provides a more than just a sneak peek into the philosophy which made the self-proclaimed Godman Osho, one of the most reviled public figures in the realm of spirituality.

The book is a short collection of discourses where Osho holds forth on various topics in an attempt to clarify doubts raised by his devotees/disciples. The topics dealt with cover a wide gamut of subjects both complex and simple such as God, guilt, belief, meditation, laughter and enlightenment. Writing in a style that is deceivingly simple, Osho intersperses his philosophical musings with ribald humour, risqué anecdotes and arresting Zen stories.

So what is this religiousness that is peculiarly divorced from religion? This according to Osho seems to be a fluid, albeit shifting and vibrant concept. “Religiousness is a flowing river continuously changing its course but ultimately reaching the ocean.” The man might be an avid believer in Heraclitus. While this might offer the reader a few points to ponder what succeeds the definition is pure mayhem unhinged.

Taking a swipe at all religions, Osho terms them all dead rocks leading no one anywhere. But his most vitriolic jibe is reserved for Christianity. Arguing that in o far as harming the humanity is considered, Christianity stands at the very top, he goes on to back this incredulous and incendiary claim with equally outlandish justifications. Consider this: “they have used beautiful words to hide the ugly acts they are doing against you – for example, unselfishness. A man who does not know himself, to tell him to be unselfish is so outrageously idiotic that one cannot believe that for two thousand years Christianity has been doing that.”

One of the most controversial chapters in the book (a very difficult choice to make since almost every chapter seems to written with the intention of muckraking and stirring hornets’ nests), seems to be the one lashing out at Celibacy. Although not surprising from a man whose philosophical corner stone revolved around a concept termed “From Sex to Salvation”, the ire Osho reserves for celibates is putting it mildly – intense. Terming celibacy a ‘deadly virtue’, Osho blames the religious leaders for propagating this ‘unnatural’ phenomenon. Employing a logic that is downright illogical and a figment of rabid imagination, he goes on to argue that a natural outcome of celibacy is AIDS. Yes, you read it right! “Teaching celibacy is against nature. Then putting monks into monasteries and nuns into separate places and not allowing them to meet, you created homosexuality, you created lesbianism. And now homosexuality has brought AIDS. Every Government of the should declare celibacy a crime. And anybody who preaches celibacy should be immediately imprisoned, because he is the cause of a deadly disease, AIDS, which is spreading far and wide. Of nuclear weapons don’t kill you, AIDS will kill you.” Wonder what this man’s notions on Corona virus and Ebola would have been.

Waxing eloquent on David Yallop’s controversial book on Christianity and the Vatican, Osho spews fire on everything religious and its attendants. No wonder this man was threatened with dire consequences by the Greek law enforcement agencies and made to leave the country along with its commune.

Like an author pumped up to his neck in steroids, Osho also offers ridiculous and asinine suggestions to heal a fractured world. Asking the Jews to abandon Israel, he offers his commune in the United States to be occupied by them. This commune may then be termed Israel!

Most of the chapters are nothing more than mere rants and rambles. The pointless ambling is interrupted at points by an adult joke or a lewd parable. Truly the spouting of a man unhinged. Osho attracted controversy like bees attracted by honey. Seeking to flee the wrath of the Indian Government for his controversial views and practices, Osho or Rajneesh fled to the United States with 2,000 of his disciples, preferring to settling on a 100-square-mile ranch in central Oregon, which he named Rancho Rajneesh. There, Rajneesh and his devotees commenced to construct their own buildings and design their own city, which they unimaginatively called Rajneeshpuram.

Soon a flash point was reached between the local Government and the commune as its inhabitants went on a crazy spree of murder, wiretapping, voter fraud, arson and a mass salmonella poisoning in 1984 that affected more than 700 people. Deported by the United States Government and denied entry by many others the defamed and defanged Godman was forced to spend his remaining life in India, until his death due to heart failure in 1990.

I teach religiousness not religion – an obnoxious exercise in indecipherable blasphemy.

The Extinction Event – David Black

The Extinction Event by David Black

A lawyer, a hooker and a drug experiment gone wrong in a seedy motel sets the tone for David Black’s racy thriller “The Extinction Event.” Jack Slidell an irascible lawyer and a former street fighter is roused out of his sleep by a late night call in Mycenae, New York. The cryptic call leads Jack to a shady motel and to the dead bodies of Frank Milhet, his boss, Jean Gaynor, a hooker and traces of crack cocaine. What initially seems to be an innocuous case of sex and drugs gone sour, morphs into a murky maze involving international ecological implications. And into this maze, Jack gets drawn deeper and deeper with an unlikely companion to assist him in his endeavor to get to the bottom of the riddle. Caroline Wonder, a rookie lawyer in Jack’s firm and one who nurses a frosty relationship with Jack becomes a trusted all as the duo attempt to ward off bullets, betrayals, and barbed wires.

In so far as murder mysteries and conspiracy theories go, “The Extinction Event” does no better than its companion next door. Although making for a Pacey read, there is nothing to distinguish this pot-boiler from a million others from the genre. There is also a forced attempt to make Jack Slidell more flamboyant, boorish, charismatic and a punch line spewing Bond, leaving a jarring impact on the reader. This where James Bond-meets-Indiana Jones-meets-John rebus attempt does more harm than good from a narrative and plot perspective.

There come and go in a breezy fashion a phalanx of characters each one more insidious than his or her predecessor in both intent and execution. There is Cowboy, a hit-man and an almost personal stalker of Jack. He stalks Jack with the same determination of a Moriarty stalking Holmes, but with a suaveness that is exasperating and a silence that is frustrating. Other than nodding heads, civilly tracking Jack and of course attempting to murder him, all that the Cowboy seems to be doing is to compete with a perpetual motion machine. There is Mama Lucky, an extraordinarily obese woman who runs a brother and subsists on Jack Daniels. She also turns out to be a very able informant passing vital pieces of information to Jack.

After multiple pages of irrelevant dialogues, inchoate encounters and implacable emotions, we are left with an ending that is more philosophical than fictional. We are left to scratch our heads in both bewilderment and disbelief and left wondering whether it was worth the while trudging through the pages only to be met with what has to be one of the most ambivalent climaxes in the recent fictional literature past.

The Extinction Event – totally uneventful.

No Man’s Land – G.M. Ford

No Man's Land: Amazon.co.uk: G. M. Ford: 9780330441933: Books

I guess the lockdown has really got to me! My most recent choice of books seems to be veering from the intolerable to the indigestible. The most recent example being G.M. Ford’ s “No Man’s Land.” 388 pages of illogical derring-do, irrational heists and infuriating punch lines. Timothy Driver an ex US Navy veteran with advanced degrees in all things aquatic and many things digital is languishing in the high security prison facility of Mesa Azul in Arizona. Conjured by a vicious imagination and fueled by the lure of capitalism, Mesa Azul is the brainchild of Randall Corporation. Unhinged by an existence that necessitates not just solitude but also demands tolerance to lights that are never turned off, Driver – convicted of murdering his wife as well as her paramour, both while having a romp in Driver’s bed – decides he needs some fresh air. Pulling off an incredible heist that involves a multitude of machine gun wielding reprobates and lifers, Driver holds the prison security hostage and threatens to lop off one hostage every six hours until such time a man named Frank Corso is delivered to him.

Making good on his promise, Driver and his lieutenant Cutter Kehoe, a gigantic man with an even more gigantic streak of sadism to boot, go on to facilitate a few good men to meet their maker. There is a scramble to locate the reclusive Corso before Driver succeeds in liberating 163 men from their human bondage. Convincing Corso that eating crabs for lunch, breakfast and dinner and idling away in his own boat is less of a priority than saving lives, law enforcement agencies finally coax Corso away from his personal diversion to the correctional facility at Mesa Azul.

Lest the reader tear his hair away wondering what connects Corso with Driver, Mr. Ford displays his benevolent side by revealing that Corso had written a book chronicling the former escapades of Corso. The author and the protagonist meet, greet, exchange pleasantries, punch lines and prospects before the unpredictable Driver and his crony Cutter whisk Corso away in an oil tanker. Yes, in a giant oil tanker full of diesel. Mode of protection against noxious fumes and flames – hazmat suits. Now that we are living in Dystopian times tormented by a virus, I am used to now accepting the fact that Hazmat suits are off the shelf commodities akin to Heinz Ketchup and Pringles crisps.

Bring into the fray the opportunistic Melanie Harris, the anchor of a bestselling show titled American Manhunt whose only objective is to aid and abet the hunting down of incorrigibles such as Cutter and Driver – the combination of names itself sounds eerily reprehensible – and her producer Marty (I even forgot what this character’s full name is), the reader is left nursing a headache which no amount of Aspirins can alleviate!

What the psychotic Driver and the demented Cutter do with the world in general and Corso in particular and whether their ambitions are put paid to by whoever dares to accost them forms the bulk of the plot. Murders. mayhem and melee are the expected collateral damages.

At the end of the book, I gave myself a pep talk to change my reading habits with utmost urgency, stringency and commitment. Lest I find myself stranded in a metaphorical “No Man’s Land!”