Kaplan points out that Chiang created a Chinese alternative to Mao’s Communist “People’s Republic” on an island where even today, 70 percent of the population has “aboriginal blood, which is ethnic Malay in origin,” cementing the connection to the South China Sea realm. To counter Chiang’s reputation as a corrupt failure, Kaplan cites the work of the contemporary historians Jonathan Fenby and Jay Taylor, who show that Chiang’s forces fought much harder than has been appreciated against the Japanese invaders in the World War II period, as Mao’s Communists “were pursuing the very strategy Chiang was accused of: avoiding major military entanglements with the Japanese in order to hoard their strength to later fight the Nationalists.” Drawing again on Fenby and Taylor, Kaplan’s review of Chiang’s early policies on Taiwan assigns him credit for putting the country on the path to its current prosperous democracy.
Kaplan also visits Taiwan’s Pratas Islands in the northern South China Sea, which provokes him to reflect on the origins of Beijing’s current “nine-dash line” claim to most of that maritime realm. The original line had eleven dashes and was developed by the Nationalists on Taiwan. When the mainland Chinese inked an agreement with Vietnam over the Gulf of Tonkin in the 1950s, two of the dashes were dropped. Kaplan lands on the main island and finds only enough to occupy him for an hour. This inspires him to reflect:
Because there was nothing here, these so-called features were really just that—microscopic bits of earth with little history behind them and basically no civilians living on them. Thus, they were free to become the ultimate patriotic symbols, more potent because of their very emptiness and henceforth their inherent abstraction: in effect, they had become logos of nationhood in a global media age. The primordial quest for status still determined the international system.
This move into the realm of theory does not serve Kaplan well. He is closer to the mark earlier in the book when defining the importance of the South China Sea in terms of its centrality to trade, its resources and the fact that disputed land features within it are being used as the basis for claims to control traffic through its waters: “Domination of the South China Sea would certainly clear the way for pivotal Chinese air and naval influence throughout the navigable rimland of Eurasia—the Indian and Pacific oceans both. And thus China would become the virtual hegemon of the Indo-Pacific.” Regional hegemony, not symbols or logos, is what is at stake.
But Kaplan returns to more solid ground in an epilogue that, like the prologue on Vietnam, offers visceral impressions of his visit to the jungle-enclosed eastern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. He concludes on a fittingly humble note: “What if the future of the South China Sea is not just about newly strong states asserting their territorial claims, but also about a new medievalism born of weak central government and global Islam?”
Dyer’s historical research and reportage are impressive and illustrate how Beijing squandered the gains of its aforementioned “charm offensive” in the last decade by reverting to form. Dyer cites the Singapore-based scholar Geoffrey Wade to establish that despite the image of peaceful exploration that China trumpets, the Ming-era voyager Zheng He was actually a colonial gunboat diplomat at the helm of a well-armed armada. In the fifteenth century Zheng intervened with military force in civil conflicts in Sumatra, Java and even modern-day Sri Lanka, and he established a semipermanent Chinese garrison at Malacca to control traffic through the strait. Dyer also offers a revealing quote from the Chinese international-relations expert Yan Xuetong: “Ancient Chinese policy will become the basis for much Chinese foreign policy, rather than Western liberalism or Communist ideology. . . . It is easier to teach common people why they are doing certain things if it is explained in these terms.”
Putting aside his implication that “common people” are primitive, Yan’s statement sheds light on some otherwise puzzling developments of the past few years. In a range of incidents China has alienated regional powers by according them treatment more befitting traditional Chinese vassals than independent states. For instance, in 2009 Japan voted out the Liberal Democratic Party, which had been in power for fifty years, and installed a new government that favored closer ties with China at the expense of relations with the United States. Yet in September 2010, the captain of a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese coast-guard vessel in the vicinity of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. While the captain was detained in Japan, huge anti-Japanese protests erupted in China, and Chinese shipments of rare-earth metals critical for Japanese high-tech manufactures started to decline. “At one stage,” Dyer reports, “the Japanese ambassador was hauled in to receive a formal complaint in what the [official Chinese] Xinhua News Agency gleefully described as ‘the wee hours’—the fourth such dressing down he had received.” From a strategic perspective, China’s conduct seems counterproductive. Why antagonize a potentially well-disposed Japanese government over fish? “Beijing had a game-changing opening to weaken American standing in the region,” Dyer notes. “But, rather than driving a wedge between the U.S. and its most important allies, China has managed to push them much closer together.” The explanation must involve China’s sense of its status and impatience to establish a new order in which the region defers to Beijing. At the same time, the onus is now on Washington to work more closely with Tokyo.
TURNING TO SOUTH KOREA, the other major U.S. ally in Northeast Asia, Dyer recounts that several months before the fishing-boat incident a North Korean minisubmarine had fired a torpedo at a South Korean naval vessel, sinking the ship and killing forty-six sailors. At this point economic ties between China and South Korea were “booming,” thanks in part to a fact that Dyer uncharacteristically omits: China backstopped the South Korean economy during the 2008 global financial crisis. But following the sinking, China blocked the UN Security Council from punishing Pyongyang and generally failed to convey a sympathetic response to Seoul. South Korea’s disappointment was reinforced in October 2010, when then vice president Xi Jinping gave a speech on the fiftieth anniversary of China’s intervention in the Korean War eulogizing the conflict as “great and just.” A month later, North Korea struck again, shelling a South Korean island and killing four inhabitants. “Under pressure to rein in its ally,” Dyer explains, “Beijing decided to call for a meeting of the so-called six-party talks.” Seoul would of course have been loath to participate without an apology from Pyongyang, but China was counting on the gesture to “deflect some of the blame for the standoff onto South Korea.” China’s heavy-handed approach at such a difficult moment with South Korea can only be explained by a historically informed sense of primacy. “With no formal warning, Dai Bingguo, the senior Chinese foreign-policy official, turned up in Seoul to discuss the proposal.” This account is not footnoted; perhaps an outraged South Korean diplomat provided Dyer with the full scoop:
He did not have a visa, so South Korean Foreign Ministry officials had to rush out to the airport to get him into the country. Dai insisted on meeting with President Lee Myung-bak that evening, even though he did not have an appointment. And even though he asked that the meeting be off the record, he brought a group of Chinese journalists along with him. Lee told him that Seoul would not agree to a meeting involving the North Koreans, but Dai went out and announced the proposed summit anyway.
In the course of a few months, China thus went a long way toward undoing the goodwill that it had built up with South Korea in the past decade. Dyer attributes this to Chinese fear of a North Korean collapse, but we can also speculate that, having supported South Korea’s economy through the 2008 crisis, Beijing may have felt entitled to more deference than Seoul was willing to offer. Back in the era of Zheng He, after all, South Korea would have been sending tribute missions to the Chinese capital.
In the same vein, Dyer reports that the South China Sea states consider China to be pursuing a strategy of “talk and take” in an attempt to bully them into accepting a new status quo that favors Beijing. China’s ambition and presumptuousness color even its relations with long-standing U.S. ally Australia. According to Dyer, a Chinese defector revealed that “senior officials in Beijing were openly suggesting that Australia could come to play a role somewhat similar to France’s—still part of the Western alliance, but detached from America and willing to take its own path on important issues.” Dyer also provides colorful background to the outburst by Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi at the 2010 Asia-Pacific Summit in Hanoi. “China is a big country,” Yang ranted to an audience including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “and you are all small countries. And that is a fact.” Before delivering this diatribe, Dyer tells us, Yang was apparently spotted pacing “in the corridor beforehand rehearsing lines.” So we now know that his remarks were not spontaneous. Why would China behave in such a heavy-handed way?