On my bookshelf, China and dictators steal the spotlight

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
On my bookshelf, China and dictators steal the spotlight
Three books on the changing world

When my editor asked me to write about books on any of these subjects – security, foreign policy, and governance – as part of a package of year-end stories, I went over my groaning bookshelf and found 3 that I have partly read, with bookmarks still on the pages where my attention stopped and veered to other books.

I returned to these trio which have one thing in common: they are all written by academics in engaging prose, appealing to a wide audience. Isn’t it good news that journalists face competition from academics? After all, the world is a complex place and the colors and hues of issues are changing. There’s a lot to make sense of. 

Two books make geopolitics an accessible subject with both authors navigating the world: one through the lens of the Silk Roads, the other through the vast oceans. With their expansive views, rich wisdom and clear prose, Oxford University history professor Peter Frankopan and former dean of the Fletcher School (Tufts University) James Stavridis help us understand global changes.

China’s rising star

In 2018, Frankopan wrote The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, an epilogue to his highly successful book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.  He takes us away from the old centers of power where Trump and Brexit are causing isolation to the cities where decisions that matter are being made – like Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi, Islamabad, Ankara, and a host of others. 

The central theme of the book is this: Silk Roads, the region lying between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific, are shaping the world’s future and China, with its wealth, power and size, takes star status. Countries in this area are getting together, mainly China with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Frankopan borrows a quote to describe the BRI – “the   Baskin-Robbins of partnerships, offering flavours for everyone” – so this gives you an idea of the easy prose. 

The chapter, “The Roads to Beijing,” is most interesting as it is an experience that is closest to our part of the world. The author explains China’s aims in undertaking the massive BRI project, among others: 

  • China is developing sources of for its domestic needs primarily energy, and also ensures future food supply.
  • It needs to deploy its excess capacity in steel, metals, and cement abroad, including its workforce.   
  • The BRI raises prospects for Chinese businesses to open up new opportunities for the future.

In other words, the BRI serve’s China’s interest and, along the way, it spreads its influence  through massive loans for infrastructure, buying its way to nations in need. 

‘Sea is one’ 

Stavridis, a retired admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander for Global Operations at NATO, had me by the first pages of his book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (2017). He sailed the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as its major tributaries, including the South China Sea, in his younger years with the US Navy. 

To give you a taste of his lyrical prose, here are lines from his opening chapter: “…it [ocean views] is like looking at eternity; to gaze upon it for an hour, a day, a month or a lifetime reminds us gently that our time is limited; and we are but a tiny part of the floating world…warning us not to overimagine the importance of our own small voyages on this earth.” 

Stavridis reminds us that over 70% of the globe is covered by water and that all the great oceans are connected. These facts, which pull us out of our landlocked minds, are why oceans matter in global politics.

First, he says, there’s international trade, 95% of which moves across the oceans. Second, nations contend for influence over these seas – and he devotes a chapter to the South China Sea. Third, the sea is a crime scene as well, where piracy, narcotics and weapons smuggling, illegal dumping of toxic substances, and illegal fishing take place. I particularly find his chapter, “The Outlaw Sea,” highly instructive.

Stavridis  prescribes policy directions for the US on managing tension in the South China Sea: maintaining open communications with China, strengthening its relationship with allies, signing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and exercising Freedom of Navigation operations which means “overflying Chinese territorial claims and sailing US ships through China’s claimed waterspace.” He ends the book with a chapter on naval strategy for America in the 21st century.

How dictators retain power 

Political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, authors of The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (2011) offer us an insightful read which can be amusing were it not for the reality that a number of countries, including ours, are under the rule of strongmen. 

They lay down basic rules of politics, backed by examples, anchored on two premises. First, leaders do not lead unilaterally; no leader governs alone. Second, the support of the winning coalition is essential for the leader to survive. 

Here are their rules: 

  • Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. Fewer means “more control” and “more discretion over expenditures.” 
  • Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. This refers to everyone who can vote. The authors write: “…a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced.”
  • Control the flow of revenue. 
  • Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. 
  • Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. Otherwise, they will feel cheated and gun for the leader.

By learning these rules, the hope is citizens can work around these to trounce dictators in the next election. There’s time left, a little over 2 years, for the Philippines.

These books are not exactly stuff to read over the holidays. Still, happy reading! – Rappler.com

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.