Who will rule the busiest sea lane of the world?

Robert S. Kaplan: Asia’s Cauldron. The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-0-8129-9906-8 China is creating facts in the South China Sea by building airstrips on disputed islands like the Spratley’s, adding aerial defence systems and dredging natural harbours to make them accessible for larger warships. At the same time China’s navy is expanding and modernizing: submarines, cruise-missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth fighters and space-based command and control assets make China a formidable foe that not even the US aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific wish to confront. Beijing asserts what it calls a historical right to dominate the South China Sea and builds up the military power to defend it.

Robert Kaplan has visited the region and interviewed many officials in the countries having a stake in the question of who should rule the South China Sea: The United States Navy as the guardian of free sea lines of communication in the busiest shipping area of the world? Or China in its effort to exploit a situation where the military and diplomatic influence of the US has passed its climax, in its endeavour to replace an international system dominated by the US by a multi-polar system with Beijing as a major player?

The sustained economic growth has given China the possibility to catch up in terms of military modernization: less numerous but smarter armed forces. This in turn has fueled a spectacular arms race in the region. Singapore eyes the prohibitively expensive US made Joint Strike Fighter as its next generation war plane. Kaplan and the officials he talked to in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan portray China as a growing threat that has to be kept in check. Even Vietnam, once an enemy of the United States, feels more at ease with the status quo – the American hegemony – than with a future dictated by China and makes the case for a long term US naval presence in the South China Sea.

While Kaplan’s book has its merits in explaining the different countries’ twisted relationship with China – he is looking back several hundred years in some cases – and their immediate geostrategic priorities, it fails to explain in more detail the Chinese point of view. We learn little about China’s objectives and its long term vision for the region. The possibility that China’s neighbours might succumb to “Finlandization” – submission through Chinese economic pressure – is mentioned, but Kaplan does not elaborate on it. China’s use of soft power to seduce other countries goes unnoticed. The author also fails to explore in an unbiased way the possibility of China exerting a benign regional hegemony similar to the European Union’s regional dominance over the Mediterranean Sea. China is hostile, full stop – that’s the credo.

Kaplan belongs to the Realist School of political science, established by Hans J. Morgenthau in the 1950s, seeing international relations primary as a struggle for supremacy and analyzing shifts in power balances in terms of strategic interests and the military, political and economic means to reach these goals. This school of thought has however severe limits when it has to explain a globalized world with multiple interdependencies, and Kaplan’s book was already at its publication in 2014 partly out of date in its insistence on conventional military power and its understanding of modern military strategy.

The author advances the argument of “the stopping power of water” to explain why invading a disputed territory is far easier than occupying it, especially when the territory is inhabited by a hostile population. This weakens his own case meant to illustrate China’s dangerous designs. At the same time he fails to see that China has developed, just like Russia, concepts for hybrid warfare: fostering low-intensity internal conflicts by exploiting economic, ethnic or cultural fault lines, disinformation and propaganda spread over social networks, clandestine sabotage acts, subversion of enemy forces and civil servants. This type of warfare is far more subtle and dangerous as it targets the social cohesion of the opponent’s civil society. Its study requires a much more encompassing view of international relations than the Realist School ever has developped.

In 2014 the Ukraine crisis was in full swing, it was and still is a blue-print for the partial success of Russia hybrid warfare, creating “frozen conflicts” that bind the enemy’s political and military resources, situations where the opponent cannot capitulate for political reasons on the one hand and on the other hand is not powerful enough to triumph over his aggressor. A low-intensity war of attrition, waged in the diplomatic and political arena, coupled with an occasional military show of force and the exploitation of ethnical tensions in countries like Malaysia or the Philippines are much more likely to be part of China’s foreign policy than brazen military interventions. The recent dispute over airline codes refering to “Taipei, Taiwan” instead of “Taipei, China” illustrate such an approach. The occupation of this or that reef, the blockade of an Asian competitor or the conquest of Taiwan may simply not be necessary for China to assert its dominance.

Kaplan’s mantra-like emphasis on China’s expanding navy as a proof of its aggressive goals is besides the point, and ironically the author delivers himself the key by quoting the Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tsu: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. China can wait until the dominance of the South China Sea falls into its lap like a ripe fruit as the role of the US in world affairs is declining. Its modernized navy will not allow China to establish dominance, but to preserve it. Time is on China’s side and it has a notion of time different from ours. It is thinking in decades and centuries, not in legislative periods. Sun Tsu would be pleased to see that his teachings are still a guideline for Chinese policy makers.

Now this book is hard-nosed political science, no-nonsense stuff, a troubling look into the crystal ball. To this I would like to oppose the delightful and delicate music of a Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu:

Floating like dust – the sound of transcendence

Mendel Singer facing life and God’s trial

Joseph Roth: Hiob. (English title: Job) ISBN 978-3-423-13020-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Mendel Singer is an ordinary Jew in an ordinary Russian hamlet. Singer fears God and can recite for every situation in life an appropriate passage of the Torah. He has a wife, Deborah, whom he loves despite her occasional furors, two sons, Jonas and Schemarjah, and a daughter, Mirjam. A fourth child is underway, and shortly after its birth, it becomes clear that Menuchim is unlike the others. He doesn’t grow properly, he doesn’t talk properly. He seem condemned to remain an idiot with occasional epileptic fits.

It is the first of Mendel’s trials by God and more are to follow. A specific destiny seems to be reserved to each member of the family and in the end Mendel loses his faith both in God and mankind. “God is cruel and the more one obeys him, the more severe he becomes” – that’s Mendel’s conclusion. He wants to burn his book of prayers, his prayer shawl, the tallit, and his tefillin, the leather box with passages from the Torah coiled inside. But Mendel’s hands refuse to obey Mendel’s anger against God’s apparent lack of justice.

For God’s ways are inscrutable and a miracle concludes this very moving novel, published in 1930. Roth was an exceptionally gifted narrator and the way he explores the mystery of faith, the tension between religion, tradition and the modern, secular society is in the tradition of the best German writers. Until recently I didn’t know nothing about this author and I am truly glad to have discovered his writing.

The possibility of faith is a recurrent subject in classical music and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has written a “Te Deum” in which I hear the magnitude of the question:

Light and darkness, faith and doubt

Discovering Vienna and its lost Jewish facet

bober vienne

Robert Bober: Vienne avant la nuit. ISBN 978-2-8180-4326-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What a wonderful book! I can say this without any caveat at all. Everything is wonderful. First, the idea: A French writer investigates the origin of his Jewish family and ends up with an intelligent, colourful sketch of Jewish life in Vienna before the night, that is before the extinction of Jewish life in Vienna under the Nazis. Second, the execution of the idea: a highly readable book, with interesting, witty texts written by the author and extensive quotes of eminent Jewish writers like Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Bernhard and Stefan Zweig. Lovely illustrations, admirable drawings, historic and current pictures, scans of original documents complete this work.

The trip to the past reveals the value of Jewish life for Vienna. It shows what is missing today: A part of Vienna’s identity. Wilfully destroyed. What a lost! I am grateful to Bober to have me shown I facet of the city I love so much that I wouldn’t have discovered so easily without him. The next time I will be in Vienna, my look upon the city will not be the same it used to be. I will look for signs. I now know where to look fo them. This said, to all my Jewish readers: Happy New Year or L’shanah tovah!

Bober narrates his adventure in a very intimate style and so some intimate music from a Vienna composer imposed itself as my music suggestion accompanying this review. A piano is de rigueur, a violin too – Johannes Brahms’ Trio in B minor:

 Overwhelmed by a sparkling trio of divine length

Putting man at the centre of music

Michael Heinemann: Claudio Monteverdi. Die Entdeckung der Leidenschaft. ISBN 978-3-7957-1213-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I read this book with interest, no doubt. The Dresden based music scholar Michael Heinemann explains in great detail how Claudio Monteverdi’s music presented a radical shift from past compositional techniques, whose limitation were linked to dogmas of the Catholic Church. Compositions were to reflect the cosmic order as it had been created by God, and Monteverdi was the first to systematically deviate from this practice. It is needless to say that he made himself a couple of enemies inside the composers’ guild and inside the Vatican. However he freed music at the beginning of the 17th century and by putting the individual man with his often conflicting emotions at the centre of his music, he allowed for an increase in expressivity unheard of up to then.

While Monteverdi’s early compositions like the Books of Madrigals I to III lack these revolutionary compositional pattern, his later Books of Madrigals, his operas and his masses show a high degree of innovation, which Heinemann explains with scores at hand. If contemporary classical music features since the ascent of György Ligeti basic building blicks like sound clouds or sound surfaces, it was highly amusing to learn that Monteverdi had used these elements already some 350 years earlier by having separate choirs positioned in different parts of the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice to produce similar effects without electronics.

Heinemann excels also in giving the reader a lot of historical context which demonstrates how Monteverdi’s style evolved and became more and more daring, and how his new ideas radiated through northern Europe. One of the long-term consequences of Monteverdi’s innovation was the sharper differenciation between secular music and church music, the first finding its apogee with Richard Wagner’s operas, the latter remaining anchored in the tradition of Palestrina.

I read this book with increasing irritation too. Heinemann’s style – he seems to be obsessed by short sentences, sentences without verbs or without a subject – makes the reading extremly tiresome, needlessly tiresome, to a degree that makes me think it has a lot to do with self-aggrandizement and much less with transmitting Heinemann’s passion with Monteverdi’s music. Too bad. By his deep understanding of Baroque music, the author has already demonstrated that he deserves scientific and public recognition and is in no need for self-aggrantizement.

All the drama you can get in Monteverdi’s music is encapsulated in his “Il Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorida”, a section of the Book of Madrigals VIII:

Liberating Jerusalem with pizzicato and tremolo

A revolutionary thinker guiding us towards enlightment

Frédéric Lenoir: Le miracle Spinoza. Une philosophie pour éclairer notre vie. ISBN 978-2-213-70070-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Baruch de Spinoza – the name alone was enough to spark my curiosity at school. A Jewish philosopher of Portugueuse origin, living and teaching in Amsterdam in the 17th century. At the age of 23, the young intellectual genius had already been banned by the Jewish community because of his revolutionary ideas. If I were to sum his credo up I would say: Reason can explain the universe. Going one step further I would have to admit with Spinoza: God is a man-made fiction. What I specifically appreciate is Spinoza’s lifelong endeavour to reconcile theory and practice and to put rational behaviour at the center of socio-economic and political question. Don’t make fun of anybody, don’t lament, don’t detest, think!

The French writer and philosophy teacher Frédéric Lenoir has written an excellent introduction into Spinoza’s world. I wish I had had it when I still was at school. Our teacher did his best to explain to his students Spinoza’s basic ideas, but the 17th century was way too far from my everyday life and I did not understand much, if anything at all. Lenoir puts the philosopher’s ideas not only into a historic context, he also tries to explain their relevance for our contemporary world. Applied philosophy – I love that!

Spinoza gave a lot of thought to the highly controversial subject of religion, and Lenoir’s way to present this subject alone gave me a lot of satisfaction. Spinoza does not deny the existence of God as many of his critics have said, instead he says that religions – any of the three monotheistic religions – have become an instrument of monarchs, bishops, muftis and rabbis to keep people ignorant and to rule them by fear – fear of punishment by God if they do not obey laws made by men. He opposes this view to a view that sees religion – any of the three monotheistic religions – as the quest for justice and peace, the ultimate Good being intellectual enlightment, control of human passions and science-based judgment in all affairs, a goal that admittedly, only few can reach.

For Spinoza religion, dealing with faith, and philosophy, dealing with the pursuit of truth via rational thought, do not exclude eachother but need to co-exist, covering two distinct aspects of human life, following to different types of logic. He fights for the right to free expression and condemns the interference of religion into politics, which according to Spinoza, need to be guided by scientific analysis and good judgment. Naturally – and quite ahead if his time – he favours democracy over monarchies and aristocracies. The logic corollary to the right to free expression is the right to freely choose a political representative.

With his heavy criticism of some of the foundations of Judaism and Christian faith and central aspects of the political reality of his time, Spinoza made himself a lot of enemies, which led him to publish several of his books under a pen name and some only after his death. Apparently someone even attempted to murder him.

He was conscious about the scandal his claims in the field of teligion would trigger, and I will just mention two provocations Lenoir explains: a) The Torah (or the Pentateuch, five books included in what Christians call the Old Testament) was not written by Moses b) With the fall of the first Jewish state more than 2500 years ago, the Jews cannot claim any longer to be the chosen people, the bond has been severed. To prove his point he produces a systematical critical analysis of the Torah, an interpretation in the light of historical facts. Can you do this in the 17th century? Not if you like a peaceful life.

Christians did not fare much better. Spinoza rejects the idea of the Holy Trinity and Jesus being a human incarnation of God – two ideas that split the Christian church. Spinoza hit a vulnerable spot and he did not stop here. According to him, God cannot be external to this world since human understanding alone can come up with anything called God. God is a concept, made by men. He also objects to a literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament and claims that religions purpose are to give people a set of ethical rules to live more or less in peace together – a manmade system to guarantee a certain social order, convenient for rulers and open to misuse. And yes, Spinoza had read Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince”. In his time, the ethical framework was set by religion, however, as Lenoir does not fail to mention, there could be alternatives, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Provinces, part of which would become today’s Netherlands, may have been a liberal state, however time was not yet ripe for such attacks on central pillars of the established order and the power that seemed to guarantee social and political stability. Along with the French René Descartes, Spinoza certainly was one of the most important prophets of what would later be called the age of Enlightment. It’s a shame it took me so long to find that out. I find him a fascinating man with fascinating ideas. What’s more, Lenoir’s introduction to Spinoza’s world is a useful reminder about the origin of the scientific, economic and political framework that rules our everyday life today. I couldn’t think of a better book to read on a Dutch beach.

Just for the fun of it, let’s pitch Spinoza against Johann Sebastian Bach, who reached out to God in his music, for instance in his “Brandenburg Concertos”:

Bach appeals to our sense of beauty