Friday, December 30, 2016

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in AsiaThe South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Hayton has written an important book about a world hotspot that receives far too little attention in the United States and Europe now obsessed with Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis and the mess in the Middle East. In the meantime, the South China Sea region continues to grow importance as a global economic powerhouse, while tensions mount between the increasingly aggressive China and its neighbors. The importance of South China Sea goes far beyond the region. For example, US$5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (Armed Clash in the South China Sea). Of this, U.S. trade accounts for US1.2 trillion. According to security expert Robert D. Kaplan, almost 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s and 80% of China’s crude oil imports are also transported through the relatively narrow sea lanes in the region. As China flexes its political and military muscles in order to secure the mineral and other resources in the South China Sea to itself, it is imperative for the rest of the world to ensure that the international waters in the area remain open for navigation. Hence the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State.

South China Sea directly borders a large number countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). In addition, countries like Japan have an important stake in the sea. As a semi-enclosed sea, there is considerable scope for overlapping claims for territorial waters in the area. China has unilaterally established a “nine-dashed line” – known as the “cow’s tongue” – that usurps most of South China Sea to the big brother in the region. In 2009, the Chinese government attached a map of this “U-shaped line” to its submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. At stake are island groups, such as the Paracels (claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam) and the Spratly Islands (disputed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam), and their presumed resources, from oil and minerals to fishing. In 2013, the Philippines brought the case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the International Court of Justice, which in June 2016 ruled in the Philippines’ favor on seven of the aspects in the case (stating that in other seven submissions it was not able to provide a ruling). Needless to say, China has not accepted the ruling. Hayton in his book gives extensive background to the disputes and China’s attempts to use both the notion of territorial waters under UNCLOS as well as historical arguments to justify its claims to most of the sea area.

In the first lengthy chapter, ‘Wrecks and Wrongs: Prehistory to 1500’, Hayton provides a comprehensive historical overview of the waxing and waning empires – including the Champa, Angkor and Srivijaya – in the South China Sea area and the importance of the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network (using the term coined by the archeologist Wilhem Solheim). This analysis convincingly refutes the notion of any single nation having unique historical claims to the sea. In the following chapter, ‘Maps and Lines: 1500 to 1948’, the book moves on to the era when the European colonial powers played a significant role in the region, until the times in the 1930s when the Chinese government turned to map-making in trying to exert its control over the region. Hayton demonstrates how new Chinese names were invented for many of the islands and reefs, sometimes just translating the names that the French and the British had given to them (like in the case of North Danger Reef in Spratly Islands, which was simply translated into Bei xian), to give legitimacy to the historical claims. The French geographer, Fran├žois-Xavier Bonnet has also shown how China has planted archaeological evidence on the islands in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims (Archeology and Patriotism: Long Term Chinese Strategies in the South China Sea, 2015). Following Mao’s revolution, the Communists adopted the policies and maps of the predecessor government.

China, however, has not been the only regional actor trying to ensure access to South China Sea and its resources. Others, not least Vietnam and the Philippines, have been active, too, sometimes using inventive tactics to expand their control. For example, both countries established garrisons on deserted islands in the North Spratly Islands trying to outmaneuver each other. Despite earlier conflicts, these garrisons are now on speaking terms and have even organized football and basketball matches between themselves. One of the core strategies of all the actors has been to try to establish a permanent foothold on uninhabited (and often uninhabitable) islands or mere rocks, so as to be able to claim territorial waters around them. Hayton gives detailed and interesting accounts of these efforts. Placing permanent structures and settlements for military personnel unfortunate enough to be posted in these hostile environments is hard when a rock is unable to support food production or is part of the year submerged under water. These claims can’t be accepted under international law, but it hasn’t stopped China and others from establishing bases on them. This strategy may be dissolved in water when rising sea levels due to global warming fully submerge the geological formations.

Among the key actors in the fray have, naturally, been many energy companies hoping for a bonanza on the hydrocarbons supposedly lying under the South China Sea. The extent of these, as well as the technical and economic feasibility of extracting them, is still somewhat unknown. Still multinationals, such as BP and ExxonMobil (and many of their subsidiaries, some established just for this purpose), as well as national energy companies like the Sinopec (China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation) have entered the geopolitical game as active players. Surely the Secretary of State nominee, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, will be able to advice the incoming President Trump on the intricacies of the situation.

In the sixth chapter, ‘Drums and Symbols: Nationalism’, Hayton discusses how the countries in the region have used sovereignty issues around South China Sea to boost nationalistic sentiments, often to divert attention from domestic problems. Equally obviously, all countries in the basin, as well as outside, such as the United States, use political carrots and sticks to convince others, including those in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), to support their position. China’s diplomacy, which alternates between economic incentives and military threats, is especially powerful in this regard. Towards the end of the book, chapter 8 focuses on ‘Shaping the Battlefield: Military Matters’, outlining the military buildup in the region, as well as the role of the United States armed forces providing security guarantees to its allies, notably Taiwan, but also others.

Last but not at all least, the South China Sea is significant in terms of its environment. Apart from fisheries, Hayton does not spend much time discussing environmental issues. The fishing issue is big enough in itself, given that the 500 million or so, largely poor, people living on the shores of South China Sea depend on fish for their protein. In the last chapter 9, ‘Cooperation and Its Opposites: Resolving the Disputes’, Hayton discusses the declining yields caused by overfishing and development in the sea. There has been a steady increase in the number of fishing operators (from 584,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 2002) and the fishing fleets’ power, size and ability to operate far offshore has equally increased. Over the same period, the average catch of a small inshore fisherman has fallen from 20 kg to 2 kg, which barely allows for subsistence. Again, China is the biggest culprit and as its fishing boats have ventured further away, this has led to clashes with other nations’ coast guards. Recognizing the problem, China has attempted to establish periodic fishing bans to allow for the fish stocks to recuperate, but this is not enough. A better solution would be to establish permanent marine protected areas, but this obviously requires agreement and cooperation by all countries in the region.

Apart from the fisheries, the South China Sea basin is a repository of globally significant ecosystems and biodiversity in mangroves, seagrass beds and the like. These are threatened by coastal development, extensive aquaculture, land-based sources of pollution and many other human-induced stresses. The project, ‘Reversing Environmental Degradation Trends in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand’, funded by the organization that I work for, Global Environment Facility, and implemented by the UN Environment Programme, is a major effort to fight these trends – and it was the first regional program of its kind in which China agreed to participate. I was delighted to see the program getting mention in Hayton’s book.

The South China Sea by Bill Hayton is a good complement to Robert D. Kaplan’s fine 2014 book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. In fact, where Kaplan focuses on military and security issues (while giving geography and politics fair coverage), Hayton’s approach is broader. Especially the historical chapters are amongst the best in the book, bringing new information in a consolidated form and putting the current issues in perspective.

South China Sea is an area with high risk for conflict, even if a shooting war between China and the U.S. would be unlikely. Just earlier this month, a Chinese navy ship intercepted and confiscated a U.S. submarine drone in international waters causing tensions between the two countries. Lynn Kuok, in an opinion piece published by the Brookings Institution this month, advises the incoming administration about the importance of the region for US and global strategic interests (“America first” cannot mean “America alone”: Engaging Southeast Asia). If the US withdraws from the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), ignores ASEAN, and waffles on its interests and commitments in the region, this will only benefit China as the hegemon of the region. Others, like Susan Shirk, head of the China policy center at the University of California San Diego, have argued that the US interests in the South China Sea are limited (see China’s Great Leap Backward by James Fallows in The Atlantic). Then again, as Kuok wrote in June 2016, “The South China Sea dispute is about much more than mere ‘rocks.’ It concerns maritime rights and the preservation of the system of international law. More broadly, how the United States and China interact in the South China Sea has important implications of their relationship elsewhere and on other issues” (The U.S. FON Program in the South China Sea).

In my opinion, the South China Sea issues are so important for regional stability, freedom of navigation, food security, and the global environment, that they deserve the full attention of the world at large.


View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

DC Jazz Summer 2016

The Nation’s Capital is a cultural town with the best museums and the Smithsonian Institutions that are all free, the Kennedy Center with its top class performing arts, and a generally well-educated and wealthy populace who take advantage of the opportunities (admittedly, the education and wealth are highly unevenly distributed). In jazz, however, the city can’t compete with New York. Looking back, the summer of 2016 was nevertheless highly satisfying.


Every June sees the DC Jazz Festival in full swing with lots of concerts and live events in different settings. My season started on June 18, when I caught the Mika Mimura group as part of the Jazz Fest. The concert took place at the Japan Information and Culture Center, which has a medium-sized hall styled like an old-fashioned theater. Mika Mimura is a marimba and vibraphone artist born in Osaka, Japan. She has released two CDs under her own name consisting mostly of her own compositions, ‘Precious’ in 2009 and ‘Dreamii’ in 2014. At the JICC she played with a group consisting of the Argentinian guitarist Ignacio Hernandez, and her compatriots Kuriko Tsugawa on bass and Ken Yanabe on percussion. Mika Mimura displayed some impressive mallet work on pieces like‘The Flight of the Bumblebee,’ but was somewhat overshadowed by her mentor, Warren Wolf, whom she had invited to make a guest appearance at the concert. Wolf, a much in demand musician and teacher from Baltimore, displayed such grace, musicality and relaxed charm that his act was hard to compete with. I was also particularly taken by Tsugawa’s bass work that was both subtle and musical. Educated at Berklee College of Music and based in New York, she is a composer and leader in her own right. All in all a highly satisfying evening.

On the following night (June 19) I headed to the Hamilton for a double booking with two of today’s finest Hammond organists, Cory Henry and Joey DeFrancesco. The Hamilton, close to the White House, is one of the best music venues in DC area and, indeed, anywhere. It’s a fairly large space, with tables in front of the stage, a bar on the side towards right, and another bar up the stairs right in front of the stage. The latter is my favored location, but the advantage with the venue is that no matter where you are seated or standing, the view to the stage is unobstructed and the acoustics are very good. So I ordered some wine and got comfortable waiting for the show to start. Cory Henry was a new acquaintance to me but his turned out to be the better part of the evening, at least for me. As the name of his band, The Funk Apostles, would suggest, we were in for some serious funk that night. But the point is that this was not just rhythm music to make you move. Cory Henry’s music is imaginative and creative, the compositions are often complex with intricate harmonies and chord changes. On top of that, Henry’s own playing is both funky and sophisticated at the same time.

As a longer established musician, Joey DeFrancesco was billed as the main attraction of the evening
and the performance was very good. Unfortunately, the more traditional organ trio sounded a bit sedate after the riotous Funk Apostles. DeFrancesco’s organ sound fits well in a nightclub setting and his sidemen, on guitar and drums, performed in a highly skilled fashion in the standard jazz genre. A couple of times the leader would add to the nightclub atmosphere by singing some mellow jazz tunes or taking up his soft blown trumpet. The intensity picked up when he introduced his new tenor sax player. The evening closed with a lengthy jam session when Cory Henry joined the DeFrancesco band on stage. This final interplay with the two virtuoso keyboardists egging each other on was definitely a highlight of the night and received a roaring response from the full house.

On June 22nd the Finnish Embassy hosted an event with Nordic jazz. The modern building on Massachusetts Avenue is exceptionally beautiful, with a high ceiling, simple light wood fixtures and tall windows giving over a forested lot that was still the light green color of early summer. The embassy is also an excellent venue for music due to its good acoustics (and the open wine bar at the side).

First on stage was Sigmar Matthiasson NYC Quartet. The New York based bassist and composer is one of the best known jazz musicians emerging from Iceland. His multinational NYC Quartet consisted of Taulant Mehmeti on guitar, Baden Goyo on piano and Ayman Boujlida on drums. The music was contemplative and dreamlike, broadly in the category that is exemplified by ECM records.

The second performance of the evening was somewhat rougher. The Finnish pianist and composer Mika Pohjola presented a trio with Kyle Struve on drums and Jerome Sabbagh on tenor sax.  The lack of bass took some time to get used to but Mika’s strong left hand was mostly able to fill the void.

On the last week of June I had to travel to Canada for work and subsequently spent three weeks in Japan in July, so there was a month during which I missed whatever Washington could offer music-wise.


Soon upon my return, on July 31, I headed to the Blues Alley in Georgetown where the great  LA-based Poncho Sanchez was making a rare East Coast appearance with his Latin Jazz Band. He told the audience this was his first performance in DC in the past 30 years. I myself last saw him perform in Hollywood in the late-1980s, so this Georgetown reunion was long overdue. This was his last sold out night after several evenings of performances and it turned into a fabulous show. The venerable Blues Alley is a small and intimate venue – Dizzy Gillespie is said to have called it the finest jazz and supper club in the country. It worked perfectly for Poncho’s band, with the leader on congas, percussion and vocals, backed by Joey De Leon (timbales), Rene Camacho (bass), Rob Blake (trumpet and flugelhorn), Robert Hardt (alto and tenor saxophones, flute), Francisco Torres (trombone), Angel Rodriguez (bongos, congas), and Andy Langham (piano). Francisco Torres also serves as the musical director of the band. Blake played some very good trumpet and a lovely solo on the flugelhorn. Hardt shone on the tenor sax, especially in a blues number by Albert King, but it was his beautiful work on the alto sax that particularly caught my ear. He also played one excellent flute solo (I would have liked to hear more). The most innovative player, however, was Andy Langham who was as avant garde as you would ever hear a Latin pianist play. After the show I was so hyper that I couldn’t make myself go straight home. Instead, I crossed M Street and walked up Wisconsin Avenue to El Centro D.F. to wind down with a couple of more glasses of wine in a Latin setting.


On Saturday August the 13th I decided to leave town and headed to the Chesapeake Bay and the small resort town of North Beach. The traffic was heavy as many others had had a similar idea, but I reached the shore well before lunchtime. The weather was brutally hot and humid. The temperature hit +36oC that afternoon and there was absolutely no wind. I was sweating profusely when I found a popular Mexican place, Plaza Mexico, in which to cool down. After my break, I wandered around the beach and watched people swimming in the bay. Then I stumbled upon what was labeled the 1st Annual North Beach Jazz Festival. I entered the small and cozy courtyard – the Yard at 7th Street Market – where the action was. There was a tent where cold beer and hot BBQ were sold. A few tables and chairs were scattered in front of a small stage where a band was playing. There may have been twenty or thirty people in the audience. I found a shady corner and set to listen to the music. 

The first band was fronted by a trumpet player backed by four gentlemen on electric piano, guitar, bass and drums. The music appealed to the audience, myself included, as it swung in a relaxed manner in the summer heat. The predominant mode was 1970s-80s style rock jazz, as exemplified by a decent rendition of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island.’


After a short break, another band set up on stage. This one was led by local guitarist, DeonCleanCutt. His two sons belonged to the band as well, the younger playing the drums and the older teenager the trumpet and flugelhorn (he clearly had adopted some of the cool mannerisms of Miles). The fourth member of the band was a bass player from California who was visiting his friend here on East Coast. The bass player no doubt was the most accomplished of the musicians, having performed with such jazz stars as David Murray. The music played by this family group relied more on straight blues and jazz. 

All in all, the festival was an extraordinarily sympathetic event, even if the local bands were nothing spectacular. Mental note: make sure to find out when the 2nd Annual North Beach Jazz Festival takes place next summer.



On August 18, I again got the urge to listen to some live music, so I checked the schedules of the known places in the city to find out that Cyrus Chestnut would be performing at the Blues Alley. So I headed back to Georgetown to catch the later show at 9 pm. Am I ever so glad that I did! The piano trio is a versatile format that gives ample space for the players to stretch out based on their abilities and musical imagination. These are qualities that Cyrus Chestnut is not short of. The sensitive, innovative, open minded, creative, genre bending pianist seems totally unhindered by trivial matters like technique. In his hands, original numbers as well as standards get such a breathtaking treatment that the audience can only gasp in amazement. Again, it was impossible for me to return home without stopping at a bar to calm down.


Then on August 27 it was back to the Hamilton. This time the attraction was Al Di Meola whose Elegant Gypsy meets Romantic Warrior tour was making a one-night stop in the capital. The two-hour musical trip that Al Di Meola treated us to rekindled my enthusiasm for the music of this amazing artist whose music I have to confess I hadn’t really listened to since the 1980s. Despite the complexity and virtuosity, the music at the concert was always warm and lyrical. The band played a lot of new material, including from Di Meola’s fresh album ‘Elysium’ (it is an excellent and beautiful one), although fans would get treated to many of the old favorites as well. 

The concert was divided into three segments. The first part focused on fusion numbers that displayed some of the most advanced playing of the evening. A key member in the band was a tall young black man playing some very inspired electric violin. The second part saw Di Meola switching to an acoustic guitar and the mood changed. The final part was again electric but the focus was on more straightforward jazz rock. The set opened with a powerful version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ in which a wailing violin played the part of Robert Plant. Some beautiful Santanaesque Latin beats followed. The Hamilton’s high ceiling was again raised when the band, which played like a dream, received several standing ovations and a raucous call for an encore, an encore that was highly rewarding.

September 2 was a night that I had prepared for. I had bought the tickets months ago as they became available. Despite the threat of rain, Chicago drew a crowd of some 7,000 to the Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. Still going strong, Chicago played a two-hour non-stop show to an enthusiastic audience. The band was fronted by the three-man horn section consisting of the original members: Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider. The gentlemen have aged graciously but still put up a very vigorous performance, each playing inspired solos as well as the section parts that were as tight as ever. Old tunes from the band’s earliest albums, like ‘Make Me Smile’ followed each other. The original keyboardist, singer and composer Robert Lammm was there, although his role was somewhat more low key than in the past when his distinct keyboard and vocals defined the Chicago sound alongside the horns. The “new” members have not changed the Chicago sound noticeably. The keyboardist Lou Pardini (who joined the band in 2009) played a major role, also as a singer, but more as a substitute for Lamm. The drummer Tris Imboden (joined in 1990) was powerful as Daniel Seraphine in the original setting. He was supplemented by the biggest innovation in current Chicago: a percussionist. Walfredo Reyes Jr., was fabulous and some of the most exciting moments included his solos. The guitarist, Keith Howland (joined in 1995), spent much time upfront creating fiery solos, without copying the original guitarist Terry Kath (who accidentally shot himself in 1978 – what an American way to go). We also heard big hits, such as ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ performed by the bassist Jason Scheff, who channeled Peter Cetera almost perfectly both on vocals and the bass guitar. To me, a much more important ballad was ‘Color My World’ sung by Lee Loughnane and featuring Walter Parazaider’s classic flute solo, which all of us aspiring jazz and rock flutists at the time emulated. The two-hour concert ended with two of the band’s biggest hits from the early period, ‘I’m a Man’ and ’25 or 6 to 4.’ Needless to say, the multitude in the audience went crazy.

As if by some divine intervention, the rain had held itself throughout the concert, but at the moment the music ended the skies broke into a torrential downpour soaking us as we walked out of the park. It was futile even to try to stay dry as the paths and the roads soon turned into ankle-deep wildly flowing streams.

Once I get started it’s hard to stop. My jazz summer continued well into September. No more concerts by big visiting names, but there is local jazz talent who can attract a decent crowd to some of the locales around town. On the day after the Chicago concert, I ventured into Columbia Station, a long-standing club on 18th Street up in Adams Morgan and enjoyed a couple of sets of modern quartet jazz led by Knute, a local tenor sax player. 

A couple of weeks later, on September 24th my regular neighborhood haunt Acacia Bistro hosted a jazz marathon with several local bands. My choice was to listen to Jordon Dixon, a solid tenor saxophonist playing very good post-bop backed by a guitar, bass and drums trio. I had never seen my favorite neighborhood joint so packed.


By now the summer is but a memory and it is hard to imagine the heat as the cold winter winds chill one’s bones. But although the summer is gone, the music remains. Washington, DC may not be New York and one has to make more of an effort to find music, it still is a fine city.