A historical alliance: Victor Cha on the US-Asian relationship

ChaHow was the critical American alliance system originally established in Asia, and is it currently threatened? In his most recent book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in AsiaVictor Cha draws from theories about alliances, unipolarity, and regime complexity to examine the fascinating evolution of the U.S. alliance system. Exploring the motivations and aspirations of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, Cha explains the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Asia and how it contributes to the resiliency of global alliances  today. Recently Cha took some time to discuss his book and what he learned while writing it.

Why did you write this book?

VC: I was motivated to write a history of how the United States created this incredibly unique and important alliance system in Asia.  Long after the Cold War, these alliance still exist and indeed are critical to US policy today.  So how and why were these alliances formed?  Powerplay is one of those studies that a scholar can work on for years.  It deals largely with archival work and in that regard, it is timeless!  In my case, I had started the project some 12 years ago and had written about 100 pages.  Then, I left Georgetown to take public service leave when I worked on the National Security Council as a director for Asian affairs.  I did this for nearly three years between 2004 and 2007 and when I returned to the academy, I took on two additional book projects which took me away from Powerplay for four years.  I was so happy to get back to it, however, and spent the last two years going back into the archives and recreating the history of how Kennan, Dulles, Eisenhower and Truman thought about Asia at the end of World War II.  I was also able to weave into the last chapter my thoughts about the future of the US alliance system based on my experiences in government.  I am so happy with the result and look forward to sharing this with readers.

What did you learn in the course of writing the book?

VC: Perhaps the most interesting lesson for me was how the American experiences as a great power in Asia were truly unique.  Even as a colonial power in the 19th century, the United States did not behave like European powers or like prewar Japan.  It was a hegemon in Asia, but was more inclusive in its thinking and genuinely interested in more than simply imperial designs.  Just as an example, the United States in the 19th century actively encouraged its missionaries to go to Asia to teach about worship, values, and faith.  This was unlike the British who banned their missionaries from educating Asia and the Japanese which later imposed state worship on their colonial subjects.  The American interest was cultural and economic before it was strategic.  It was only with the Cold War that the United States was compelled to create strategic relationships, but then used these relationships to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

VC: Like all authors, I enjoyed the conclusion, because it meant the book was done!  Aside from that, I enjoyed very much writing the case study chapters on Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as the stories for each case are different and special in each of their own ways.  There are some wonderful quotes by Asian leaders like Syngman Rhee of Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan that were fun to discover in the archives.  I also enjoyed writing the section in Chapter 7 about the region’s efforts to form a multilateral security organization in 1949.  These efforts are not really covered in other histories.

What is the story behind the cover art?

VC: So, the editors at Princeton and I discussed for a while an appropriate cover for the book.  There were some fantastic pictures in the Dulles papers at Princeton that I had come across, and the one we chose is that of John Foster Dulles at the front in Korea one week before the North Korean invasion of 1950.  The other photo we considered was Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signing a document at the San Francisco conference with Dulles and Dean Acheson standing behind him.  Both photos conveyed the inordinate strength that the United States wielded at the time over these countries, but also an appreciation of the strategic importance of these new allies.   The book is about “control” and these photos seemed to convey the “hands-on” nature of the U.S. commitment.

Victor Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and formerly served as director of Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council. Cha is an award-winning author, receiving awards for his books The Impossible State and Alignment Despite Antagonism. His most recent book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.

Firefly Fact Friday – Japanese Fireflies: Harvested for Beauty

This week our firefly fact comes from Sara Lewis:

While fireflies were harvested for their light-producing chemicals in the U.S., in Japan fireflies were harvested for their beauty. In Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, many firefly merchants set up shop every summer from the early 1800s through the 1920s. They hired hunters to collect genji-botaru (Luciola cruciata) fireflies, which they sold to clients in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto. Hotel and restaurant owners released these wild-caught fireflies into their gardens, where customers would pay to enjoy their luminous beauty. By some estimates, firefly vendors sold three million wild insects to city folk every June and July. Soon, firefly populations began to dwindle due to over-collecting, river pollution, and habitat loss. Silent Sparks describes the ecohistory of Japanese and U.S. fireflies, including some successful conservation efforts.

catching fireflies print

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

An interview with Tonio Andrade, author of Gunpowder Age

To what degree do times of peace impact military power and precision? In his new book, Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade shows how throughout Chinese history, powerful enemies have inspired periods of intense military innovation and technological advancement. Andrade recently took the time to answer some questions about his book, China’s fascinating military past, and its potential emergence a modern day superpower.

Gunpowder AgeChina is fast becoming a military superpower now. Your book claims to find a “pattern to the Chinese military past.” How do current events fit into this pattern?

TA: China under its current leader, Xi Jinping, has become increasingly assertive, for example by building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress China’s claims to jurisdiction over the vast majority of the sea. These claims are disputed by many nations, including the USA, and analysts wonder whether China would really go to war to defend them. Some believe that it inevitably will, because rising powers tend to use their muscle to overturn the status quo, while existing powers tend to defend the status quo. Others, however, argue that China has traditionally maintained a defensive perspective on military power and is typically uninterested in waging aggressive wars. If we look at China’s deep history, however, we find numerous occasions when China used its overwhelming military power for aggressive warfare. Intriguingly, many of those occasions occurred at times analogous to today, when the dynasty in question had consolidated power after a difficult period, often spanning generations, and had reached a position of overwhelming regional power.

So you believe that China will likely use military force to assert itself over surrounding areas?

TA: China will use the most effective means to achieve its ends and maintain its security. Xi Jinping has said that war between the USA and China would be disastrous at present for both countries, and I believe China will try to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, in the past, when China has waged aggressive war, its power was overwhelming (or perceived as such) vis-à-vis its enemies. Today, however, China is in a situation less like the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), in which China was far more powerful than any surrounding country, than like the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which faced enemies that matched it in power, or, indeed, outmatched it. The Song fought many wars, but usually these were defensive wars, not wars of expansion.

You argue that when China faces powerful enemies it tends to be stronger and more innovative, and when it is overwhelmingly powerful its military power tends to atrophy. Is its current military power due to the fact that China faces an unusually strong rival in the USA?

TA: China’s military past seems to follow distinct patterns. We have to be careful to distinguish what we mean by “China,” however, because much Chinese warfare has typically been against other Chinese, and/or against other states occupying parts of what is today China. In any case, for much of its history, China has shuddered between periods of intense warfare and periods of relative peace, and during times of frequent warfare it has tended to have state-of-the-art military technology, techniques, and organization. During periods of extended peace, on the other hand, it has tended to fall behind, simply because it had fewer reasons to invest in military innovation. China’s current military power has been stimulated by more than a century of war and geopolitical insecurity, and there’s no doubt that China’s current military innovation and expansion is stimulated by competition with powerful rivals, most importantly the USA.

What were other periods of strength and weakness in China’s history?

TA: Probably the most significant period of relative weakness was the nineteenth century, when China found itself spectacularly vulnerable to western power, as first made clear in its humiliating loss to Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-42). Many Westerners explained China’s stunning weakness at that time by recourse to its cultural conservatism, to what they felt was a deep resistance to new ways or foreign ideas. These sorts of ideas are still very much around. But in fact, China’s resistance to innovation was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, and it can be explained by looking at the incidence of warfare experienced by China. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, China’s Qing Dynasty had a position of such overwhelming strength and authority both within and beyond its borders that for nearly a century its inhabitants faced fewer wars (both external and internal) than ever before in the historical records. China was, in a sense, too strong for its own good, because this overwhelming power removed the stimulus for military improvement. Meanwhile, the British and their neighbors were fighting huge wars and innovating furiously. When China and Britain went to war in 1839, the British had military capacities that were far beyond those of China: Congreve rockets; light and powerful cannons; light, mobile howitzers; percussion cap muskets; explosive shells of unprecedented precision; and artillery tables that allowed the calculation of trajectories with extraordinary accuracy.

After the Opium War, why did it take so long for China to catch up with the west?

TA: Actually, Chinese officials, military and civil, carried out quite a bit of innovation right after the Opium War, studying Western guns, steamships, and sailing ships, and that innovation sped up during the intense military conflagrations that beset China starting in the 1850s. Many historians (I am one) now believe that from a technical standpoint the Qing were catching up quite effectively by the late 1860s and early 1870s. Indeed, it seems likely that up to that point their modernization attempts were even more effective than than those of Japan. But by the late 1880s, the trajectory changed, with Japan’s innovations becoming more effective. The reason is not technological or cultural but political. Japan’s old regime fell in 1867, replaced by a newer, centralized government that modernized its political structures. The Qing, however, held on, and its political structures failed to adapt. In fact, it’s a curious coincidence of history that the Qing and Japan’s old regime lasted exactly the same number of years. It’s just that the Japanese regime, which was founded first, also fell first. Japan had a clean slate and could sweep away old, unproductive aspects of its old regime. China couldn’t, so the Qing, although it effectively added new military structures – huge factories, innovative new armies, powerful new navies – couldn’t get rid of old ones, and so it was burdened and inflexible.

Your book starts with the invention of gunpowder and traces the evolution of the gun in the period 900-1280 or so, but one of the great questions of world history is why, if the Chinese invented the gun, they didn’t use it as effectively as the West?

TA: Most people know next to nothing about early gunpowder weapons, and I was no different when I started writing the book. In fact, even experts in China’s military history knew very little about early guns until recently, but what we’re learning is causing us to question some deep narratives in world history. Guns were tremendously important in China, used highly effectively. By the mid- to late-1300s, some 10% or so of Chinese infantry soldiers were armed with guns, meaning there were probably more gunners in Chinese armies than there were troops of all kinds in Western Europe (excluding Iberia). By the mid-1400s, the proportion of gunners in China had reached 30% or so of infantry forces, a level Europeans didn’t reach until the mid-1500s. And Chinese soldiers used guns more effectively as well, deploying them in advanced and highly-disciplined formations by the mid-1300s. Similar disciplinary techniques and formations didn’t spread in Europe until the 1500s. So you can see that Chinese gunners were highly effective, more effective than westerners during this period. This early history of Chinese gunnery is almost entirely unknown, but it is a key part of world history.

That’s very interesting, but of course Europeans did eventually get better at gunpowder technology. When and why did this happen?

TA: During the early gunpowder Age, from around 900 or so (when the first gunpowder weapons were used in battle) to around 1450, East Asians led the world in gunpowder warfare. Starting around 1450, however, Europeans pulled ahead. Why? I believe the answer has to do with levels of warfare. From 1450 or so, the Ming dynasty entered into a period of relatively low warfare, which contrasted with the previous century of intense warfare. This period of relative peace (emphasis on the word relative) in China contrasted with a period of tremendous warfare in Europe. So Europeans, fighting frequently, developed new types of guns – longer, thinner, lighter, and more accurate – whereas Chinese guncraft stagnated. This period lasted only a short time, however. By the early 1500s, Chinese were innovating furiously again, and the period from 1550 to 1700 or so was a time of tremendous warfare in China. China stayed caught up with the west from a military perspective – ahead in certain respects, behind in others – until the mid-1700s when, as I said before, it entered into a great period of relative peace (again, emphasis on the word relative), during which it fell behind, a situation that lasted until the Opium War.

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese. His most recent book is Gunpowder Age.

Five Days in August — remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 and 9, 1945, 70 years ago this week, the terrifying images of mushroom clouds rising over devastated cities were seared into the public consciousness. Atomic bombs, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation, had decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly, and in the days and months that followed, thousands more would suffer and die from radiation sickness and burns. The shocking display of military power and the vast human toll was unlike anything the world had seen. Whatever “nuclear” meant prior to August 6, it entered the lexicon that day as a term synonymous with uncontrolled destruction.

Five Days in AugustMost Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. But according to Michael Gordin’s  Five Days in August, (now available in e-book), the allied military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential. In fact, they were unsure whether the bombs would explode at all. But in the wake of the blasts and unparalleled ruin that did in fact occur, in the minds of many, physics became the science of war.

An interesting Princeton University Press historical note from Nature.com:

On the evening of 11 August 1945, just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the US government released Smyth’s 200-page document under the ponderous title, ‘A General Account of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945’. Quickly dubbed ‘the Smyth report’, copies flew off the shelves. The original Government Printing Office edition ran out so quickly that Princeton University Press published its own edition late in 1945, under the more manageable title, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, which sold more than 100,000 copies in a year.

The information contained in the Smyth report was heavily restricted for security reasons. But in a post-war and early cold war climate, atomic secrets were a hot commodity. Even today without the apocalyptic dread of The Day After, nuclear power remains a political and military preoccupation, as nations face the threat of terrorism, the problem of waste, and the danger of meltdown.

Gordin writes in Five Days in August, “Each generation has grappled intensely and repeatedly with understanding the implications of nuclearism for its future, but the struggle has always been caught  in terms fixed, as if in amber, with the speed and suddenness with which World War II ended.” For more on the moral questions left in the wake of these five days, and a look at the confused final months of World War II, sample Chapter 1, titled Endings, here.