Asia Times regional editors picked their favorite books for the year. Photo: iStock

The Year of the Dog has come to a close and the Year of the Pig is upon us. With that, Asia Times regional editors have assembled their picks for the best books to take you into a successful Chinese New Year. The list includes our top reads from 2018 and older publications which have become newly relevant due to unfolding events in our regions.

South Asia

China’s India War: Collision Course on the
Roof of the World

By Bertil Lintner

In 1962 India suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of China in a border war that lasted nearly two months. Since then, generations of Indians have grown up haunted by the defeat that has not only left its imprint on foreign policy, but also domestic politics. Even now, the ruling far-right Hindutva party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to remind voters that the defeat took place due to the strategic failures of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. 

But the truth of that war has been mired in claims and counterclaims, mostly dominated by a narrative authored by an Anglo-Australian journalist, Neville Maxwell, whose account is supposed to be based on a secret assessment carried out by the Indian Army after the war. Maxwell’s narrative is very sympathetic to China and was acknowledged by the Chinese leadership for decades.

But was the narrative accurate?

Bertil Lintner is an old Asia hand, a senior journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Times. He has now produced China’s India War, a response of sorts to Maxwell, but also a book that uncovers new ground based on extensive research and meticulous sourcing.

He conclusively shows that the war was a result of Chinese aggression, a follow-up to its illegal annexation of Tibet. While Maxwell tried to blame Nehru’s “forward policy” for the war, a plan mooted by the Indian leadership in autumn 1961, Lintner points out that the Chinese war plans precede this date by at least a year. The fact that the Chinese had built up their logistics and warfighting capabilities for several years, proves that Beijing’s intentions were clear since 1959 or thereabouts.

Lintner’s deep reporting in areas mostly inaccessible to foreigners gives him deep insight into insurgencies that were propped up by China and Pakistan in India’s northeast, and which created fifth columns within its borders.

Lintner’s interviews with Naga and Mizo insurgents in the Northeast, conducted over several trips to these areas, provide a fascinating account of the aftermath of the war and how bilateral relationships have been shaped between the two Asian giants. He draws a parallel to the current tensions in the South China Sea, as China plans an expansionist footprint in the region.

The literature on this war has been sparse, but for some notable exceptions such as Bruce Riedel’s JFK’s Forgotten Crisis and Kunal Verma’s 1962: The War That Wasn’t. Lintner’s book covers valuable ground and serves up insights that are important to understand the rise of China and its implications for a largely Westphalian order.

Oxford University Press | 2018

— Reviewed by Saikat Datta, South Asia Editor 

West Asia (Middle East)

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria 

By Rania Abouzeid

The opening pages of No Turning Back are set in a cafe in the Syrian city of Homs, where one of the book’s carefully chosen characters – the well-groomed Suleiman – has taken his date. The television is emitting other-worldly scenes, a protest in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The young man, a member of one of Syria’s most prominent and loyal families, asks himself if a public challenge could possibly be taking place in his own country.

It was 2011 and the Syrian uprising was breaking out in spurts – on the heels of revolts that unseated the fossilized leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Egypt, pro-regime opinion writers, perhaps hopefully, had pronounced that “Egypt is different” – contrasting its system with that of Tunisia. When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the same refrain was heard in Syria. 

But through the eyes of Abouzeid’s characters – the privileged Suleiman, the little girl Ruha, the hardened Islamists, the kidnapped pre-teens from Syria’s Alawite minority – individuals who she met and kept in close contact with over years of reporting trips, following through their trials and tribulations, battles and courtships – we learn just how it was that Syrian society was not so different than those of its neighbors when faced with a regional tremor of discontent.

“There is no turning back,” Suleiman says in the opening chapter. The sentiment is a promise, a premonition, and a trial in the pages to come. There is no formula for those who join in Syria’s revolt against the ruling clique and no uncomfortable truth spared by the author in her account of its fuel and foundations, idealists and instigators. The little girl Ruha is in elementary school when her father, a young man himself, begins protesting. Suleiman is driving a fancy car that breezes through checkpoints. An activist might become a refugee, a rebel might return to the farm.

It is an almost anthropological chronicle of the conflict, which in 2019 will enter its eighth year with new moving pieces and shifting alliances. There are not enough pages to encapsulate all of the events which the author doubtlessly witnessed and the stories she collected along the way, but this diary of neighborhoods and lives turned upside down makes it explicitly clear why for Syrians there is no turning back. 

W W Norton & Company  | 2018

— Reviewed by Alison Tahmizian Meuse, Middle East Editor

Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu

By Anshel Pfeffer

Before US President Donald Trump, there was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A man with a controversial past and an even more contentious present. Anshel Pfeffer, a longtime senior journalist with Haaretz, produced one of the best biographies last year, detailing the rise of Netanyahu. The fact that many compare him to the American president speaks much about how he is viewed in large parts of the world.

Pfeffer’s book is a timely one. It shows how Netanyahu over several decades carefully cultivated relationships – and then junked them – on the path to becoming prime minister. His rise through the far right of Israel’s complex political landscape starts with a childhood steeped in a Zionist resurgence that he inherited from his father. Netanyahu then served a stint with the Israeli Special Forces, embarked on a diplomatic career in the United States as a key figure in the Israeli Embassy, and finally returned to Israeli politics.

At first glance, it all looks carefully planned, each action meticulously plotted to ensure the highest prize. This is where Pfeffer’s book scores, examining the nuances that led to Netanyahu’s setbacks and eventual success. While Pfeffer remains a critic of Netanyahu, he is also fair to his subject. He points out that despite all his bluster, Netanyahu has always been cautious of violence and using war as a weapon in the volatile region in which he exists.

A key episode that Pfeffer digs into speaks volumes. In July 1976, Israeli Special Forces raided Entebbe in Uganda to rescue Israelis held hostage by a Palestinian terror group with the full support of the then dictator Idi Amin. The force was led by Yonathan Netanyahu, Benjamin’s older brother. The older Netanyahu died on the mission, perhaps within minutes of stepping off the C-130 Hercules.

However, the Netanyahu family scripted the story to tell a more heroic tale, sidelining the role played by Moshe “Muki” Betser, the man who finally led the operation after Yonathan was killed. This episode became a key turning point in the younger Netanyahu’s rise in the Israeli political firmament, displaying a ruthless and cynical use of a military operation to build a convenient political narrative.

Pfeffer’s book is an important addition in an attempt to understand a man who has enormous influence on politics in West Asia and perhaps, like Trump, represents an unpredictable element in the current global narrative.

Basic Books | 2018

— Reviewed by Saikat Datta, South Asia Editor 

The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al-Qaeda

By Yaroslav Trofimov

In October, Saudi operatives murdered Jamal Khashoggi. The grisly murder and half-hearted coverup launched a wave of condemnations, spawning the biggest crisis for Riyadh’s relations with Washington since 15 Saudi nationals brought down the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. But before 9/11, there was the siege of Mecca.

To understand modern Saudi Arabia, and the legacy that the brash young prince known as MBS has inherited, The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov is a must-read. This work details the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a group of fanatics who believe that the monarchy had failed to lead the Muslim world. Their mistake was to bring weapons into the holiest of places and profess faith in a false prophet, who was killed in the operation that eventually muzzled the takeover.

The siege was not successful and the House of Saud endures today. But for those Saudis and others who recounted the bloody events – the final death toll for which remains as obscure as that for the hajj stampede of 2018 – it could have easily taken down the OPEC kingpin. The rebels made an amateur mistake, which was not lost on the monarchy. They had attacked a place of worship rather than a symbol of the monarchy. If they had attacked a palace, one royal confided, things might have ended differently. 

Why does the siege of Mecca matter today? For one, the interior minister at the time was none other than Prince Nayef, the once-powerful and still well-connected former minister who was sidelined from his position as crown prince by MBS. When Nayef was ordering troops into Mecca, Mohammad bin Salman was not yet born.

Rather than crack down on Islamists after that shocking battle, Trofimov writes, the monarchy coddled them, hoping to dull their rage – at least domestically.

In October 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad told investors gathered in Riyadh that his kingdom would no longer stand for extremist thought. “We will not be ruled by these for another day,” he said with passion. He was speaking in part of the siege and the failure of his predecessors to clamp down on the fanatics who carried it out.

Jamal Khashoggi used his Washington Post column in April 2018 to accuse the crown prince of revisionist history, arguing that the siege was not the beginning of extremist thought, but part of a continuum. What the region needed, he argued, was frank reform. It was one of his last columns.

Penguin Random House | 2007

— Reviewed by Alison Tahmizian Meuse, Middle East Editor

Southeast Asia

Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia

By Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat

While Southeast Asia may appear in places to have firmly consolidated civilian-led democratic rule, armed forces still loom large politically across much of the region, as this volume authoritatively shows.

Militaries in all Southeast Asian nations receive large portions of the national budget and maintain their own significant assets and enterprises spanning a range of economic activities. That economic power, the book shows, allows the top brass to boost their political power while hindering democratization.

That is especially evident in Myanmar, where a nearly powerless civilian government resides in the capital Naypyitaw while an autonomous military makes its own rules and exercises influence over the economy through its Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and the Myanmar Economic Corporation.

In Thailand, a nexus of monarchy and military has informally dominated the country for decades – a dynamic that will likely endure even after next year’s elections. And Cambodia’s political economy is an “asymmetrical neo-patrimonialism” between long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former soldier, and his security forces, according to a particularly revealing essay in the volume.

In Indonesia, which emerged strongly as a democracy in 1998 after more than three decades of authoritarian military rule under Suharto’s New Order regime, the military still maintains independent and profitable business activities.

Even in the Philippines, arguably the region’s most established and raucous democracy, the military acts through trust funds that enable it access to funds that can mobilized for special political purposes under less strict terms than those stipulated in budgets dispensed by the elected civilian government.

With contributions by seven prominent academics, this volume shares compelling examples of how Southeast Asian militaries are able to cling to political power through economic means.

Nordic Institute of Asian Studies | 2017

— Reviewed by Bertil Lintner, Security Correspondent

Understanding India’s Northeast – A Reporter’s Journal

By Rupa Chinai

The tribal areas of India’s northeastern region may politically belong to South Asia, but culturally they have more in common with Southeast Asia.

The Naga, Manipuri, Kuki and Mizo tribes in the ethnically restive region all speak Tibeto-Burman languages, while the language of the Khasi tribe is Austroasiatic, also known as Mon-Khmer.

Others speak Tibetan dialects or tribal languages that linguists find difficult to categorize. Not surprisingly for such a complex region, India’s northeastern “seven sister” states – Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur,
Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh – have been ravaged by ethnic strife for decades.

Rupa Chinai, a Mumbai-based journalist, has covered these intricate and tragic issues since 1980 and her book is an insightful account of the political and cultural issues that keep conflict alive in a region long closed to foreigners.

Those dynamics differ widely from state to state as well as within each state. Nearly every state in the region has a chapter devoted to it and all are written with a profound human touch, often in the form of personal stories.

Chinai spent weeks and months living in tribal communities in the hills and among fishermen and laborers in tea estate regions to map and understand the reasons for their alienation from mainstream Indian society.

Even so, insurgency and conflict did not dominate her grassroots discussions. Reading between the lines of her book, it is obvious that their concerns are more down-to-earth: jobs, medical care, social services and basic survival. Or being recognized as Indians and not chingkees, Indian slang for Southeast Asian-looking peoples.

Her book is a must-read for anyone interested in life and society in one of India’s – and Southeast Asia’s – most volatile regions.

Saurabh Printers (Noida) | 2018.

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner, Security Correspondent

Northeast Asia

The New Koreans: The Business, History and People of South Korea

By Michael Breen

It may be Asia’s most baffling nation. Korea – rather, the Koreas – exploded on to the world’s mind map only in 1950, but have rarely been off it since, for a range of strategic, political, economic and, more latterly, cultural reasons. Despite ruling the same people, Pyongyang and Seoul have walked radically different paths, resulting in one of the world’s worst post-communist failures and one of its greatest capitalist successes. Yet even within South Korea, in areas as distant as politics, commerce and social culture, matters extend to extremes in ways that defy expectations.

How to make sense of it all? Michael Breen’s The New Koreans (a follow-up to his earlier The Koreans) provides many answers. It breaks the mold of current Korea-related publishing – dominated by Northern escape narratives or geopolitical analyses – as it concentrates largely, but not exclusively, on the South. 

Blending historical and other data with personal experience and critique, the ex-journalist lays bare multiple national contradictions. He notes that despite the successes of Korean capitalism, the planning for the “economic miracle” was socialistic, and this thinking still permeates. The touchy issue of Japanese colonialism is covered even-handedly: Breen notes that elderly Koreans who lived through the period are less anti-Japanese than those who learned about it subsequently.  His discussion of Seoul pre-, mid- and post-war atrocities will give pause for thought to anyone who views the conflict through the prism of “good democrats” vs “bad commies.”

Even long-term Korea watchers will nod at many of Breen’s observations, which extend from the highs of religious belief and business culture to the lows of national defecatory habits. His is a thought-provoking, intelligent work, but one that is laced throughout with humor. Professorial types have sniffed at Breen’s approach, but his marriage of fascinating content with page-turning style make his book a joy to read, elevating it far above academic drudgery. An essential primer for anyone seeking insight into a peninsula that never strays far from global headlines.

Macmillan | 2017 

— Reviewed by Andrew Salmon, Northeast Asia Editor 

East Asia 

How South Asians Helped to Make Hong Kong 

By Mark O’Neill, Annemarie Evans and Kevin Lee

Hong Kong – an Asian world city, according to its government – is more than a city in the East “meeting the West,” but a place of 7 million people of many nationalities.

The three authors – O’Neill, Evans and Lee – take a rare but significant angle, showcasing how South Asians from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have brought with them languages, religion, sports, customs, festivals and food, and injected rituals and deep vitality to the city throughout its history.

Currently, there are about 80,000 South Asians in Hong Kong. While many of these ethnic minorities face discrimination in the city, this book reminds the public about South Asians’ contributions to Hong Kong’s culture and community.

Joint Publishing | 2018

Reviewed by Jeff Pao, China editor 

The Legend of the Condor Heroes 

By Louis Cha

This book is the first part of Cha’s Condor Trilogy. It is an epic novel depicting ancient wartime China during the Sung Dynasty – and followed by The Return of the Condor Heroes and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber.

Louis Cha Leung-yung (1924-2018) – a world-famous Hong Kong-based fiction writer, better known by his pen name Jin Yong – wrote 15 novels about the lives, romances and other adventures of kung fu masters in ancient China, starting from The Book and the Sword in 1955 to The Deer and the Cauldron in 1972.

The Legend of the Condor Heroes was one of the early works by Cha, which was first serialized between January 1, 1957, and May 19, 1959, in the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

The trilogy has been dubbed by some as the Chinese Lord of the Rings, and for the first time, it is readily available in English.

Quercus Publishing | 2018

Reviewed by Jeff Pao, China editor 

A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal 

By Nigel Collett

The death of John MacLennan, who came to Hong Kong from Scotland as a police officer in January 1980, remained controversial for several decades. Homosexuality was illegal at that time, and MacLennan killed himself as he faced arrest for committing homosexual acts.

Nigel Collett, a retired lieutenant-colonel of the British Brigade of Gurkhas, spent many years studying the case and pointed out that MacLennan’s death could be a result of the British colonial government trying to suppress scandals and silence those who stirred up trouble under the governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose amid a time of reform and progress.

The mysterious case has been included in the Hong Kong LGBT Movement History Archive and was once put on a drama stage in London.

City University of Hong Kong Press | 2018

Reviewed by Jeff Pao, China editor 

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Thousands of books are seen on an 18-meter four-story-high wall at a shopping mall in Xian in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. With so many to pick from, Asia Times has come up for with some recommendations that readers might like to try. Photo: AFP

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