The year is 2012. In Taiwan, a charismatic new leader named Yo Tuan occupies the Presidential Office — and he is filled with ambition to make his county independent. Across the strait, president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has been replaced by Wei Ching-chun, an inexperienced and somewhat stoic leader whose ability to steer the Chinese Community Party (CCP) remains unproven. In Washington, President Jocelyn Adams, an African-American woman, succeeded George W. Bush in 2008 and is seeking reelection in a country weighed down by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and severe water shortages that are threatening to create domestic instability.
Thus opens Cooper’s novel, with the added threat of a Mayan prophecy that appears to predict the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012, due to a polar shift. Hit by scandals — the nail in the coffin exposed by an investigative reporter at your very own Taipei Times — the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government that replaced Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2008 has been ousted by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose leader, Yo Tuan, is portrayed as a Chen on steroids, a man with an almost supernatural ability to fire up his supporters. Riding on the backlash against the KMT, a majority in the legislature and led by a firebrand charmer, the DPP government has called for a referendum on a new constitution that would proclaim a new, independent Republic of Taiwan.
In Beijing, the developments in Taiwan are a nightmare scenario for the new president, who fears that any move toward independence on the island could have a domino effect on other parts of the country, especially Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as in Hong Kong, where activists have grown impatient with a series of broken promises by Beijing. Wei is also aware of the power plays within the CCP, with Mei Ying-jeou, who vied for the presidency with Wei, and others, such as Admiral Tang, waiting for him to commit a mistake so as to sideline him. Wei, portrayed by Cooper as an otherwise sensible man, therefore has no option but to order a determined response to Taipei’s move toward independence.
What follows is fairly predictable and draws from a scenario outlined in Richard Bush III and Michael O’Hanlon’s A War Like No Other, which characters in Cooper’s book consult on a few occasions. Taiwanese overwhelmingly vote in favor of a new constitution, Beijing imposes a blockade and Washington ends up caught in the middle. Exacerbating the pressure on President Adams is the presidential campaign, in which her opponent, Governor Todd Williams of Georgia, plays the part of the archetypical Republican who does not waste a second to accuse Adams of being soft on China or of abandoning a fellow democracy when she vacillates.
Undaunted by the blockade and the threat of war, Yo stays the course, China sinks a few vessels approaching Taiwan, the US and Japan retaliate and the situation escalates, bringing the participants to the brink — a Cuban Missile Crisis of the 21st century that will need leadership just as great as that displayed by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.
As the crisis intensifies, Cooper does a fine job exploring the
process of decision-making in
Beijing and Washington, the assumptions that guide decisionmaking in all three capitals, and how Taipei and Beijing play Adams against Williams to their benefit. All of this is very plausible and instructive. Cooper also skillfully exposes the inherent contradictions in the Taiwan Relations Act and “dual deterrence,” which when push comes to shove appear to be more straightjackets than useful
instruments of diplomacy.
Given the complexity of the situation in the Taiwan Strait and the lack of understanding of — or interest in — the matter outside Asia and academic circles, Cooper’s approach is an interesting one, as the novel form, in this case a political thriller, could reach a wider audience and generate interest.
Unfortunately, Cooper tends to be a little to didactic and tries too hard to teach the reader. By telling rather than showing and doing this repeatedly throughout the book, Cooper intrudes on the narrative and ends up undercutting it. Far too often the dialogue is contrived, his characters sounding unnatural, like history or travel books, giving the impression that the author is trying to impress the reader with the places he has visited or the books he has read. In one instance, Wei is having dinner with his wife and moments after talking about their daughter’s new boyfriend, he embarks on a long, jargon-laden discussion on the three conditions necessary for a successful amphibious assault, to which his wife replies: “Remind me, my dear leader. What are the three precious advantages that make for a successful landing?”
This is not to say that novels should not teach us a few things, as Michael Crichton, despite all his faults as a novelist, did to perfection. In Cooper’s case, however, the lessons interrupt the narrative rather than improve it, and on many occasions he becomes didactic on topics — the environment, clean energy, water — that though would all make interesting essays, do nothing to complement the narrative. In fact, as with the often trite dialogue between Adams and her globetrotting daughter, these passages are distracting and would likely have been deleted by a professional editor — which was probably lacking with Cooper’s book, given that Llumina Press is a self-publisher.
Cooper’s novel also suffers from Western bias, with both Chinese and Taiwanese characters often quoting Shakespeare, W.H. Auden and other authors from the Western cannon, all of which is rather unlikely. At one point, we learn that the mother of Admiral Feng — the closest we get to an “evil” character in the book — sought to pacify her son by giving him a copy of Moby Dick.
A few factual errors also stand out, such as Cooper’s contention that Taiwan’s population (23 million) is greater than Canada’s (33 million), that the assassination attempt against Chen occurred in 2000 (rather than in 2004) or that the time difference between Taipei and Washington is 14 hours (it is either 12 or 13).
The scenario has a few good surprises, an improbable Chinese plot involving a biological agent inexplicably introduced in Taiwan while the blockade is at its height, and the denouement is based on an agreement between Beijing and Washington that would unlikely work in the real world.
In all, Cooper’s book is a worthy effort that may just be what is needed to draw attention to the Gordian knot that is the Taiwan Strait. Unfortunately, his desire to instruct and the absence of an editor’s swift knife make the book much longer, and perhaps less entertaining, than it should have been.
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