Book Review: Brendan Taylor, Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management (London: Taylor and Francis, 2019) pp.264 ISBN 978-0-367-43748-0

Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS

On A ‘conflict hotspot’ is what Brendan Taylor, author of the book ‘Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management’ calls the situation across the Taiwan Strait. A Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University(ANU), Taylor is a specialist in Asia-Pacific and East Asian’ flashpoints’ and Asian security architecture. In the book, Taylor argues that the situation in Taiwan looks increasingly precarious, and flaring tensions could create a major strategic conflict. A crisis could brew slowly as a new Cold War grows to hold over the US and China or erupt suddenly with an accidental collision of military ships or aircraft operating in the Taiwan Strait. He proceeds to say that the possibility of conflicts over Taiwan is real and intensifying by the day and despite this, it is not being treated with the seriousness and urgency the situation deserves. Taylor espouses robust countering mechanisms to deal with the situation to avoid an affair with global ramifications.

The book is structured into four chapters, and the author has used this division to present the situation as of 2019. Building upon previous books by Richard C. Bush and Michael J. Cole that dealt with the previous two decades, Taylor focuses on changes and potential flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait towards the end of the 2010s. The first three chapters deal with the past, present, and potential conflict zones between three powers in the region. The first chapter takes a historical perspective on the conflict, and  Taylor describes China, Taiwan and the United States’ stakes in the conflict.

The gulf between the first two stakeholders, Taiwan and China, is growing rapidly today. The author cites a Lowy Institute survey that says those under the age of 29 living in Taiwan consider themselves ‘exclusively Taiwanese’. Post-Mao leaders have adopted a wait-and-see approach; reunification has always been an inevitable fact for the Chinese leadership. However, with each progressing year, younger generations in Taiwan identify lesser and lesser with being “Chinese”, and mainland China is wary of letting this sentiment grow. The author says Xi has been tougher toward Taiwan to retain the image of a single group of people.

The third stakeholder in this scenario is the United States. Washington has traditionally been a deterrent against Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan while at the same time dissuading Taiwan from splitting away completely. But the rapid rate at which Chinese military advancements overcame Taiwanese forces and continued to catch up with the US has resulted in a rise in stronger anti-China sentiments among the American leadership, which Taylor spends significant time dealing with through the actions of the Trump administration such as their reaffirmation of the Taiwan Relations Act in the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act. Growing strain between the US and China has detrimental effects on cross-strait peace, which was seen during Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip in 2022.

Taylor is at home in the second chapter. Using his expertise in South Asian military architecture, he compares the nation’s military capabilities and relates them to varying escalation points. This raises questions at first glance. Does the existence of a certain number of frigates imply that in a conflict, they could be pointed all at once towards Taiwan? It is to be thought about Chinese conflicts with Japan, India, the Philippines and other countries. Will these conflicts not play into the deployment of Chinese forces in the Strait?

Despite an expanding military toolbox, Beijing deemphasised the use of military coercion against the island, fearing an American response. But with American influence slowly declining after Tsai Ing Wen’s reelection, China seems to be getting restless. Taylor cites this as an example of international stakeholders not taking the situation seriously. As Chinese power grows, he notes, so does the number of new methods it can use to address its ‘Taiwan problem’. Due to  growing Chinese power and declining US influence, Chinese incentives to navigate this situation via force only increase. Even a slight miscalculation or misconception could be deadly, according to the author.

The author borrows the term tipping points from Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian journalist, to describe four possible situations in the Cross-Strait scenario which could cause the whole status quo to go awry, forming some of the book’s best reads in Chapter Three. According to the author, these tipping points might lead to the collapse of peace across the Strait and result in a full-blown worldwide conflict, which he begins by describing an ‘accidental’ crossing of Beijing’s ‘red lines’. The “red lines” are a  vague concept, almost akin to the US “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. Even sending a senior official for the opening of new American Institute in Taiwan was seen as crossing a Chinese “red line”. Taylor cites historic flashpoints which could easily have caused a kerfuffle such as the accidental Taiwanese missile firing in 2016 and the infamous intentional crossing of the median line by two J-11 fighters in March 2019.  Taylor points out that due to the lack of a formal agreement between Taiwan and China like the  Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for Asian nations, there are no systems of checks and balance between the two.

Taiwan’s salience for the US remains its commercial importance. The idea that Taiwan could become a proxy in this new cold war was brought up, and the author delves briefly on how the Taiwanese can use it to their advantage. Although Taiwan is not a formal US ally, the author believes that the level of US commitment towards Taiwan could influence their relations with other East Asian nations like Japan. He continues that the stakeholders are standing along a hair-triggered border. Even a slight infraction could result in calamitous results. 

In the fourth chapter, the author lists possible ways this circumstance could go, and they all get progressively dire, from peace agreements to catastrophic conflict. The policy options like the inclusion of Taiwan in the CPTPP, and potential bargains between the two countries do not even account for the world-changing COVID-19 pandemic or the Presidential race in the United States as it was published in 2019. The policy options suggested by the author emphasise a step-based-situational approach instead of a long-term thought. Overall, the text exhibits Brendan Taylor’s understanding of the dispute with the larger logistics of the three stakeholders involved. The only issue is that three years have passed since its publication, and the “status quo” has changed.  The ADIZ intrusions that caused large-scale unrest were absent when the book was published. However, it is an interesting entry for even a lay person to enlighten themselves about the ‘conflict hotspot’ in the east.

Book Review: Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese women

Taal Seth, Research Intern, ICS

Book Review: Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese women by Ravni Thakur, London, Cynthia Street, 1997, published by Zed Books Ltd, ISBN 1-85649-410-1 (Paperback)

Through Rewriting Gender, Ravni Thakur conducts research on the lives of women in post-Mao Chinese society. She imagines gender roles as discursive practices, reproduced through their representations in literature and other texts. To this end, she conducts discourse analysis of prevalent works of literature written by women writers as well as their literary criticism that were published between the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976) and the suppression of pro-democratic protests at Tiananmen Square (1989). The author chooses this timeline as it coincides with the rise in the number of women authors at this time. Moreover, it allows her to study reflections on ideals of gender set in place by Confucianism, socialist realism as well as by the changing face of Chinese society under Deng Xiaoping.

The central theoretical argument of the book is that the social institution of gender is a discursive practice that gets produced by and reproduced in literature. Thakur employs Michel Foucault’s concept of knowledge production as the basis of her theoretical framework. To apply this work in her particular research, she uses Pierre Bourdieu’s tenets of literary analysis and knowledge production within the ‘the literary field’ for discourse analysis of Chinese literature. She creates a distinction between orthodox and heterodox thoughts on gender roles and the position of women in society, which is reflected in the prevalent literature of the period. She observes that the theme of socialist realism was enforced in orthodox literature. Through socialist realism, Thakur refers to a literary theme wherein characters within a story are expected to stand as role models for the readership, and the stories are supposed to deliver a moral message in line with the tenets of Chinese socialism. This is done on the basis of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of ‘discourses of power’ (which she relates with orthodox discourses in Chinese literature) and ‘discourses of resilience’ (represented in the heterodox gender discourse in Chinese literature).

The introduction of the book highlights its two main questions: what is the orthodox discourse on gender roles and how does heterodox discourse challenge it? The book is divided into two parts to answer these questions. Thakur uses the first chapters of each part to lay down the theoretical background. In the first part of the book, ‘Orthodox Gender Discourse and the Literary Field,’ she reviews secondary literature on the discourse of ‘labour heroines’ championed during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when the popular political attempt was to revive and accelerate economic growth within and through Chinese society. In contrast was the post-Cultural Revolution period, when women’s natural worth was founded in motherhood and familial loyalties.

Thakur argues that the most obvious signifier of orthodox thought in Chinese literary circles is the very attempt to club women writers together and to assert that their work has a distinct voice from men’s. She primarily reviews literary criticisms on the works of women authors such as Ru Zhijuan, Zong Pu, Zhang Jie, Shen Rong etc. and argues that this literature is stuck in a prison architectured by China’s party-state, which limited authors from exploring uncharted themes. Thakur also argues that literary criticism for women’s work falls short, since there was no framework in place to critique women’s work; this is because of the sudden rise of women authors in China along with the very small number of women critics to prepare a framework.

The second part of the book titled ‘Responses to Gender Discourse,’ engages with literary works that display heterodox thought. In this part, the author reviews works of writers whose criticism was analysed in the first part. Specifically, she studies characters and settings, the theoretical model for which is outlined in Chapter 4 (A Methodology for Character Analysis). Through this section, she breaks down the myth of the nuxing wenue or women’s writings, by bringing forth the divergent themes, stories, and styles of writing in different popular works authored by women (displayed in Thakur’s analysis of Zhang Jie’s The Ark and Zhang Xinxin’s On the Same Horizon). Thakur argues that whilst the orthodox discourse enjoys institutional power, heterodox discourse has the power of resistance, of bringing radical ideas into the minds of the public. This is reflected in her book title that expresses that the literary field is a breeding ground for change in gender roles that are being rewritten during this period  (‘rewriting gender’).

Thakur’s research testifies that there is a strand of literature in China which subjectifies women by exploring the voices of women characters instead of adopting the orthodox mainstream thought propagated by the Chinese state. In this part of the book, there is a self-conscious change in the question asked itself. Heterodox discourse challenges the orthodox discourse not by questioning particular tenets of socialist realism, but by asserting that there should be no singular thought that attempts to describe all women — that Chinese women are subjects who cannot be judged through one arbitrary framework.

While the book employs theories about literary and discourse analysis that originate in the West, they are adapted to the specific Chinese context thoughtfully, with attention given to the type of literary communities that exist in China, how works of literature are published and distributed, and the scope of the agency women are given to write their own stories. This is reflected in the attention paid to literary criticism given to the writers’ work, keeping in mind the institutionalisation of this criticism. In this way, Rewriting Gender provides a strong methodological framework for discourse analysis of the literary field to understand social relations in China.


The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Smog Stories: A Tale of Two Cities

-Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS


Every winter, newspapers in India are flooded with articles about the national capital, New Delhi, succumbing to haze-filled skies and poor air quality. Citizens are subject to distressing reminders of the increasing pollution, with schools being shut for as long astwo weeks to protect young students from respiratory issues like asthma and pneumonia. Decreased visibility leads to horrific accidents on highways. This seasonal return of poor quality is the smog problem. Another Asian capital, the city of Beijing, was often involved in the same conversation. However, there is a difference in the way the situations were handled in both cities. This blog aims to observe and investigate these differences.

International Guidelines

The word smog is a portmanteau of the words smoke and fog. This term was coined in 1905 by Dr Henry Antoine Des Voeux to describe a “smoky fog” in the skies of London. Around the 1950s, the term gained widespread usage to describe the air conditions around London and Los Angeles. In 1987, the WHO published its report[4] on global air quality guidelines for the first time. The guidelines were crafted as quantitative, evidence-based information whose goal is to assist policymakers in creating policies that mitigate the risks posed to public health by air pollution. These guidelines have been regularly updated, the most recent in 2006 and 2021. The quantitative measure used to formulate these guidelines[5] is often the PM2.5 concentration levels in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³). PM2.5 is a particulate matter made of particles 25 microns or smaller in diameter. It is considered one of the most dangerous due to its prevalence and harmful effects. PM2.5 particles are released from running vehicles, factory production, stubble burning in agriculture, construction processes, and residential coal burning. Natural events like forest fires and dust storms also release these particles. Although new research says no level of PM2.5 is healthy, the recommended levels are 5 µg/m³. In highly polluted countries, incremental steps of 10, 15, 25 and 35 µg/m³ were recommended by the WHO. Using these stats scientists have been able to correlate the amounts of particles in the air, and corresponding stresses to humans.

Empowering the World to Breathe Cleaner Air | IQAir

China’s Smog Problem: A Case Study of Beijing

By 2008, China was the second-largest energy consumer in the world, but fossil fuels met only 8 per cent of its demand. Increasing population, urbanization, and industrialization increased airborne pollutants immensely. Today, China is the largest producer and consumer of coal, and coal is one of the significant causes of PM 2.5 pollution.

In Beijing, the smog problem can be traced as far back as 600 years. The Chinese language has many terms for ‘smog’, but wumai and hui-mai are the most popular terms. ‘Wumai’ has been used to describe a mixture of smoke and fog for decades, but wumai as a concept of dangerous pollution took weight only recently as in 2013. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a report on fighting climate change had pointed out that the haze and smog problem was at the worst it had been since 1961. This event was called the “Great Eastern China Smog”. At the time, Wang Anshun, Bejing’s mayor called the city “unlivable”.

In 2012, 78.6% of energy was provided by coal production. Seven of the top twenty-five cities located in industrialized areas (which were heavily dependent on coal) were in the vicinity of Beijing. The mountain regions to the west and the north blocked this heavy pollution in Beijing, up to 1000 µg/m³ at some points in 2013. Other factors adding to the grey skies over Beijing included vehicular exhaust, crop burning and fireworks.

Great Eastern China Smog, 7 December 2013
Smog Shrouds Eastern China (
Same region, 3 January 2022
A Winter Haze Over China (

Beijing’s Plan of Action

To address this severe air pollution crisis, the State Council of China created one of the toughest Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan towards the end of 2013. Three regions were targeted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region (BTH), the Yangtze River Delta region (YRD), and the Pearl River Delta region (PRD). The strict regulations entailed rigid industrial emission standards, phasing out small and polluting factories, upgrading the industrial boilers, promoting clean fuels in the residential sector, and strengthening vehicle emission standards. 

Between 2013 and 2017, PM2.5 concentrations in Beijing decreased from 68 µg/m³ to 42 µg/m³. From 2017 to 2021, air quality improved further in the next five years to just under 35µg/m³. The regular monitoring and regulation of the action plan showed marked improvement in the air quality index. In the past ten years, China’s ranking dropped from the top to 22nd in the PM2.5 concentration rankings. There is a marked difference in satellite images of the region taken by NASA’s Terra satellite. However, as Anshun says, the companies that “irresponsibly relocate” to neighbouring areas of Hebei and Tianjin are not solving the problem at all.

India’s Smog Problem: A Case Study of New Delhi

New Delhi has faced international controversies regarding its air quality for ages. In 2010, concerns were raised about the city prior to its organization of the Commonwealth Games. There was quite an uproar in early 2014 when New Delhi surpassed Bejing as the world’s most polluted city in the Environmental Performance Index. The PM2.5 rating was around 100 in New Delhi, much higher than Beijing’s 68. In 2017, Delhi was once again in the news when the visiting Sri Lankan team refused to play in the adverse conditions. In 2021, this value was 85 for New Delhi, but almost a 50% drop for Beijing at 34.

Between November 1 and 7, 2016, New Delhi faced a Severe Air Pollution Episode (SAPE) called the “Great Indian Smog“. Industrial activities, construction released pollutants, vehicular exhaust gases, dust from roads and power plant emissions were often listed as the principal culprits in this scenario. However, an additional cause was the casual stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring agricultural belt. Farmers traditionally burn the stubble in their fields yearly to prepare for the subsequent crops. These farmers are reluctant to use more environmentally friendly methods like hiring machines to uproot and roll the stubble back into the field because of the costs involved. NASA’s Terra satellite shows numerous fires burning across the region; the soot mixes with the seasonal fog, creating the harmful smog.

New Delhi’s Plan of Action

India has undeniably made efforts to combat this issue in recent years, including New Delhi’s large fleet of CNG buses. The government added parking fees for nights to discourage driving to work, and the number of metro trains was increased. United effort from government and non-government players has been essential to the changes visible in the capital. The most significant push was provided in 2017 by the GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan) in New Delhi, created by the Central Pollution Control Board.  If the air in Delhi were severely polluted for more than 48 hours, trucks would not be allowed to enter the city, and all construction work in the region would be halted. Several similar measures were clearly defined in the plan. Experts believe that the creation of expressways to bypass the city, a ban on PET Coke as industrial fuel, and the introduction of BS-VI fuel have also helped this drop.

Data from Delhi Pollution Control Committee, 2019

In October 2021, while announcing a new ten-point “Winter-Action-Plan” Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal was quoted as saying that despite the ambitious graded action plan, pollution in Delhi was a direct consequence of stubble burning in neighbouring states. A collaborative plan is of absolute necessity.

Berkeley Earth (18/04/2022) Map of Air Quality
Red is unhealthy, Orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups, Yellow is moderate, Green is good.
There is still a long way to go for both countries.

A recent satellite image from Berkeley-Earth’s website shows us the levels of pollution still present in these regions. The governments in both cities had set ambitious targets, but even these are too small to counter the devastating effects. Even as recent as April 2022, Delhi is a stark maroon and there is a similar story for Beijing. At some point, the nations have to decide between their extensive development and competitive strategies and take a far-sighted approach. It is increasingly important to shift from just bringing down a mere stat like PM2.5 or AQI, and listen to the people who suffer every day because of it.


However, there is a marked difference in how these crises were handled in Beijing and New Delhi. Beijing favoured a heavy top-down approach, and similar strategies cannot be applied in New Delhi. For example, the “Parade Blue” phenomenon in Beijing, where stringent policing by the Chinese government makes for clear skies around special events. Such measures are not possible in India, whereas in Bejing, it was censored from the internet. In an authoritative political regime, it is easier to enforce rulings without opposition. It, however, remains to be seen how New Delhi is able to adopt a participative approach to tackle this issue in the Indian context.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman,Independent Researcher and Consultant (International Relations, Transboundary Rivers and Borders) and Visiting Faculty (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati). The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.