Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers

Nov 18, 2015

TV Show


Master storyteller, researcher, and traveler Simon Winchester takes us on a fascinating voyage through the Pacific, tying it all together with two ethical questions: Should the Americans and the Chinese have a level playing field? And should we respect the ways of the Pacific ancients?


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Our guest this morning is the eternally curious, historically imaginative, master storyteller Simon Winchester. Today he will be discussing his latest book, entitled Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers. Pacific is short-listed for the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, the Library Journal for Best Books of 2015, and on the long list for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

In a journey that began with the publication of the widely acclaimed Atlantic, in which Simon linked Europe to the New World, he went on to write about that world in The Men Who United the States and wrote about the discovery, migration, and innovation that made America great from sea to shining sea. [Editor's note: See Winchester's Carnegie Council talks on Atlantic and The Men Who United the States.] Thus, having reached the shores of the Pacific, it is with this last installment that he focuses on the Pacific Ocean. It is what happens along its rim, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, that he says will connect us to our future.

At first glance, the Pacific, a vast ocean covering 64 million square miles, almost one-third of the planet's surface, may conjure up images of steamy island paradises with sunbathers and surfers. But that will limit your worldview, for as this Oxford-trained geologist and former Asia-based correspondent examines the geopolitics, economics, cultural history, natural science, and geography of the Pacific, you will see that there is so much more.

With the Obama administration's pivot to Asia and the prospects of a Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific is a place where East meets West. As we gaze across the International Date Line, the Pacific will either be the sea that connects our future or the ocean that is a source of serious problem. Whether this will be an Asian-Pacific century or not, Western values are being tested and challenged. How we weather the storm is yet to be determined.

To learn what may be in store, but before we set sail, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very special guest, Simon Winchester. Thank you for coming back again.


SIMON WINCHESTER: Thanks very much indeed, Joanne.

When I was invited, I was told quite strictly that I should talk about things that have an ethical dimension to them and raise sort of ethical questions. By delightful coincidence, the two that I am going to talk about today and which do have an ethical dimension to them are represented in the end paper photographs in this book, which I think have been beautifully, beautifully chosen.

The first one is this [photo of battleships]. It is actually the last photograph in the book. It is what we have come to assume now, what we think of as the Pacific these days, which is mighty American naval power. That is Carrier Strike Group Seven, the George Washington, and a bunch of destroyers. The other photograph is this [photo of small sailing ship]. I am going to talk about that in a few moments. This is the opening end paper, which is a completely different kind of craft.

Let's talk about the military stuff first of all, because I think that is most topical, particularly with what has happened in the last two or three weeks. The story begins in a slightly unexpected way. One of the lovely things about my job in writing these books is the unanticipated connections one can make between seemingly disparate events.

I was living in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the things we were shuffling around covering was the fall of President Marcos in the Philippines. There was, effectively, a shuttle from Hong Kong to Manila to watch the slow collapse of his government and then Cory Aquino and the somewhat tricky time she had when she assumed the mantle of power. So we would go to the Philippines a lot, and I became pretty familiar, particularly with the Northern Philippines, Luzon and thereabouts.

I think we all did not anticipate, however, the story that would dominate everything in the early 1990s, nothing to do with politics at all. Yet, oddly enough, it did in the end. That was the eruption of this extraordinary volcano, Mount Pinatubo—it didn't even really look like a volcano. I covered Mount St. Helens in Washington State and knew a little bit about volcanoes, because I used to be a geologist. This one was covered in jungle. It didn't have a particularly interesting shape, unlike some of the spectacular Southern Philippines volcanoes. It started in May of 1991, vibrating and doing strange things, gouts of steam and so forth coming out of it. Then in June—I think it was June 15, 1991—there was this titanic eruption. It was quite extraordinary. You could see it from 100 miles away. There were great torrents of ash and lightning and what they call lahar, streams of mud and ash and so forth. So it was very, very dramatic.

I covered it extensively for the next several weeks. In fact, when the eruption was over—and this is hardly relevant, but you might find it quite amusing—I went off with a photographer to look at the aftermath of the eruption. It had blown the top 700 feet off the volcano, and there was a huge crater lake, brilliant orange color. We flew off in a helicopter from the top of a hotel in Manila and landed, the photographer and I, on a beach, as it were, beside this new crater lake. We had taken a kayak with us, because we thought it would be a neat idea to paddle out into the crater lake and see what it was all about.

The photographer stationed himself on a crag and I foolishly got into the canoe and started paddling across the crater lake and went specifically for the area where all the bubbling was still coming up. What I didn't realize—foolish or hubristic or whatever—was that the water was incredibly hot. What happened was that the canoe started melting, kind of like that moment—I don't know if you have seen Mr. Hulot's Holiday—where the two ends of the canoe go up with my great weight in the bottom. It could have been disastrous. I paddled out of the way. The photographer, of course, caught my embarrassment in every last detail. I got back to shore with this misshapen canoe. The owner of the canoe was very upset. However, that was a trivial, but amusing aspect of it.

But what it did, this volcano, was that it covered with ash—many, many feet of greasy, slimy yellow ash—two American military bases, Subic Bay, a huge naval base which was about 20 miles away to the west, and Clark Air Base, which was about 9 miles away. This made them nonoperational. Subic was used to evacuate all the Americans, so ships were leaving there. But finally, when the eruption was over, it was apparent that this naval base was useless. It would take months, if not years, to clean it up. The air base similarly.

This has a political dimension, too, because the Philippine government at the time was in a pretty anti-American mood, and they didn't much want the Americans to be in Subic Bay.

But the upshot of it all was that in June 1992 and then again in November 1992, the then-defense secretary Dick Cheney decided to close them down. So all American naval forces were moved back to Yokosuka or Sasebo in Japan, and the air component from Clark was moved to Guam and to other air bases more easterly.

So that was over. The Americans no longer had a military presence of any size in the Philippines for the first time since 1901, I think, which is when Teddy Roosevelt first placed bases there.

What this did was it created a military vacuum in the South China Sea to the west of the Philippines, and one which the Chinese were only too happy to fill. Thus started the sort of juggernaut of new China maritime policy, which had been concocted by this admiral, Liu Huaqing. Liu Huaqing, a remarkable man, died at the age of 93 only a couple of years ago. He was actually a PLA [People's Liberation Army] general, oddly enough, the general in overall command of the forces in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989—so a tough, very nationalistic, very, very communist, hard-line friend of Mao, friend of all the Chinese leadership.

But he was a great student of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great American naval strategist, and had a serious intellectual view about what China's role in the Pacific Ocean should be. He had devised a strategy on paper when he moved from the PLA, where he was a general, to the PLAN, which is the People's Liberation Army Naval Component, as an admiral, and as an admiral, wrote papers saying what China's naval policy should be. It was four-fold, effectively. It had four components to it, the first of which was to seize the South China Sea.

They had—you probably know all this—this bizarre thing called the nine-dash line, which was drawn on a map back in 1947 by the Kuomintang, who was still in power in China—just. They had said that it was right and proper and just for China to control most of the South China Sea, off the shores of the Philippines, off the islands of Indonesia. It looks like a cow's dewlap, in a way. They actually made 11 dashes to indicate that everything inside those 11 dashes should belong to China. The upper two dashes go out towards Hainan Island, and they figured they had that anyway, so they erased two of the dashes. So it is now the nine-dash line.

Part of the strategy was that China should control everything within the nine-dash line, even though these were international waters and a major trade route for goods and services coming up from Malaysia and Indonesia, and much needed by the international community and China herself. The first component of this was put into effect as a consequence of the Americans leaving after Mount Pinatubo, because there were no American warships, no American planes supervising. The Chinese decided they would build, initially, an airstrip on a little island in—there are two groups of barely visible islands, the Paracels and the Spratlys, the Paracels up north, the Spratlys down south.

Indeed, I remember everyone was concerned about what might happen to these islands. I was taking a container ship once from Port Klang in Malaysia to Hong Kong, and we went deliberately—I think the ship was called the Cardigan Bay—we were ordered by someone to sail as close as possible to one of these Chinese islands, and the captain was on the bridge wing taking photographs. The moment we docked in Hong Kong, three or four days later, a naval officer, somewhat surreptitiously, said, "Can I have"—this was when you had 35-millimeter film cassettes—"could I take it?" Everyone wanted to know what the Chinese were up to.

But what the Chinese were up to was a very stealthy and a very cunning—and I know "cunning" is a sort of pejorative word; "stealth," I think is a better way of putting it—slowly gaining control by putting a lighthouse here, a little radar down there, a little dock here, a little airstrip there. Everything taken individually was not worth responding to. It was worth noting, but not responding to.

When you think about it, the Americans might get cross. To send in an aircraft carrier, to demand that the Chinese take down a lighthouse that they had put on a remote and uninhabited island seemed disproportionate in the extreme. So the Americans, having lost their supervisory power because of the volcano—and now far away to make it sort of inconvenient—did nothing. It wasn't until six or seven years ago that somebody in the Pentagon woke up to the fact that almost every one of these islands now of any significant size had not just a little radar dome or a little lighthouse, but had serious facilities built on them. The Chinese had brought in dredgers and bulldozers and created large airstrips and docks that could accommodate certainly corvettes, maybe destroyers, and maybe even bigger ships than that.

About five or six years ago, America woke up to the fact that the South China Sea was de facto now a Chinese sea. It was no longer self-evidently international waters. They began to get worried about it.

Then the incidents started to occur. The first incident which really sent a shockwave through the Pentagon hierarchy was in October 2006, when these platforms were all over the South China Sea, when the USS Kitty Hawk, which was a relatively antique aircraft carrier which was assigned to the Seventh Fleet, was patrolling, doing a routine patrol, not in the South China Sea, but in the Philippine Sea, and suddenly one of the planes that was circling it as part of the defensive cover noticed to their horror that they were being shadowed by a Chinese attack submarine, which was five miles away, well within torpedo range.

The people at the Pentagon later said this was as much of a shock to them as the launch of the Sputnik back in the 1950s. How on earth could the Chinese, who had had a relatively benign maritime policy which was mainly designed for coastal defense—it seemed that they now had the makings of a blue-water navy. They were out in the real Pacific, theoretically menacing and unknown to the Americans an American carrier strike group. They could have fired two torpedoes on the Kitty Hawk and killed 5,000 sailors. This was a major problem.

Then came the other incidents. There was a big ship, an American vessel, called the Impeccable, actually run by a civilian group, Maersk Shipping, dragging a submarine-detecting vane behind it. That was menaced by Chinese warships. More recently, when the Liaoning, which is an aircraft carrier that the Chinese have, was being shadowed by an American warship, this ship, the Cowpens, was intercepted and had to make an emergency maneuver because it nearly got run over by a Chinese ship.

All of these things taken together suggested to the Americans that the second, third, and fourth phases of Liu Huaqing's naval strategy was slowly and carefully, stealthily, being put into place, too. So you have the Chinese now in effective control of the South China Sea, and now the second, third, and fourth aspects of Admiral Liu's policy evidently also being put into play. The policy involves these imaginary bastions that surround China, known as the first island chain, the second island chain, and the third chain.

The first island chain—as I say, it is an imaginary bastion—runs from the Japanese archipelago down to Java and Sumatra and the islands of Indonesia, relatively close to China. Within that, between the Chinese coast and the first island chain, is what the Chinese call the green water part of the Pacific.

The second island chain runs from Kamchatka down through the sort of far western Pacific to Cape York in Australia.

The third island chain, which is a strange curving line, runs from the Aleutian Islands down to Midway and Wake and to Hawaii, down to New Zealand.

The strategy that Admiral Liu put into place is all predicated by 2049, which, as I am sure you know, is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. By 2020, all the waters within the first island chain will be open season for the Chinese navy. They can patrol anywhere they like within the first island chain. By 2030, within the second chain. So they will be operating off Tonga, in the Coral Sea with impunity. By 2049, the target date, everything within the third island chain, Aleutians, Hawaii, New Zealand, will be as accessible to the Chinese navy as it is now to the American navy. They will, in other words, symbolically, be patrolling in their aircraft carriers off Pearl Harbor. And that gives the Americans the heebie-jeebies. They say, "Why should we allow this to happen?"

The consequence of this in the short term is that the American policy is now, "We're going to harass and provoke the Chinese by sailing our warships as close as we possibly can to Chinese-owned or claimed territory in the South China Sea." Of course, the effect of this is just to irritate the Chinese and also to bring with it the possibility of an accident, a collision or two hot-headed commanders getting into a tussle, and maybe an incident will occur.

So it is very troublesome. I think the ethical question about all this is, why complain? The American Navy—and I speak as an American now. If I was doing this five years ago, I would have been a Brit, and everyone would have said, "Typical snarky Brit making unpleasant remarks about the Americans," but I am now one of you guys—you know what I mean; I am an American—so I feel I am in a better position to criticize. I think, yes, the Americans say we have regarded the Pacific Ocean essentially as an American lake ever since the end of the Second World War. We have vast amounts of territory, either held in trust or supervised by the Americans. We have some kind of an arrangement. Of course, we have Hawaii in the center. Because we have policed the Pacific for the last 60 years, the Pacific has been a place essentially of great peace and harmony.

The admirals in Pearl Harbor, if you go and see them, will show photographs of what Seoul looked like in 1948 and what it looks like today, and what Shanghai looked like and how it looks today, and what Manila looked like and how it looks today. But, of course, in the 1940s and 1950s, they were places of ruin and poverty and general unpleasantness, and now, great towers, skyscrapers, subway systems, Internet, all these good things. That, the admirals say, is because the Americans, behind a wall of American steel, have policed the trade routes and kept everything safe and secure. If we stop doing that, then the prosperity that the Pacific has known may begin to evaporate.

The Chinese say, "We're big. We're powerful. We're a nation with a vast Pacific coast, just as you are. Why don't we have equivalence, parity? Why isn't our navy allowed to patrol and be present in the Pacific just as you have been? We have no menacing plans. We, unlike you Americans, haven't traveled across the Pacific and colonized people. We haven't interfered in any serious way. We have a perfectly innocent purpose."

They point to things—I don't know if any of you have seen it—I just saw it again the other day, because I was curious to remind myself of it—this wonderful movie made in the 1970s, I think, called The Sand Pebbles, with Candace Bergen and Steve McQueen, all set on San Pablo, a gunboat operating in the Yangtze. The Yangtze is a river I wrote a book about back in the 1990s. I know the Yangtze quite well. The Americans, the British, the French, the Italians were all sailing their boats up and down the Yangtze with perfect impunity. Arguing the doctrine of extraterritoriality, if an American or an Italian sailor got into a fight in a bar in China, he wouldn't be tried in the Chinese court; he would be tried in an Italian or an American court.

The Chinese say, "Well, we were weak then, so you could do that sort of thing to us. But would you Americans stand for it if we with impunity ran a patrol boat up the Mississippi and if one of our sailors got into a fight in Hannibal, Missouri, demand that he be tried not by a Missouri court, but by a Chinese court? All we're asking for is the same—actually, rather less than you. We are not asking to go up the Mississippi. We're simply saying we want equivalence in the Pacific. We are a nation that needs to be taken seriously now. We are big. We are powerful. We have one aircraft carrier. We have three more on order, being built in the shipyards in Manchuria. When all that is finished, yes, we will feel we have a prescriptive right to operate in the Pacific just as you have, only we'll be less damaging in the Pacific than you were. You colonized. You ruined. You dropped nuclear weapons. You sent people out of Bikini Island. You did all these dreadful things. We're not going to do any of these things. We just want what's fair."

That, to me, seems a reasonable ethical question to pose. Do the Chinese have as much right as the Americans consider that they have had over the least 60 years? Is the Pacific an ocean over which one country has a monopoly or should it be—it is big enough, after all, 64 million square miles. It is big enough to accommodate whoever wishes to operate in it, and we, the Chinese, think we can as well.

So that is the sort of gloomy side of this equation. I am going to, in the remaining few minutes I have, turn to another business, which has nothing to do with war at all, which is all about this little craft [in the second photo]. I think this story is wonderful and remarkable and deserves as much publicity as it can possibly get.

That craft is called the Hōkūle'a, which is the Hawaiian word for the star Arcturus, which, as you may know, is probably the brightest star you see of an evening. It was built, Hōkūle'a, in 1976 in Hawaii by a group of proud Hawaiians who were trying to reclaim their heritage as Hawaiian people, Hawaii, of course, being a place now with the monarchy completely smashed to smithereens by American commercial interests, led by Dole, Dole pineapple. They now are a minority. I think there are only 80,000 pure-blood Hawaiians left in the islands that they once ran.

So they built this thing in 1976 as essentially Hawaii's gift to the United States for the bicentennial. But they didn't simply want to give a physical object. They wanted to remind the world that the Polynesians had extraordinary abilities, which have essentially been overlooked or disdained or disrespected by the various colonial powers who have come into the Pacific in the last couple of hundred years. They had particularly this ability to navigate across vast stretches of water without recourse to any instruments at all.

The Polynesian Triangle, as I am sure you know, stretches from Hawaii in the north to Easter Island in the east to Aotearoa, New Zealand, in the west. Within this vast triangle of sea, the Polynesians would navigate at will without any instruments—no wristwatch to tell them where north and south were, no compass, no sextant, certainly no GPS, of course. Yet they managed to do this. So if a Polynesian said, "I would like to go on a journey from somewhere in the Marquesas in the east of the triangle to, let's say, the Gilbert Islands, the Ellice Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu in the west, Cook Islands or Tokelau, then we can do it." And they would set sail in their boats and, using stars and using the flights of seabirds and the patterns of clouds and, pretentious as that may sound, the feel of the sea, the feel of the swells beneath the hull of the boat, would manage to get to these places.

But then we came along, we Westerners. And what did we do? We said, "I'm sorry, you can't go from the Marquesas to the Cook Islands because the Marquesas are French and the islands in the middle are American and those are British and those are German. You will need a passport."

They said, "What do you mean, a passport? What's a passport?"

"Well, you have to fill in an application for one."

They said, "We don't write. We have no need to write. We simply want to sail."

They couldn't, and so the techniques died and these poor people became corralled into their sort of imperially owned fiefdoms. The whole technique of long-distance, non-instrumental navigation withered away.

Except in 1976, when the Hawaiians were building their canoe, there was one man living on the island of Satawal in the Caroline Islands. He was Mao Piailug. He was pretty well on in years, but he knew how to do this and he was trying to teach the youngsters in Satawal how to do it if they should ever need it. The Hawaiians heard of this chap and they flew down to Satawal. They met him and said, "Look, we're building this wonderful boat. Do you think you could possibly help us take it out into the seas without instruments?"

He said, "Yes, I will."

He had never been on a plane before. He went up to Hawaii, was taken to the dock, shown this boat. He said, "Wonderful. This is just like Captain Cook, pictures that Cook drew in the 18th century. We can take this thing easily. Where do you want to go?"

They said, "How about Tahiti," which is 2,500 miles south.

He said, "Yes, I can do this."

So he made one or two little changes. He put a hammock up between the two sailing sweeps, the rudders at the stern of the craft. He taught the rudiments of this to about 30 Hawaiian youngsters and said, "Off we go. It will take six weeks to get to Tahiti."

Sure enough, six weeks almost on the nose, straight ahead of them was the little pyramid by Papeete, the pyramid which presumably Ben Carson would think people stored grain in. Nevertheless, there it was. They got there without any instruments at all. They didn't cheat. They didn't have a wristwatch. They didn't have a compass. They didn't have a sextant. They had nothing. But they got there, using these ancient techniques.

They were buoyed with enthusiasm. All Polynesia came to know about this and was exultant. They sailed back to Hawaii, and then they went on a number of ventures. They went to Japan, reminding the Japanese that they were very much Pacific people, too. They went to Haida Gwaii, what used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the British Columbian coast. They went to Vancouver. They went to Seattle. They went to San Francisco. They went to Lima. They went to all sorts of places. They became very good at this.

Piailug himself, who was elderly, died. But now there are about 300 Hawaiians who know how to do this. In May of 2014, Hōkūle'a, which has been patched up and improved—she is now quite a venerable craft—set out to do what no one imagined would be possible, and that is to sail around the world without the use of instruments. She set off.

What they do is, every time they come to a port, they change the crew. They fly them in and out from Honolulu. They went down, the first leg, perfectly easy, just 2,500 miles to Tahiti. Then they turned right and went to Samoa and then down to Tokelau and then the Cook Islands. They went down to New Zealand. They spent Christmas in New Zealand last Christmas. Then they set out after a little bit of refitting to northern Australia. They passed Cape York and thereby entered the Indian Ocean, an unfamiliar ocean. They had never been out of the Pacific. They headed off towards Christmas Island, this island in the Indian Ocean that is now notorious because it is one of the places where the Australians are putting their refugees, and then went on to Mauritius.

There is a website you can go to, They arrived last week in Muscle Bay in South Africa.

The intention is that they will, in a couple of days—they are resting at the moment, changing the crew—they will go down, catching the Agulhas current, down the coast to the Trans Sky, past Cape Agulhas, the Cape of Good Hope, and head up into the third ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and then head northwestwards. They will go to places like Saint Helena and Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil, and they will end up sometime late next year and sail up the Potomac to see their Hawaiian president.

I think that will be an amazing moment, when Obama greets these earnest young Hawaiians, who will have sailed all the way from Hawaii. Then I hope they will get some publicity for this, because not too many people know about it. Then they will turn around and do one of two things—in the North Atlantic, go down the east coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan, which is a very tricky navigation passage. I don't know if you have ever done it, but it is a very tricky thing to do. Magellan the great hero—but like Magellan in 1529, they will nose out into the Pacific, hoping that it will be the same weather that he experienced, which enabled him to say, "This is Mar Pacifico," "This is the Pacific Ocean." It isn't always, but it was then. Then head home to Hawaii.

It will take them four years to do the whole journey.

Just, incidentally, to tell you one thing. I mentioned that there was a website. There is because there is a chase boat behind them, keeping a respectable distance. They insist they are not cheating. It is called Hikianalia. She has all navigational instruments. They have sat phones and cameras. They are tracking Hōkūle'a, but insisting—and I believe them—that they are giving them no help whatsoever. They are there if there is ever an emergency. There hasn't been thus far. So I think Hōkūle'a is doing it on her own.

If she makes it, then it will, I think, instill in us who are coming to know of this remarkable venture something that has been sorely lacking in our view of the Pacific and the Pacific peoples ever since we Westerners got there. We Westerners—and Alan Moorehead's The Fatal Impact is the classic book about this—have brought disease and degradation and deprivation and all sorts of misery. We have colonized and we have overfished and we have dropped atom bombs and we have disrespected these people.

Now, since the 1970s, we have been withdrawing. The British have left Hong Kong. The only colony we have is Pitcairn Island. The Americans have left Southeast Asia. So that is over. The Germans left a long time ago. The French, being French, are still there, but in a fairly benign sort of way. Essentially, empire has left the Pacific. The Pacific is standing on its own two feet for the first time and achieving things which I think are noble and wonderful, and which were always there, had been overlooked, ignored, disdained.

But when we look at this little craft battling her way gamely across the sea, if she succeeds—or even if she fails, but tries nobly—I think it will instill in us a feeling towards them and towards the Pacific that we have generally not displayed in our last 300 or 400 years, and that is profound respect. That is what I think we owe to the people and to the ocean.

So there are the two ethical questions: Should the Americans and the Chinese have a level playing field, if I can put it like that? Should we respect the ways of the Pacific ancients? Open for discussion.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you. Fascinating discussion. James Starkman.

Apart from carving out a Mare Nostrum by either the Chinese or the Americans, the most important endgame, it seems to me, is the natural resources, in particular oil, which lie under the South China Sea. What exactly are the rules for the exploration and development of those resources? What are the international rules?

Also, I assume that there are certain rules of engagement for these harassment moves on both sides that should help to avoid an accidental conflict.

SIMON WINCHESTER: The question about the rules for the resources is becoming increasingly complicated. The South China Sea, part of it—only a very small amount of it—is what is known in the argot today as an ABNJ, area beyond national jurisdiction, what we used to call the high seas. A very small part of the interior of the South China Sea is an ABNJ, and therefore up to all sorts of arbitration and so forth as to who is allowed to use it. But the rest of it is claimed by Brunei, which you would think has got enough oil of its own already, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines.

At the moment they say, "These are our sovereign territories, or at least in terms of economic exploitation. So if we want to put an oil rig there, we can," and the Chinese say, "Well, that used to be the situation, but unfortunately, because we have now taken de facto, if not de jure, these items, which themselves now have economic zones around them, it's actually ours."

That is going to be the next confrontation, when the Chinese decide to exploit the resources.

The rules are that the Chinese say, "We have them, because no one seemed to want them and we have taken them. We have had this view that it is actually Chinese coastal waters since we drew the 11- and then the 9-dash line in 1947. What are you going to do about it?"

I suspect they will probably win. They will put in oil rigs and say, "Boot us out, if you wish." No one will. That will just further consolidate Chinese control over the area.

Shipping lanes—I cannot imagine there will be any interdiction, any problems whatsoever. They want these lanes kept open as much as anybody does. But they certainly would like the mineral resources.

This situation is happening—I know you prefer probably to talk about the South China Sea, but generally speaking, the discoveries that have been made in the Pacific more recently, out in the blue Pacific, are also leading to interesting developments as far as mineral exploitation is concerned. You will be aware that Alvin, this little submersible from Woods Hole, discovered first of all the hydrothermal vents and then the black smokers. Then, when the black smokers collapse, there are these gigantic fields of sulfides, of heavy metals and zinc and copper and so on and so forth. This has nothing to do with the manganese nodules, which is very much a busted flush. Most of the manganese nodules are far too deep. But these exist off Tonga, off Papua New Guinea. There is a huge amount of, as it were, treasure waiting to be exploited.

The Australians—particularly an Australian company called Platina Investments, is now building in Newcastle upon Tyne up in Northeast England an array of gigantic submersible bulldozers and excavating machines, which they are going to lower, first of all, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, I think this coming year, 2016, lower them on cables. They have blades and all sorts of extracting tools on them. They are going to churn their way across the pristine ocean floor at the moment. A thing like an enormous elephant's trunk is going to be lowered down into the sea, two miles down. A suction pump will suck all this slurry up onto barges, and then it will be dewatered and taken off to smelters in China and perhaps also in Northern Australia.

To me, I wish they wouldn't, because the environmental damage to the seafloor is going to be profound. But the world being what the world is and the Chinese needing copper and zinc and all these good things, I think the sea is going to continue to be spoiled by human greed or progress or whatever you call it.

There are two aspects to your question—yes, the rows that are going to develop over the exploitation of oil from the South China Sea and the environmentalists', in my view, entirely understandable concerns about what is happening to the deepwater sea because of the exploitation of these mineral fields.

QUESTION: I'm Jim Robbins.

I believe today the United States has 10 aircraft carriers and all of its support ships. The Chinese have one. You've just told us that they are building three more. Should we now expect that our Defense Department will want to build more aircraft carriers?

SIMON WINCHESTER: You would think so, wouldn't you? What they are doing at the moment in the Pentagon is trying to determine whether we should have three aircraft carriers in the Pacific. At the moment we have two, one with the Third Fleet in San Diego and one with the Seventh Fleet in the Yokosuka in Japan.

There is a new admiral commander in Camp Smith, which is just north of Honolulu, Harry Harris. You should have him here. He is amazing. Harry Harris is very interesting, for many, many reasons, but there is a wonderful irony in that he is half Japanese. His father was a stoker on the Lexington, I think, and then as part of the occupation forces in Japan, met a Japanese lady. They married and had a child, Harry. He was brought up in Kentucky. He, above all, sees the irony that the Japanese are back in Pearl Harbor now, since 1941.

He runs the show. He is PACOM [United States Pacific Command]. He is Pacific commander. His view is that, yes, we need a third aircraft carrier, in other words, two aircraft carrier strike groups attached to the Seventh Fleet. That will, of course, require one to be taken from the Middle East or wherever, the Indian Ocean. So the Pentagon will say, "We need another carrier." Well, carriers are really expensive, and the support ships that go with them.

But this is going to accelerate, undeniably. So long as the pivot doesn't—with the events in France this weekend and the likely continued attacks on ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], I think we are going to see carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean for a very long time. The admirals are not going to let one be withdrawn from there anytime soon, which does mean, yes, a new one.

The acceleration in the number of not just aircraft carriers, but particularly submarines that the Chinese are building is, to the Pentagon, terrifying. We have numerical superiority now, but we are going to be overtaken in three or four years, which will stimulate the military-industrial complex to demand more. So it is not a pretty sight, unless you are in the military-industrial complex, of course.

QUESTION: Thank you. Arlette Laurent.

Could you tell us, is this issue being discussed in the United Nations under the law of the sea?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Yes, it is. I think I am right in saying that the United States has still not ratified UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]. It is interesting, but as far as the Pentagon is concerned, not strictly relevant.

But yes, it is. It is a matter of considerable anxiety. Someone like me, who is fascinated with the Pacific and really does believe that this is where the future of the world—where the hinge points of history are going to be apparent in the next 20, 30, 40 years—it still isn't as visible in the world community as everything in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean, because that is of more pressing, immediate interest, for all manner of reasons.

My view is that this is terrible, what is happening, but it is not going to determine the future of the planet. What is going to determine the future of the planet is the relationship between the United States and China. That is hugely important, and yet it is still vaguely invisible. That is part of the purpose in writing this book.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

You are a mesmerizing speaker, but you haven't yet had a chance to deal with what traditionally has been the role of the oceans, and that is world trade. You mentioned one Hawaiian boat. What about all the many, many fleets and boats that have been connecting the different parts of the Pacific? You mentioned silicon chips to start with. How is this transforming world intercourse, trade and so forth?

JOANNE MYERS: You will have to buy the book.

SIMON WINCHESTER: I wouldn't be so vulgar as to say such a thing.

JOANNE MYERS: That's why I said it for you.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you, Joanne.

Chapter 2 in the book starts with the appearance in Edmonton, in Alberta—on Jasper Street, there was an electronics store, which no longer exists. It was the 8th of August 1955. In that store there and in a store in Winnipeg and in a store in Vancouver, a small radio set was offered for sale for $35 or $40. This was a radio set about as big as could fit in your shirt pocket. Up to that point, a radio was a piece of furniture. It was big. It stood in a corner of the living room. It was covered with walnut veneer. You put an aspidistra on top of it. You turned it on. It warmed up. You tuned it in. Now this revolutionary device was available in, of all places, Edmonton.

First of all, it is the first-ever transistor radio. It was made by a company whose name was written above the tuning dial, Totsuko, Tokyo telecommunications company. But in tiny letters under the dial is this new four-letter word, the word Sony. This was the first-ever Sony device. It revolutionized radios and how we listened to them. We could take the radio with us. We could take it to bed, take it to the swimming pool, take it to school, whatever. So the radio set underwent this monumental transformation.

The first test market was for 50 in Canada. They sold like hotcakes. About two months later, a shipment of 4,000 of these radios arrived in New York. They were put in a warehouse in Queens. All sorts of other electronics were in this warehouse. There was a burglary. A truck moved in in the middle of the night. I don't think anyone was hurt. Bolt-cutters. The thieves took these radio sets. It was in The New York Times, page 17—major electronic heist in Queens. But what was notable, and what New Yorkers found fascinating, was that the thieves or the burglars ignored all the rest of the stuff in the warehouse, however tempting it might have looked, and had only taken these 4,000 Sony radios. This small detail was in the Times piece. And New Yorkers as one said, "Well, if it's good enough for the burglars, then it's good enough for us. We want them," and started ordering them.

This coincided almost to the month with the invention of the shipping container, which was invented in New Jersey by an ex-Army man who thought this was a very neat way of packaging goods.

So shipping containers were made in Japan, and boxes and boxes of these TR-55 Sony transistor radios were shipped over to this ever-more hungry American consumer market. Then container ships started to be built in the shipyards all over Japan and then in Korea. Sony and Panasonic and all these other companies started manufacturing things for which the Americans had an inexhaustible appetite.

The man that made that TR-55 radio was—when we think of Sony, we think of this rather sleek, silver fox, Akio Morita, the public face of Sony. But this man was called Masaru Ibuka. He was a horny-handed son of toil. He had dirt under his fingernails, big, thick Coke-bottle spectacles. But he was a great inventor. He invented the TR-55 and all its successors. He invented the transistor radio. He invented the Walkman. Do you remember the Sony Walkman? He invented the Trinitron television. He invented Betamax tape recorders. He was an extraordinary genius.

But what this led to was this explosion of trade all in the same direction, from the ports in Yokohama eastwards to Seattle, Long Beach, Oakland, Vancouver, followed by ports in Pusan, when companies like Samsung started making stuff, and now China. The major five, I think, container ports in the world are from Shanghai northwards.

So today whenever you stand on the Golden Gate Bridge and see a big Evergreen Shipping container vessel steaming in towards the ports in Oakland, you should remember that that all began on the 8th of August 1955 with the appearance in Edmonton of a tiny little radio set, which transformed all of our lives.

The trade routes which you talk about are much more extensive than little Hōkūle'a going in the opposite direction by sail. These are what runs the world today.

Thank you very much for that question.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Winchester. I am Nicholas Arena. I am a lawyer.

You may be familiar with the Italian expression [Italian phrase], "Between two fighters, a third may profit and enjoy." In this face-off between America, the United States, and China, might that third party be Japan?

SIMON WINCHESTER: My wife is Japanese, and we talk about matters relating to the future of Japan extensively, over breakfast and beyond. The news today, of course, is very bad, that Japan has now slipped into recession, that Abenomics clearly are not working as well as they might.

I suspect possibly not. In fact, I suspect—or at least she suspects, my wife—she thinks that the ancient antipathies between China and Japan, which, of course, we all know only too well, resulted in tragedies like the Nanjing massacre and the Harbin experiments and so forth, are being stoked up again. Her view is that the Americans are eager to have the Japanese and the Chinese at each other's throats again.

It is a complicated argument, and I don't actually buy it, because, of course, if Japan were ever to be attacked by China over, let's say, the Senkaku or the Diaoyu Islands, America would be obliged to come to Japan's aid.

I suspect that the answer as to whether Japan will profit is probably no. I think the countries that might profit actually are the countries with massive resources, most notably Australia. I think Australia, which is—it has its own problems, of course, but the amount of coal and bauxite and other minerals that are provided to China to help—China has relatively few natural resources, oddly enough, because of her geology. But Australia has heaps. The shipping traffic going north—doing, incidentally, considerable damage to the Great Barrier Reef, which is a whole other story, for which the Australian government, in my view, bears a heavy responsibility. Australia more or less weathered the recession because of the inexhaustible demand for Australian minerals from the Chinese. She is doing very well. I suspect that she would more likely be the beneficiary than the Japanese.

JOANNE MYERS: Maybe in the last few minutes you could tell us where Korea fits in all this.

SIMON WINCHESTER: On the whole Korean situation, one of the wonderful things about writing a book like this is that you learn so much along the way. I have been to Korea quite a bit and did a book some years ago, walking through Korea from Jeju, the island off the southern tip of Korea, up to Panmunjom, up to the DMZ [de-militarized zone]. It took six months. It was an amazing and very interesting walk. The book, I think, came out in the 1980s. I have been to North Korea quite a few times and find it fascinating in a horrific way.

The thing that I learned was that North Korea was essentially created by an American. He had a lovely name. I love people with extraordinary names. He was called Charles Hartwell Bonesteel III. You can't get much better names than that. If you can imagine, it was the 14th of August 1945. Charles Hartwell Bonesteel III was a colonel, a young colonel, sitting in the outer office of George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, at the Pentagon with someone whose name you will be more familiar with, and that is Dean Rusk, who was also a young colonel. They were both on his staff. They were listening over the shortwave radio to the emperor of Japan—it is the 15th of August over in Japan—addressing the nation and surrendering and making that incredible piece of understatement: "The progress of the war has not necessarily gone to our advantage"—I'll say—"and so we're laying down our arms and surrendering."

And Bonesteel and Rusk said to each other, "That's great. That's that problem over. Now the problem is the Soviet Union," because they, as you may remember, very cynically joined the war just a few days beforehand, and they were now racing southwards through all the hitherto Japanese-owned places, like Sakhalin Island and Manchuria and Korea, and taking the surrender of the Japanese, and at the same time, saying, "These are ours." The view in Washington was that Japan, particularly, could be turned into a Soviet-run satrapy, that we would have the Soviet Union of Japan. This we didn't want to have happen. So the Russians, the Soviets, had to be stopped. But where to stop them?

As it happened, Bonesteel had on his desk a 1944 issue of the National Geographic which was devoted to the North Pacific. They had these little insert maps that you may remember. He spread it out on the table. He said to Rusk—and this is all in Rusk's memoirs—"Isn't it droll and interesting that San Francisco and Seoul are on almost exactly the same line of latitude, 37 degrees 40 north? I think, Dean," he said—or "colonel;" I'm not quite sure how friendly they were—"that we Americans should retain control of the old capital of Korea." Korea at this time was a Japanese colony. "Once it's liberated, I think we should have control. Why don't we ask the Russians to stop just a little north of this line connecting Seoul and San Francisco? How about the 38th parallel?"

Rusk said, "That sounds like a pretty good scheme."

They took the map in to George Marshall, and he said, "Yes, the 38th parallel sounds pretty neat to me. Let's tell State and they will tell Moscow."

Moscow, extraordinarily, the next day, the 16th of August, said, "Yes. Quite honestly, we're pretty exhausted. It's hot in Manchuria. There are lots of mosquitoes. The tanks keep getting bogged down in the mud. We'll stop where you suggest, the 38th parallel. We will take control of everything north; you can have control of everything south."

So they did. As you well know, their point man in the north was Kim Il-sung, and the Americans, Syngman Rhee. Two countries were essentially created. They went to war with each other. Then there was this armistice and the DMZ and everything that we have come to know and be horrified by today.

But here is a lovely coda to all of this, I think. That occurred when—the way I deal with Korea in this book is that I start with the capture of the USS Pueblo, the American spy ship, in 1968, which, as you probably remember, was arrested by the North Koreans. The ship is now in Pyongyang as a museum. I have been to it several times. It is regarded still by the Pentagon, by the Navy as being a U.S. commissioned warship temporarily out of service. And it has been 50 years or something.

Anyway, the 80 sailors on board were treated in the most horrible conditions. They were beaten and tortured and put in solitary confinement and underfed. They had a miserable time. But negotiations were conducted to allow for their release, and a deal was done between President Johnson's government and Kim Il-sung's government that they would be released about three days before Christmas in 1968.

There was this scene played out, a bizarre sort of scene, at the Bridge of No Return, the infamous, miserable-looking concrete bridge at Panmunjom, where two North Korean army trucks drew up on the northern side and an ambulance, because one of the people had died. These ragged, emaciated, disheveled American prisoners were unloaded from the trucks one at a time and told to walk southwards across the Bridge of No Return, not turning, not running, not making any gestures—I'm sure they wanted to make all sorts of gestures—and into the arms of the Americans.

So one by one, they came, about 20 seconds apart, led by their captain, Lloyd Bucher. They were leaving misery and communism and grimness and propaganda and unpleasantness. They were walking into the arms of these big, beefy, sun-tanned, smiling Americans, who offered them steak and orange juice and coffee and Christmas and freedom and all these good things. Yet the first person they met, who shook their hands and welcomed them home was the commander of all forces south of the line, the now-General Charles Hartwell Bonesteel III, the man who had created the whole mess in the first place.

When you think about it, if he hadn't drawn that line, the Russians—yes, probably the Soviet Union would have taken all of the Korean peninsula. But so what? It would have been like Vietnam. It would have been like Cambodia, where my son lives. It would have been like Laos—impoverished, poor, not as rich as South Korea is now. But it wouldn't have been disunited. You wouldn't have this lunatic dynasty in the North creating nuclear weapons. You wouldn't have the DMZ. You wouldn't have 24,000 American soldiers on permanent duty, and there wouldn't be this terrible tragedy of having this ancient kingdom of Korea divided into two—if only the Americans hadn't interfered.

That is, unfortunately, the ethical question that underpins an awful lot of this book. We Westerners have interfered too much in the life of the Pacific Ocean, and wherever we interfere—and that includes us, the British; we interfered far too much—it does bad things. We should leave people alone.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for not leaving us alone.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you very much.

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