10 Books I read in 2020

Angelo Wijaya
7 min readJan 4, 2021

Looking back at 2020, I am glad that I made time to read. Here are 10 of my 2020 reads. Most of the books are related to the rise of China, the dynamics of US-China relations, ASEAN, and the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific region. The last two books (no. 9 & 10) are more about how should we rethink the way we think as a human being. Have a pleasant read.

1. Blaming China (2018)

This book is certainly timely. Written in 2018 by Benjamin Shobert, the book’s subtitle says it all: it might feel good, but it wont fix America’s economy. The book is actually more about how Shobert, an American, is looking inward and ask the question: how should America fix itself — and later, deal with China better?

Shobert argues that the core problem in the US-China relations is not the rise of China per se. But there is a structural and fundamental problem with the way the US governs itself. And that needs a repairing. A great read.

2. The South China Sea Dispute (2016)

This book is very much an academic work. This is not a book that is written by a person or co-authored by two people. This book is a collection of articles written by numerous experts from the region about the state of the South China Sea dispute back in 2016. Edited by Ian Storey and Lin Cheng-yi, this book gives a glimpse to how the academics in the region (Southeast Asia, China, and across the Taiwan straight) see the dispute.

3. The Next 100 Years (2009)

I first read George Friedman’s (the author of The Next 100 Years), Winter 2017. The book was The Next Decade. The prediction in that book is less bizarre than the prediction in this book (though equally problematic). I’d like to think that Friedman enjoys playing prophet — making “predictions” and “forecast”. I don’t agree with him for most part.

For example, he argues that China will fragment in the coming decades (of course I don’t buy it). He also forecasted that Turkey, Poland, and Japan would be an emerging power. I am very doubtful about this.

True, Turkey has become a challenge to the Mediterranean region. But I think that’s it. Turkey aspires to be a regional leader under Erdogan — but Turkey does not have the capability to be something beyond that. Under Erdogan, Turkey continues to damage its relationship with the Western world (the United States, European Union). At this rate, Turkey simply does not have a chance.

Poland too. Poland has been a challenge to a deeper European integration under the European Union. But that’s it. Poland does not have the capacity to be an emerging power. Poland does not have what it takes to be one.

Japan is quite tricky. Under Abe, Japan took many leadership (reviving TPP — later called as CPTPP, taking the leadership in defining the Indo-Pacific cooperation) and Abe has personally (although subtly) supported the revival of Japan’s military (to build a stronger Japanese military force, as opposed to Japan’s current self-defence force). But Abe resigned, citing health concern (though many has pointed out the possibility of a graft case). Now, Abe’s successor, Suga, has also been under fire due to his “inability” to deal with COVID-19.

This book is more of a fiction than a scientific book for me. If you want to hone your imagination skill, give it a read.

4. Three Tigers, One Mountain (2020)

Michael Booth is a terrific writer. This book is more about his personal journey traveling across South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — and his reflection in each of those places, while relating it to the stories that shape those respective places.

He also explores as to why these countries (China, Japan, and South Korea) “resent” each other.

Written in a frank language, the book clearly gives a glimpse into the dynamics in the relationship between these three East Asian powers (plus Hong Kong and Taiwan).

5. Crashback (2017)

Crashback (2017) offers a fresh perspective on the dynamics of US-China relations in the Pacific, but more specifically in the West Pacific (South China Sea). There are a number of concept that are re-introduced by Fabey in this book.

One is “Great Wall of Sand” — a term coined by Harry Harris —former US Admiral turn Ambassador — to describe the reclamation by China in the South China Sea.

The other two are “Panda Huggers” and “Dragon Slayers” — two camps in US elites (and also around the world, I suppose, actually), where the former describes those who see China favorably and the latter see China far less so. Great read.

6. Silent Invasion (2018)

If you read this book, while watching the first season of Secret City on Netflix, you will most likely to get a great combo. Talking about Chinese influence in Australia, this book offers a fresh perspective on just how much China (the Chinese) government has an influence in Australia (in the government and in businesses). A must read, not to hate China more, but to give us a new perspective on the grand scheme of things, from a specific case study of Australia.

7. ASEAN’s Half Century (2019)

Written by Weahterbee (not a Southeast Asian), this book assesses the 50 years journey of ASEAN as an organization in Southeast Asia. Definitely a good read. I wrote a whole book review on this book for asean insights by Universitas Indonesia. Read here.

8. Has China Won? (2020)

Written by one of my most favorite Authors, Has China Won? is the must read of 2020. Published in March 2020, I rushed to buy this book online. Prof. Mahbubani (as usual) pointed out the mistakes the West has made, and how should the rest of the world rethink its approach to see China, and how China should look within, evaluate itself, and work on improving that in order to have a better relationship with the rest of the world, but most importantly the United States.

US-China relationship is definitely the defining relationship in the 21st century. And by correcting each of their mistakes, they can have a more constructive relationship in the future.

9. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Written by Daniel Kahneman (2011) — a psychologist and an economist who is interested in behavioral economics and a Nobel Prize winner in Economics — this book is actually hard to digest.

But this book gives a lot of lessons on how can we improve the way we see the world, by pointing out the things that “should have been obvious we if see close enough”. Good read. But it took me more than two months to finish this book.

10. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018)

I read this book as a friend to accompany me during my annual year-end/new-year reflection. Definitely a good read. Yuval Noah Harari writes eloquently about AI, religion, beliefs, the future, technology, and other things that will shape our world. Definitely a way to conclude a year and to kick off a new one. This book will “force” you to think beyond your life, beyond the 21st century, and beyond the lifetime of our planet (which are billions of years from now).

Bonus: Has the West Lost It? (2018)

This book is definitely a provocation, as Prof. Mahbubani named it. One of the most interesting points in this book is actually this: the West has wasted their time to meddle in the Middle East, while China was building up their capacity and capability to rival the West. And that is a strategic mistake for the West to have done it in the first place (meddle in the Middle East right after 9/11). While it has been a strategic gift for China.

And now, the West is waking up to an ever stronger China. And only in a matter of years, the West will once again be woken up in a world where China has assumed global leadership. But before that happens, Prof. Mahbubani gave his wake up call for the West through this book.