Henry Kissinger's views on China

Bipin Adhikari
October 25, 2011
Source: nepalnews.com.np

Kissinger's new book "On China" [London: Penguin Press, 2011] has not touched on South Asia in the context of Sino-American relations. There are a few passing references on Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, but not on Nepal or Bangladesh. It does not see what the countries in China's neighbourhood think about China, and Sino-American relations as such.

China is a nation of great significance. Since 2010, it ranks as the world's second largest economy after the United States. It has been the world's fastest growing major economy with consistent growth rates of around 10 percent over the past 30 years. It now stands for thriving large markets, growing military strength, and economic potential and influence in international affairs. It is also most often cited as having the ability to influence future world politics and reach the status of superpower in the 21st century.

This increasing strength has helped China to regain its past glory and vitality. It has also helped multiply the confidence of Chinese people in themselves, and their ability to make their presence felt around the world in important sectors including economy, science and technology.

Henry Kissinger's new book "On China" (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011) is another book in the market trying to explain what China is. It is an insightful account of a country which has nearly 4,000 years of continued existence, and the evidence of being one of the earliest centres of human civilization. His account is based on his experience, often very American, regarding this nation which he visited for more than fifty times in the past. The first time he visited China was four decades ago when he was national security adviser in President Richard Nixon's administration. It was a secret visit to a country which was almost taken as an enemy state. This visit was crucial for re-establishing contact with China and paving the way for the normalization of relations between the United States and this country.

The book draws on as much historical records as Kissinger's discussions and experience with Chinese leaders since 1971. In the preface to the book, Kissinger notes: "Like many visitors over the centuries, I have come to admire the Chinese people, their endurance, their subtlety, their family sense, and the culture they represent. At the same time, all my life I have reflected on the building of peace, largely from an American perspective. I have had the good luck of being able to pursue these two strands of thinking simultaneously as a senior official, as a career of messages, and as a scholar." This approach of the author makes the book a significant work.

Kissinger, a controversial Novel peace laureate for some, has divided his book into eighteen chapters and an epilogue. He starts with the ancient history of China and its distinctive traditions and millennial habits of superiority. Dealing with the early era of Chinese preeminence, the values of Confucianism, the concepts of international relations, and the traditions of shrewd realpolitik, Kissinger grounds China as a state claiming universal relevance for its culture and institutions, yet making few efforts to proselytize others, remaining indifferent to foreign trade and technological innovation; the onset of the western age of exploitation; and the technological and historical currents "that would soon threaten its existence." The US is different to China on all these counts.

In this background, Kissinger discusses the subsequent forced opening of China by Great Britain and other 'barbarians,' and also due to incidents like the Japanese and Russian occupation of its territories. The country became an object of competing colonial forces in the years ahead. This helped China to realize the need for a "new identity, and above all to reconcile the values that marked its greatness with the technology and commerce on which it would have to base its security. Kissinger has carefully analyzed the US concerns in this process, and how it tried to ensure its best interests.

Kissinger's analysis of Mao Tse-tung (1893 – 1976), the founder of the People's Republic of China and the leader of the Chinese continuous revolution, is splendid. Mao's leadership, the takeover of China by his party and creation of continual chaos inside the country, and reclaiming of former boundaries (India, Tibet, Inner Mongolia; crises over Taiwan) has been analyzed forcefully. He has explained how these events led the United States, China and the Soviet Union to maneuver against each other. The Korean War of 1950-53 (the North Korean invasion of the South) was another quagmire. This gave rise to Sino-American confrontation.

China confronted both super powers as it went ahead, but was nearly consumed by the turmoil of its own Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Then there were efforts leading to the road to reconciliation. The Chinese strategy for peace was different than the American strategy. Though reconciliation was the eventual result, it was not easy for the United States and China to find their way to strategic dialogue. The 1969 clashes at the Ussuri River between Chinese and Soviet Union was the result. Following the analysis of these events in time-space context, Kissinger talks about efforts towards resumption of relations – leading towards first encounters with Mao and Zhou Enlai (the first premier of the republic). What emerged was a "quasi-alliance" with Mao, not a full fledged one, with all limitations.

With the end of the Mao era, the fall of Zhou Enlai was another notable change. This enabled Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), who would serve as the paramount leader of the republic for next fourteen years to come into the picture at this point. The death of Hua Guofeng, who Mao designated as his successor, was another contributing factor. With Deng, there was gradual opening of China and the process of reform started taking positive turns. He initiated dialogue with America again. Economics mattered most. This led to normalization of relations. This also gave continued impetus to the change. There is extensive analysis of the Vietnam War in the book, which was supposed to teach Vietnam a lesson. But it was a lesson to US, Soviet Union and China as well.

President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) took over after Jimmy Carter, a pro-human rights and democratic leadership, retired as US President in 1981. China again got bogged down in Tiananmen Square controversy. The Jiang Zemin Era (1993 – 2003), which comes next, leads to resurgence of China further. The 1990s witnessed a period of stunning economic growth. With it there was a transformation of the country's broader world role.

Here Kissinger points out emphatically: "In the 1980s, China's Reform and Opening Up had remained partly a vision: its effects were noticeable, but their depth and longevity were open to debate." "By the end of the decade, what had once seemed an improbable prospect had become a reality."

With the arrival of the New Millennium there were still differences in perspective, strategic opportunity, the national destiny debate, the 'triumphalist' view, and a reaffirmation of peaceful rise. But there is expansion in the range of interaction between China and the United States. China's quest for equal partnership, says Kissinger, was no longer the outsized claim of a vulnerable country in this context. It was increasingly a reality backed by capacities. The epilogue in the book questions if history repeats itself. There are two aspects. One is the Crowe memorandum (whereby it was noted that conflict is inherent in any relationship) and the other is about the possibility of steps towards pacific community? The question is – "Can strategic trust replace a system of strategic threats?"

Kissinger explains: "The United States and China owe it to their people and to global well-being to make the attempt. Each is too big to be dominated by the other. Therefore neither is capable of defining terms for victory in a war or in a Cold War type of conflict. They need to ask themselves the question apparently never formally posed at the time of the Crowe Memorandum: Where will a conflict take us? Was there a lack of vision on all sides, which turned the operation of the equilibrium into a mechanical process, without assessing where the world would be if the maneuvering colossi missed a maneuver and collided?"

What are the tensions all about then? Kissinger notes: "An aspect of strategic tension in the current world situation resides in the Chinese fear that America is seeking to contain China – paralleled by the American concern that China is seeking to expel the United States from Asia. The concept of a Pacific Community – a region to which the United States, China and other states all belong and in whose peaceful development all participate – could ease both fears. It would make the United States and China part of a common enterprise." He further notes: "The leaders on both sides of the Pacific have an obligation to establish a tradition of consultation and mutual respect so that, for their successors, jointly building a shared world order becomes an expression of parallel national aspirations."

Throughout the book, Kissinger examines how China has approached diplomacy, strategy and negotiation throughout its history, and reflects on the consequences of this history for the global balance of power in the 21st century. The book is very smooth reading, informative and analytical. It assures Chinese how important they are to the Americans in this regard. To a critical Chinese, however, the book does not give adequate explanation as to US involvement with North Korean attacks, its engagement with Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia, and its statements about resolving competing claims in the South China Sea. The US political-military backing for Taiwan in general and US arms sales to the island in particular is still a foremost irritation.

A deteriorating maritime security environment is another issue. It has become a major source of tensions in China's peripheral security situation. What has occupied Chinese mind is the United States exploitation of the North Korean attacks on South Korea and China's maritime disputes with its neighbors, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The recent events in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea reflect what they see as Washington's determination to prevent China from challenging the US position in the region.

The controversy between China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei over the issue of South China Sea sovereignty and the concerns of Japan, India and Australia over the expansion of China's maritime power are not the issues that could be overlooked. The strengthening of US relationships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India has been interpreted in China as part of the perceived US attempt to create an Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These arguments are built around the thesis that the United States is building on the posture it created to contain China beginning in the 1950s. Many believe US is exploiting regional tensions and urging some countries to be cautious against China's rise. There are issues involving China's oil and gas resources. Many Chinese consider the US is a contributing factor in this regard.
On the part of the US, there is also a claim of lack of transparency with regard to China's growing military capabilities and uncertainty about Beijing's long-term strategic intentions. China is still not a democracy in modern sense. It has put its defense budget for 2011 at 601.1 billion Yuan ($91.5 billion), an increase of 12.7 percent on the allocation for 2010. But many experts believe China's actual spending on the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army is much higher than what the government reports. China launched its first carrier, a refitted and unfinished former Soviet craft, for a maiden run earlier this month. The Pentagon rolled out a record base budget for fiscal year 2012 of $553 billion, up $22 billion from the level enacted for 2010. These figures express significant distrust with each other.

Kissinger has not touched on South Asia in the context of Sino American relations. There are a few passing references on Afghanistan, India and Pakistan (but not on Nepal or Bangladesh). China's main concern in Afghanistan (after the fall of the Taliban), notes Kissinger, was the protection of its investment in minerals, and with this interest fulfilled, it has not contested American efforts to deal with terrorism. Referring to the China-India border dispute in the Himalayas over the territory known as Aksai Chin in the west and over the so called McMahon Line in the east, Kissinger makes a point that Indian planners' conclusion that Chinese forces would not resist a forward movement by India; rather they would use it as an excuse to disengage" was a 'miscalculation.' His comment on the status quo is that the disputed territory has remained disputed until today, but neither side has sought to enforce its claims beyond the existing lines of control.

Kissinger refers to Tibet including some parts of Xinjiang, Mongolia, and the border areas of Burma as parts of historic Chinese empire. On Pakistan, in the context of discussion on worries of nuclear weapons, Kissinger points out that "the experience with the private proliferation network of apparently friendly Pakistan with North Korea, Libya and Iran demonstrates the vast consequences to the international order of the spread of nuclear weapons, even when the proliferating country does not meet the formal criteria of a rogue state."

Henry Kissinger's new book is naturally US-centric in its approach. It looks at China in American point of view, and very carefully. It does not see what the countries in China's neighborhood think about China, and Sino-American relations. In recent years, China has also been expanding the areas of cooperation with India and other countries in South Asia, which have great implications for the world too. The very size of India and China and their seemingly all pervading soft power and vast consumer markets cannot be overlooked. Irrespective of what is in American or global interests, there are enormous strategic concerns. Similarly, the possibility of gradual Russian-Chinese partnership is always there. This compels Washington to deal with China and the region with a broad based approach.

Kissinger emphatically concludes: "When Premier Zhou Enlai and I agreed on the communiqué that announced the secret visit, back in 1972, he said: 'This will shake the world.' What a culmination if, forty years later, the United States and China could merge their efforts not to shake the world, but to build it" The 570 page-book of Kissinger helps with development of positive outlook on Sino-American relations, it does not provide tangible actions proving such a move. There is little breakthrough in the psyche of both these countries. They are still suspicious of each other, but have greater restraint and understanding. This has not been acknowledged loudly.

Despite this major comment, the book is an outstanding piece of work. This critic has learnt a lot about diplomacy and from the perspectives of Kissinger on China. A must read for South Asians, if they are keen to understand China.

(Adhikari is a Nepalese constitutional expert with significant interest in the current issues affecting Nepal)

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