Henry Kissinger’s “On China”

June 3, 2011

“On China” is former secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s attempt to explain Chinese diplomacy to an American audience, to review the course of U.S.-China relations, and briefly but incisively to address the challenge of sustaining a mutually beneficial interaction. It adds an honorable two inches to the diplomat’s already broad shelf of works. Like most of the others, it articulates reality as experienced and shaped by Kissinger, this time focusing on the venue of his most enduring diplomatic accomplishment. Despite his paternal pride in the normalization of U.S.-China relations, he is deeply concerned that the relationship might drift back into a zero-sum game — only played with greater risk.

Kissinger’s portrait of China goes well beyond the stereotype of the proud, ancient civilization humiliated by the West and now rising again. Because it has been for millennia the central country of Asia and has the largest population and resource base, China’s situation is fundamentally different from that of the West’s numerous great powers. With the building of the Great Wall, China became the world’s largest gated community, protecting itself from neighbors that it could not eliminate. Traditional China’s greatest accomplishment was not its vastness but rather its constant reemergence from periods of disunity and conquest. Kissinger points out that China’s diplomacy mirrors the game of wei qi, also known as go, in which players try to encircle one another, rather than the Western strategic game of chess in which the goal is checkmate.

As a diplomat, Kissinger concentrates on China’s external relations. He provides an incisive analysis of the Qing Dynasty’s adjustment to the realities of a world dominated by the West in the second half of the 19th century but neglects China’s domestic turmoil of the first half of the 20th. In Kissinger’s account, Mao Zedong makes his dramatic entrance on the world stage in 1949 at the time of the Chinese communist victory with little attention to the preceding decades of rural revolutionary gestation. While Kissinger provides a sympathetic and revisionist interpretation of Mao’s diplomacy, he does not sufficiently appreciate the continuing priority of Chinese domestic politics.

It is a tribute to Kissinger’s respect for China that he first uses the word “I” on page 213. At that point the narrative shifts to the vivid immediacy of his personal interactions with Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao. He recounts in moment-by-moment detail the secret mission in 1971 that prepared the way for President Nixon’s historic visit. The pace quickens after the historic turn toward normalization in 1972.Kissinger has remained intimately involved with the U.S.-China relationship ever since the first of his 50 visits, so his version of the past 40 years is well-informed as well as personal.

As he finally turns toward present and future challenges, Kissinger becomes both more succinct and hard-hitting. He notes that the American dual perception of China as opportunity/threat is mirrored by China’s perception of America as model/obstacle. While both governments officially emphasize cooperation, he addresses the question of an inevitable clash. Will the approaching reality of economic parity overwhelm good intentions? Essentially, Kissinger’s answer is no, because parity is not equality. As China’s economy nears the size of America’s, its per-capita income will still be one-quarter of ours, and its work force will have entered a rapid decline to old age. China’s demographic constraints will limit its future growth and increase its welfare burden. Rather than preparing for a showdown with China, Kissinger suggests building a Pacific Community along the lines of the Atlantic Community to promote security through inclusivity and mutual respect.

Kissinger displays a palpable sympathy for his subject. He is a scholar-official, and China is a civilization of scholar-officials. A Chinese junzi, or prince, is an unelected servant to the political community. His goal is to sustain the system through his personal adroitness. Kissinger’s high regard for the junzi Zhou Enlai — “in some sixty years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure” — is a fraternal admiration.

For a book of such general scope there are surprisingly few errors of fact. Perhaps the most important one is the claim that during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 two U.S. carrier battlegroups sailed through the strait. In fact the Independence and Nimitz groups approached no closer than 100 nautical miles of the other side of Taiwan. The task was to position the Navy to be ready to support any necessary action but not to create a confrontation.

True to his scholar-official responsibilities, Kissinger tells a disciplined story that is personal and yet official. Kissinger’s narrative evades his own failures and shortcomings, but he does the same for succeeding administrations as well. He has two criteria for what is worthy of mention: first, that it fits the mainstream of positive developments, and second, that it does no harm to future diplomacy.

I hope that “On China” is not the final two inches on the Kissinger bookshelf, but it is hard to imagine another topic that for him would be more personally meaningful and satisfying or one more compelling in its contemporary relevance. Certainly not “On Vietnam.” But perhaps “On America”? And yet, as Zhou Enlai once observed about the French Revolution, it may be too early to draw conclusions.

Brantly Womack ’s most recent books are “China Among Unequals” and “China’s Rise in Historical Perspective.” He is a professor of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

ON CHINA

By Henry Kissinger

Penguin Press

586 pp. $36

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