On China

  • Henry Kissinger
  • Penguin Press
  • 530 pp.
  • June 7, 2011

The master of realpolitik pulls back the curtain on Chinese foreign policy.

Reviewed by Chris Tudda

-Henry Kissinger: “Many visitors have come to this beautiful, and to us, mysterious land.” -Zhou Enlai: “When you have become familiar with China, it will not be as mysterious as before.” –– July 9, 1971

This exchange during Henry Kissinger’s first meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can be seen as the template Kissinger follows in his latest tome, On China, an ambitious and largely successful explication of Chinese foreign policy. From Confucius to today, the former Secretary of State provides a well-written and timely history that attempts to unlock the “mystery” of Chinese behavior that he, as a long-time interlocutor, visitor and policy maker, is uniquely qualified to offer.

Kissinger convincingly argues that China has always considered itself “singular,” and that no matter how many times it has suffered invasions, be they physical, ideological or cultural, in the end China has always emerged triumphant. At the same time, he believes that China has never been interested in physical expansion, either by military or other means. Ever the master of realpolitik, Kissinger clearly sees a reflection of his world view in Chinese diplomacy. He argues that its diplomacy has been essentially defensive and historically based on a rational and “realistic” assessment of China’s strengths. Its diplomats have adapted the wei qi board (an ancient Chinese game of strategy) to play a protracted game of “relative advantage,” in order to encircle their adversaries with every resource at their disposal, in particular psychological manipulation. Their goal: to reestablish their own unique empire in the face of foreign (“barbarian”) penetration. Regardless of the ruler, Emperor or Communist Secretary General, Chinese foreign policy has followed the same course, and ideology seems to play little if any role in China’s international relations. Unlike the United States, Kissinger argues that China has only regional ambitions and has consistently eschewed spreading its values around the world.

Kissinger has always prided himself on making sweeping historical statements ― his first book, A World Restored, explained 19th-century European foreign relations in one volume ― and this book is no exception. Therefore it is no surprise that he audaciously covers the history of China’s encounters with the West, including its humiliations at the hands of the British, the other European powers and Japan, in only two chapters. Scholars hoping to find fresh interpretations, or detailed examinations of seminal events such as the Opium War, the later 19th-century phenomena of extraterritoriality and spheres of influence, the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and Jiang Jieshi, the two decades of civil war between the Guomindang and Communists, and the Chinese experience in World War II, will be disappointed.

The bulk of Kissinger’s analysis covers the time period with which he is most familiar: Mao’s China. Kissinger devotes seven chapters to Mao’s tumultuous 27-year rule. He is on much safer ground here, and has clearly done the important, relevant and recent secondary and primary source research. Kissinger argues that Mao initially represented a sharp break from China’s past: in place of Confucius’s emphasis on harmony ― both internal and external ― Mao wished to instill his own ideology of constant revolution into China’s domestic and foreign policies. However, Mao also remained loyal to China’s past, and his victories in the Korean War, his willingness to challenge the Soviet Union’s leadership of the communist world, his brinksmanship during the 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis and his pursuit of a nuclear capability demonstrated a goal: to restore China’s honor after a century of humiliation. Once the two global superpowers recognized China’s role in world affairs, he dialed back his ideological challenge to Washington and Moscow and concentrated on building a new communist society.

As a good realist, Kissinger also concentrates on how the two humanitarian disasters that Mao wrought, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, hurt China’s foreign policy, underscoring that Mao quickly changed his foreign policy when necessary. While Kissinger concedes some of the terrible human costs of the two campaigns (nearly 100 million Chinese likely died between 1958 and 1969), his emphasis is on how Mao’s insatiable quest for continuous revolution isolated China at the same time that the Soviet Union began its long strategic defense buildup in the 1960s. Suddenly Mao awoke to discover that Soviet/Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia, and his troops became involved in clashes with Soviet troops in a remote border area. In response, Mao returned to the past and adopted traditional Chinese diplomacy. He sought rapprochement with the United States ― which coincidentally under Nixon and Kissinger had decided to try to improve relations with China ― in order to strengthen China’s national security. He dropped Marxist-Leninist ideology, de-emphasized both the Taiwan and Vietnam issues, and became a realist in the best Chinese tradition.

Kissinger covers the last 25 years of Chinese foreign policy in six additional chapters. Of particular importance to the reader are his chapters on Deng Xiaoping, who emerged from the near-chaos caused by Mao’s death to guide China into the 21st century, the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War and the Tiananmen Square uprising and crackdown. Kissinger’s explanation for President George H.W. Bush’s reaction to the last event is better than even the former president’s attempt.

This is a long, long book. Nevertheless, it is a fitting coda to Henry Kissinger’s long involvement in foreign policy making. Those in the realist school will love this book; neoconservatives and others in the idealist camp will dislike his emphasis on pragmatism at the expense of human rights, democracy and the like. As I tell my students, Henry Kissinger epitomized the realpolitik phrase “deal with the world the way it is, not as you want it to be.” In this sense, he has reminded us that Chinese foreign policy hasn’t been so mysterious after all.

Chris Tudda is a historian in the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State. The views presented here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the United States Government.

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