Henry Kissinger, On China, Allen Lane, London, 2011, pp xviii + 586, ISBN 978-1-846-14346-5.
Any work on China today would be a marketable proposition and the author here, with his long record of active engagement with the subject, is most unlikely to suffer critical neglect. Despite the capacious title, suggestive of a compendium of diverse writings drawn from various times, this book is obviously written as an integral whole and has the specific focus of understanding China’s emerging profile in strategic affairs.
It is a story that Kissinger begins by delving into the far reaches of history, where he finds the origins of the “singularity” of China, its “special feature” in having “no beginning” and its unique historical identity, less “conventional nation-state than a permanent natural phenomenon”.
These references to China as a historical entity need to be understood in context, since a similar mysticism often attaches itself to conceptions of India. Nationalist ideologies in their formation, often call upon storied myths, ostensibly from a distant past, to establish a unique claim to identity and existence. Chinese exceptionalism is undoubtedly a factor in its contemporary existence as a nation-state, but there are few nations that are not constituted on some notion of uniqueness. These may influence their conduct in global strategic affairs, though in the growing complexity of today’s geopolitics, “original” constructions of national identity are likely to be less influential than pragmatism and cold calculations of economic advantage.
Kissinger’s primary concern is in addressing the likelihood of conflict –today more real than the possibility of convergence – in the U.S. relationship with China. It is a relationship that is seen as central to the world economy. Evidence comes in the term “Chimerica” coined by the historian Niall Ferguson, a tireless advocate of the need to structure the world in accordance with an imperial logic that embodies what he sees as indispensable western values.
Put very simply, Chimerica refers, in Ferguson’s words, “to the combination of the Chinese and American economies, which together had become the key driver of the global economy” in the first years of the 21st century. “With a combined 13 percent of the world’s land surface and around a quarter of its population, Chimerica nevertheless accounted for a third of global economic output and two-fifths of worldwide growth from 1998 to 2007”.
Early hopes that a global order – a Pax Chimericana to follow the Pax Americana -- could be constructed on these foundations, have since faded. Ferguson himself has written the obituary of Chimerica, since it led as he says, to an untrammelled growth in global economic imbalances, a shocking abdication of fiscal responsibility by the U.S., and the gaming of the system by the Chinese monetary and fiscal authorities.
Kissinger’s worries, considerably different, are stated towards the latter chapters, which go from a consideration of contemporary times, into a prognosis of the future world order. The U.S. and China, he observes, have been “not so much nation-states as continental expressions of cultural identities”. The two are yet to work out a “joint concept of world order” and in working towards this shared vision, Kissinger identifies two divergent strands in the Chinese strategic establishment.
There are the extreme voices, which believe that nothing less than the resurrection of China’s historic role as the cultural and political hegemon in Asia – and indeed the world – will serve to restore the faltering world order. Counter-posed to these are the mellower voices, derived from the Mao Zedong legacy, which foreswore hegemonic ambitions as a matter of principle, and Deng Xiaoping, who arrived at a like conclusion from practical worries about China’s desperate poverty during his time at the helm.
Kissinger is yet unclear about which of these tendencies will triumph. But he believes quite unambiguously, that the future of the Asian landmass and indeed of the world, will depend on how this question is sorted out. What remains to be dealt with, “is to move from crisis management to a definition of common goals, from the solution of strategic controversies to their avoidance”. In the next phase, China and the U.S. should “develop genuine strategic trust” and from there, “evolve a genuine partnership and a world order based on cooperation”.
Symmetry in attitudes would obviously facilitate a constructive dialogue and in this regard, questions could be posed about the current mood within the U.S. strategic community. The two doctrinal strands within China that Kissinger identifies have their counterparts in the U.S. and the divergences there are in fact, becoming ever sharper as economic difficulties multiply and political consensus crumbles. The Project for the New American Century, drawn up towards the end of the 20th century by a far-right group that had decisive influence over the Republican Party for quite some time, is the template for one mode of engagement, based upon a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism and the imposition of a hegemony through the ruthless application of hard and soft power.
There are other, more pragmatic schools of thought, which are now emerging into the light after a long eclipse -- as the U.S. pursued the so-called “global war on terror” in accordance with a doctrine of maximum force.
Kissinger does not directly address the possible implications of domestic discord within the U.S. for strategic engagement and the evolution of a new idiom of cooperation with China. He seems to fall back on pragmatism as the final arbiter, which will prevail as the limits of U.S. power – of both the hard and soft variety – become increasingly evident. He calls upon a large number of historical precedents to bolster the case, beginning with the active U.S. effort to mediate a peace between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists during World War II.
The communist triumph led to great acrimony in the U.S. strategic establishment and a depletion of expertise as individuals with knowledge of China were compelled to leave official positions, unable to bear the heat. This led, in Kissinger’s narration, to an imbalance of skills – and perceptions -- within the U.S. State Department. The continuing presence of a number of redoubtable experts on the Soviet Union, when the China group had been evicted, meant that policy remained resolutely focused on containment and deterrence of the Soviets, to the exclusion of other lines of potentially fruitful engagement.
Anti-communist dogma moreover, was an enveloping force. The rigid and uncompromising mood was symbolised best by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ refusal to shake hands with the Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, at the Geneva conference on Vietnam in 1954. Kissinger argues with a wealth of quotations, that plausible arguments were continually being advanced for breaking out of the envelope. These drew on more complex calculations, invariably involving the need to gain strategic advantage over the Soviet Union. These possibilities though were thwarted by the intrusion of another dogma of the early Cold War years: that President Tito of Yugoslavia was an exception and communist nations would all in the ultimate analysis, stand together on issues of consequence.
On the other side, as Kissinger tells it, was Mao’s implacable will – “domineering and overwhelming” – and his determination to reinvent China through unending revolution. Most revolutions, Kissinger argues, are “institutionalised into a new system of order” once they are successful. But Mao’s revolution “had no final resting place” and his China was “by design, a country in permanent crisis”.
Soon after the successful consummation of the revolution, Mao plunged into a war in the Korean peninsula, equipped with no more than a cursory guarantee of backing from the Soviet Union and unmindful of the very real threat of nuclear retaliation by the U.S. In 1954, barely a year after the formal armistice that ended the Korean war – and again in 1958 -- he plunged into a confrontation with the U.S. in the Taiwan straits. And in 1962, he launched China into another war, this time with India.
All the while, the relationship to the east remained frozen in suspicion as Japan’s economic reconstruction proceeded rapidly, and the supposed socialist solidarity with the Soviet Union was being shredded by territorial disputes and legacies of history.
Through these escalating confrontations abroad, China under Mao was undergoing a series of internal convulsions – from the “Hundred Flowers” campaign and its very rapid reversal, to the “Great Leap Forward” and the near cataclysm of the “Cultural Revolution”. The dramatic opening to the U.S. happened soon afterwards and it is a process that Kissinger is uniquely positioned to describe, having been among its most active agents.
Mutual overtures between the U.S. and China had been underway for a while. The U.S. used Romania and Pakistan as intermediaries, while Mao himself sent out word through the American journalist Edgar Snow, a close friend from the Long March of the 1930s. Though these initial signals were either missed or misread, the dialogue could not for long be postponed. The U.S. was neck-deep in the Vietnam quagmire and China emerging, clearly disoriented, from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and a bitter power struggle that saw the ouster of Mao’s designated successor and ideological heir, Len Biao.
From the U.S. point of view, the rapprochement was about outflanking the Soviet Union and fashioning a face saving exit strategy from Vietnam. Though Kissinger does not say so explicitly, the clear inference that his narration points towards, is that Mao was towards his twilight years, keen to end the state of unending strife that he had made a virtue of through his revolutionary days. His priority at the time, may have been to bequeath to his heirs a stable geostrategic location that would enhance China’s opportunities and afford it the possibility of realising its historic destiny. And in making the retreat from the perennial revolution a reality, China counted upon an aphorism devised by imperial strategists seeking from the 18th century on, to fight back the erosion of centralised authority within the “Heavenly Kingdom”: that the friendship of far neighbours could be used to offset the difficulties posed by hostile near neighbours.
There was ample evidence moreover, of a serious rift between China and the Soviet Union. Kissinger does not mention it, but that was the decisive condition which influenced much of China’s global strategy through the 1970s and 80s, when the Cold War gained a renewed intensity with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, the revival of decolonisation struggles in Africa, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a new turmoil in West Asia.
China itself played the role of armed gendarme in this Cold War configuration by launching a twenty-nine day long military incursion into Vietnam – broader in terms of the deployment of men and material than even its intervention in the Korean war -- that reduced all the border cities in that country to smoking ruins.
Kissinger rather disingenuously describes this military adventure as the “Third Vietnam War”. Deliberately or otherwise, this nomenclatural innovation establishes a continuity between China’s intent in 1979 and the French effort to reclaim the colony it was compelled to vacate during World War II -- which the Vietnamese people defeated in 1954 -- and the U.S. attempt to keep the country safe for global capitalism, defeated in 1975.
Unseen in Kissinger’s narration is the sub-text of the Cold War and the enervation of an already exhausted Soviet bear, in which the Chinese shift towards preserving its hegemonic ambitions in Asia, was actively encouraged by the U.S.
Consequences were quick to follow. Under the oversight of the U.S., then slipping rapidly into a situation of chronic economic deficit, the counterpart surpluses that enabled the U.S. to continue along its pathway towards bankruptcy were held first by Japan (principally), and then by South Korea and Taiwan. None of these countries had any incentive to continue holding these U.S. dollar assets and chose instead, to invest in China. As South Korea, Taiwan and Japan sought to bring their serious payments imbalances with the U.S. under control, China ascended to the status of the largest exporter to the U.S. – and derivatively, to being the largest holder of U.S. government debt.
Early in his work, Kissinger describes a certain self-absorbed placidity as the central characteristic of Chinese civilisation. It was, he said, an attitude that led to seriously offensive references to anybody outside the cultural ambit, as a “barbarian”. The “barbarian” reference recurs in Kissinger’s work, though it has been long known to be a contested interpretation.
In the 1830s, with opium addiction – promoted by a flourishing three-way trade from India – becoming an increasing social concern, the Prime Minister of the Chinese imperial court issued a demand for the banning of the substance. The British foreign secretary, then the deeply egregious Palmerstone, argued that the banning of the opium trade would be an unconscionable curb on the rights of the British traders as long as the Chinese intermediaries continued to engage in it. It was, as a recent history of China by John Keay says, a rationale that would be deeply appreciated by all arms smugglers and terrorists today.
The Chinese imperial memorandum demanding the end of the opium trade was, moreover, thought to be gratuitously offensive, since it flung the deliberate insult of “barbarism” against the British imperial monarch.
The reality is that the term interpreted as “barbarian” in the official translation was understood in the authoritative idiomatic understanding then, as “foreigner”. The tendentious official translation was obviously part of the stratagem of making the case -- for Britain’s domestic constituency, which could be reliably counted upon to react violently to any affront to its monarch – for the Opium Wars by which imperialism sought to impose substance addiction on an entire people for the very pragmatic purpose of global balance-of-payments settlement.
Regarded as a key scholar and statesmen of the 20th century, Kissinger is known in the alternative wisdom, as a cynical practitioner of realpolitik, whose eager complicity in the use of force against Third World targets puts him squarely in the league of imperial adventurers. Though full of information about China, he is fundamentally unable to come up with a prescription that will guide global strategy towards a substantive break from the imperial logic. For all his pretences, he has no real knowledge of the economic substratum of international relations. The continuing accumulation of U.S. dollar assets in China is obviously the most major source of geopolitical instability today. China has relative autonomy in determining how these assets are deployed and it is not evident that the modes that it will choose would be attentive to the need, clearly an imperative in Kissinger’s worldview, to restore U.S. global hegemony to its crumbling perch.
The existential questions that Kissinger poses – of the possibility, if at all, that the U.S. and China would be able to achieve a strategic coherence that would make a new world order possible – could very easily be answered in the negative. The contours of the new world order remain to be determined, not by the Machiavellian deviousness of Kissinger and his ilk, but by the mass struggles of people seeking to build a better future for themselves.