A collection of essays examines the legacy of Kissinger in US-China relations

The world’s two biggest economies share a very complex relationship that will eventually dictate and decide a lot that happens in the world

By Gopika Nair

Published: Thu 20 Jan 2022, 11:46 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Jan 2022, 1:31 PM

Edited excerpts from an interview with Sanjaya Baru and Rahul Sharma:

How did you both come together for this project? What triggered your interest in documenting the rise of China and Henry Kissinger’s visit, in particular?

We have known each other for several decades. We have worked together in the past and have stayed in touch despite the very different things we have done after we both left active journalism. The idea of the book actually came from a Zoom call about key events that have impacted the contemporary world. Since 2021 would mark the 50th anniversary of US-China relations and given that these had reached a new low since the heyday of bonhomie, we felt it would be a good idea to look back critically at the record of these 50 years.

Kissinger’s visit to China has been credited for changing the course of history and leaving an impact on the whole world. Why was his approach to diplomacy so effective?

As many authors in this book have pointed out, the US-China rapprochement of 1971 was waiting to happen. Earlier attempts did not see the light of day since the global environment was not ripe. The China-USSR spat of the 1960s created the right moment and Kissinger grasped the opportunity. Being a student of European diplomatic history he was more prescient than others. Of course, the initiative came from the then US president Richard Nixon, the path was kind of set by Kissinger after his secret visit to Beijing to meet the Chinese leaders.

While preparing for the book, the US-China relations hadn’t reached as much of a low as it has now. Did you foresee a deterioration in the relationship?

In 2020, when we began planning this book, US-China relations had already been on a downhill course. President Donald Trump had already declared a ‘trade war’ and spoken of a ‘new cold war’. So we were conscious of the deterioration in the bilateral relationship. That is why this book became so relevant and necessary.

It looks at the growth in the relationship from 1971 and the decline from 2008-09, when the West was rattled by the trans-atlantic financial crisis and China was on an upward economic trajectory. We divide our period — 1971-2021— into three phases. 1971-1989, when the Tiananmen Square incident happened. 1989 to 2000, when the US voted in favour of normal trade relations with China and admitted China into the World Trade Organization and then the period after, in which China’s rise was secular.

Where do you see India in this situation, given the historic hostility between India and China and the alignment between India and the US?

Our book has some very interesting essays on how changes in US-China relations impacted India. In 2021, we also marked the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh. At that time, US and China stood with Pakistan and against India. India needed Soviet support to help Bangladesh. Today, Russia and China have come together and India and the US have a much closer relationship. China will remain India’s biggest security challenge since it seeks to be a hegemon in Asia and eventually a global hegemon. India believes in creating a more polycentric or multipolar global order.

What were your criteria for selecting these essays?

We drew up a list of academics, foreign policy experts, former diplomats and journalists from across several countries and wrote to those we considered eminently suitable to address the issues discussed in the book and, to our delight, each of the persons we wrote to agreed to write for the volume. We are sincerely thankful to them for their contributions. We can’t also forget that we were putting this book together during the Covid-triggered lockdown, when many of us were dealing with very different challenges. The book, we can safely say, is a product of the pandemic.

The book notes that one of the major mistakes the US has made is abandoning Kissinger’s realist pragmatism and adopting liberal idealism. How would a return to realist pragmatism improve America’s relationship with China today?

This is a view articulated mainly by Kishore Mahbubani. We do think the US is being very realistic in responding to China’s aggressive and assertive behaviour under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The US should be even more realistic by building a better equation with Russia. Reassuring Russia will help weaken the Russia-China nexus. This will benefit the West and India.

How long did the curation process take and how did you ensure the book would stand the test of time?

The quality of the authors and their essays will ensure this book will be read for a long time to come. Fortunately for us, it took just about a year to put it together because all our authors, otherwise very busy people, delivered their essays on time and the publisher ensured early publication.

Also, what the book captures will continue to be relevant to the world in the years to come. Let us not forget that next month will mark the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s — a staunch anti-Communist — visit to China. He was right when he said at the end of the trip that it was a week that changed the world. It indeed was, as events post the visit have shown!

There is a lot brewing between and around the United States and China. The world’s two biggest economies share a very complex relationship that will eventually dictate and decide a lot that happens in the world. We believe the book connects that past with the future rather well and will continue to do so in the time ahead.


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