Knowing Kissinger’s China

It is very tempting to proclaim ‘On China’ as the most important new non-fiction book of 2011. But that it may well be.


Published: Wed 22 Jun 2011, 9:49 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

Several reasons compel this judgment.

The first is that this extraordinarily clear-headed analytical study has just one central focus: China. So it does not wander all over the lot and its central focus is not exactly some tiny study of Montenegro: For China is the home for close to one out of very four citizens of this planet and, of course, China is no longer asleep.

Reason number two is that any authoritative study of China, such as this one, helps us understand the all-important China-US relationship. What are the stakes here? It seems reasonable to believe that if Beijing and Washington construct their policies on parallel tracks that are as accommodative of each other as is consistent with their respective national interests, then the probability of a world war occurring will be greatly reduced.

Those are, therefore, some stakes.

The third obvious reason why this book merits special ranking is that its author is Henry Kissinger, now 88. Whatever your politics and whatever you may think of him (the seriously illegal bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, Nixon, the wiretapping of his own aides, etc. etc.) this is a deep thinker who knows China the way (say) Bill Gates knows the logic of software or Stephen Sondheim lyrics.

The former Harvard professor was, after all, the policy pioneer who in the early ‘70s made history with his boss President Richard Nixon by tearing down the diplomatic wall between America and China. Since then, Kissinger has tracked China’s evolution with patience and perspective and surely understands it at least as well as anyone outside China.

This is why ‘On China’ has, in the book’s initial reception on the mainland, gotten such great press.

Kissinger’s methodology is not new but in some ways, in this day and age of fancy-statistics social science, it is unusual: Let the remorseless lessons of the past be the best guide as to what the future might hold. Only the sweeping and unemotional gaze of history can offer a proper perspective on the events and personalities of our era. This is why this new book could well contribute to world peace and stability if Beijing and Washington permit its central themes to be influential.

The value of the analysis of the interaction between Hanoi and Beijing is its clarity, and its emphasis on the decisive role of national-interest over ideology. After all, here were two alleged Communist countries going at each other fiercely. Most observers at the time were shocked. But by analysing China from the perspective of its traditional tactic of “preemptive deterrence”, and viewing Hanoi from its long-held regionally imperialistic ambitions, the author demonstrates why the behaviour of neither country was demonstrably irrational, much less unpredictable.

To put it plainly, the Chinese had concluded that an advancing Vietnam would not stop with the occupation of only Cambodia and, unless deterred, would go on to gobble up Thailand (and then presumably Malaysia and Singapore as well). Yes, Beijing believed in the Domino Theory, too! The end result would be a Southeast Asian mini-empire on China’s doorstep (sort of like a North and South Korea united under Seoul backed by the US military — another potential nightmare scenario for Beijing).

Why is this history so relevant? Why is China behaving as it is (that is, badly)? Why is Hanoi playing so curiously nice-nice with America, even as the scars of the terrible war with the US remain evident today (because it trusts China even less and detests it even more than the US).

Without the benefit of historical perspective, the present remains inscrutable and the future a constant surprise.

Prof. Tom Plate of Loyola Marymount University has been writing syndicated columns about Asia and America continually since 1996

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