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Chronicler of a rise foretold

When it comes to determining the nature of the 21st century international system, nothing comes close in importance as the views and actions of China. Which is why there is understandable interest when Henry Kissinger offers 600-plus pages of thinking on Chinese statecraft, foreign policy and history.

books Updated: Jun 04, 2011 11:15 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

On China

Henry Kissinger


Lotus


Rs899 pp 608

When it comes to determining the nature of the 21st century international system, nothing comes close in importance as the views and actions of China. Which is why there is understandable interest when Henry Kissinger offers 600-plus pages of thinking on Chinese statecraft, foreign policy and history.

Kissinger is possibly the only western statesman to have had extensive interactions with every Chinese leaders between Mao Zedong and Jiang Zemin. The result is enlightening. But, in the end, Kissinger tellingly peppers his last chapter with question marks. On China can be roughly divided into three components. The first is an extended essay on the Chinese practice of foreign policy and the origins of its worldview. Kissinger draws on history, experience and a distillation of other writings.

The second component is two historical essays: the Qing’s ultimately fatal attempts to manage the western imperial powers and the manner in which America normalised relations with the world’s most populous country. Kissinger follows the full sweep of modern Chinese history, but dwells the longest on these two periods.

Drawing on Chinese writings, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Confucius and the game wei qi — sometimes erroneously called ‘Chinese chess’ — Kissinger argues China, like all agrarian empires, had a patchy military record when it came to taking on outside invaders, especially horse-riding types, from their north. Their statecraft, therefore, focused on avoiding direct military confrontation. The name of the game was psychological victory, pitting “barbarian against barbarian” or coopting the invader. “The highest aspiration was less to conquer... than to deter invasion and prevent the formation of barbarian coalition.”

He argues that Chinese diplomatic strategy, unlike the western norm, is to be more defiant the stronger the sense of “perceived vulnerability”. Kissinger argues that Beijing “believes in deterrence in the form of preemption” and cites its policy towards India in 1962 as partial proof. Contemporary strategists, facing a rising and unpredictable China, may want to memorise the US statesman’s two observations about Chinese diplomacy:

“When Chinese planners conclude that their opponent is gaining unacceptable advantage and that the strategic trend is turning against them, they respond by seeking to undermine the enemy’s confidence and allow China to reclaim the psychological, if not material, upper hand.”

“China’s strategy generally exhibits three characteristics: meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options, and detached exploration of operation decisions.”

Kissinger retains his skills as a clear and precise chronicler of the intricacies of diplomacy and politics. The book’s historical bits are a great read — even though they have nothing new to say. The US-China rapprochement is among the most written about events in diplomatic history — Kissinger’s own two-volume memoir, Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger, Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao, the list is endless. That so many chapters should be spent in recounting it again gives one a sense of nostalgia rather than enlightenment.

The end of the book is shallow. Kissinger has some insights on Jiang Zemin, the last Chinese leader he had extensive personal contact with. But the China of today is clearly different from the one he encountered. There are no leaders of the stature of Mao or Deng. The past coherence of the party is gone and there are new voices like corporate interests and online youth that he barely bothers to understand.

Kissinger writes of how Mao tried to destroy traditional Chinese society which he saw as passive and rigid. He argues that traditional society has made a comeback. But he also admits the new China is dynamic and pushy. He argues that the new Chinese leadership is more globalised than it has ever been. He also admits it is now more concerned about domestic opinion than it was in Mao’s day. But he fails to draw definite lines between this and the practice of future Chinese diplomacy.

Kissinger is less positive about the future of US-China relations than he was in the past. The two, he notes, are yet to develop a “joint concept of world order”. The reassertion, post-Cold War, of American democratic principles in its foreign policy troubles him. He sees less partnership than what he calls “co-evolution” in which the two agree to disagree and ensure the disagreements don’t spill over. The conclusion is uncertain. As is much of the book.