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On China, Henry Kissinger

This book gives a fascinating insight into China, and particularly its views on foreign policy, through the eyes of Henry Kissinger.

The book starts with a brief history of China, with Kissinger first pointing out that they have no identified starting point, and all their legends already have China existing but in need of help, and then noting that in a similar way Confucius did not claim to create new ways, but wanted to restore old ways. Kissinger then moves quickly through their history and shows how they dealt with foreigners, or “barbarians”, including through military means, through assimilation of their invaders, or encouraging their enemy’s enemy. However when the Europeans arrived these were a new kind of enemy, who only wanted trade access and not dominion, and with far superior arms, so China took time to learn how best to deal with them, having to do the best they could by granting the competitor nations they same rights, thereby not allowing just one European country to be dominant.

Kissinger then moves onto the 20th century, and soon comes to Mao. He presents Mao as against Confucius and traditional Chinese ways, culminating in the Cultural Revolution to try and destroy what remained of these old ways which he saw as weakening China. He also explores the difficult relationship Mao had with Stalin and Khruschev, and how he would try to play off the US against Russia for China’s benefit. Mao proclaimed he was not scared of nuclear war and that China was so large and with a great population that they could survive, so strengthening his position as the weakest of the three, as the other two sides would fear a nuclear war.

We then come on to the 1970s and the opening up of China, where Kissinger himself played a key role as one of the US advisors visiting China and initiating the new relationship and preparing for Nixon’s visit. It is an interesting moment when he switches from describing the history of events to suddenly using “I”, when he steps in. The majority of the book is then spent in these three decades, describing Kissinger’s visits to China, his discussions with key leaders, and the dynamics in the US-China-Soviet relationships. These first include Kissinger’s conversations with Mao and Premier Zhou, where the tentative opening up often included indirect and subtle communication which could be lost on the US, but overall the relationship developed well on the basis of the common enemy of Soviet Russia. What makes this book particularly interesting is Kissinger’s use of quotations from these meetings as well as his own analysis of them.

After Mao’s death, Kissinger describes how Deng set China on its current path of becoming an economic powerhouse. However, US-China relations became more difficult following the Tiananmen square incident, which took almost ten years to move past, as China saw US as having no right to dictate their view of human rights onto Chinese culture and its different approach. Kissinger generally had less official roles in these later times but still maintained strong links with the Chinese leaders.

After Deng, Jiang Zemin took over in 1989, with a more informal, western style. He wanted to bring China more into the international system, which Zhou had wanted but Mao limited, and Deng had wanted but been limited by the Tiananmen incident. Then after Jiang, Hu became leader. Hu brought back Chinese tradition study of Confucius, as Mao had feared. So we wonder how much of Mao’s work will be undone.

While this book covers the history as outlined above, Kissinger’s key aim in the book is to show the way of thinking that has shaped China’s response to foreign events. He starts this by comparing the Western game of Chess, which is based on head-head clashes between pieces leading to a decisive victory, to the Asian game of Go, based on putting pieces on a board go achieve strategic encirclement, and avoid being encircled. He also brings in Sun Tzu’s famous approach to war which included political and psychological factors as well as the military ones, again differing from Western thought. This is further set up in the context of China, whose name means “middle kingdom”.

So China does not want to let itself become encircled, but is also not seeking territorial expansion, beyond some disputed territories, and where they have intervened militarily it is often for this purpose. We see this play out in a number of cases, including Korea where China intervenes to support North Korea and so prevent a US supported nation being on its border, and its intervention in Vietnam to stop them forming a strong territory on China’s southern border. But in both cases they don’t push for Chinese territorial expansion.

This strategic way of thinking is also exemplified in Mao’s comment to Kissinger on Taiwan, that he is happy with how it was at the time, and can wait 100 years until the right time to bring it back into China.

I would highly recommend this book if you have any interest in China’s history or how it is involved in today’s geo-politics. It gives great insight while requiring no prior knowledge.

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2016 by in Book review and tagged , , .
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