Two weeks ago, Henry Kissinger’s new book “On China” went on the shelf. I have the honor of being asked recently to review the book. Henry Kissinger – preeminent American political scientist, diplomat, National Security Advisor and later concurrently Secretary of State in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – requires no introduction. So I’ll go straight to the book.
In my opinion, “On China” is destined to become a best seller and an important resource on China – on the level of Jonathan Spence’s “In Search of Modern China” – for English readers. The book provides fascinating angles to so many chapters of Sino-American diplomatic history and has the character of an elder statesman telling not only a good story, but of imparting wisdom on a next generation of political leaders.
While focusing on 20th century Chinese history, the book also gave sufficient background on Chinese history to give context to current events – as well as a vision of what can be possible. Kissinger masterfully (but coolly) tells the story of China’s struggles through its centuries of humiliation, starting with the Opium War and its attempts to resist colonialism and foreign invasions. The book traces the story of the Communist rise to power, and the immediate turmoils – both domestic and international – that put the nascent state and the Chinese people immediately to the test.
One of my favorite aspects about the book is the way it tells – with wit, insight and cogency – the hair-triggering geopolitical games the Soviet Union, U.S., and China played.
For example, regarding the Vietnam War of 1979 and the Sino-Soviet split, Kissinger wrote (it’s a long excerpt, but it gives a small sense of Kissinger’s insight, breadth of knowledge, and writing style):
The Soviet Union would never be bound by agreements, Deng warned; it understood only the language of countervailing force….
Deng’s analysis of the strategic situation included a notification to the White House that China intended to go to war with Vietnam because it had concluded that Vietnam would not stop at Cambodia. “[T]he so-called Indochinese Federation is to included more than three states,” Deng warned. “Ho Chi Minh cherished this idea. The three states is only the first step. Then Thailand is to be included.” China had an obligation to act, Deng declared. It could not wait developments; once they had occurred, it would be too late.
Deng confronted Carter with a challenge to both principle and public attitude. In principle, Carter did not approve preemptive strategies, especially since they involved military movements across sovereign borders. At the same time, he took seriously, even when he did not fully share, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s view of the strategic implications of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which was parallel to Deng’s. … [Carter] called attention to the favorable moral position that Beijing would forfeit by attacking Vietnam. China, now widely considered a peaceful country, would run the risk of being accused of aggression:
This is a serious issue. Not only do you face a military threat from the North, but also a change in international attitude. China is now seen as a peaceful country that is against aggression. The ASEAN countries, as well as the UN, have condemned the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba. I do not need to know the punitive action being contemplated, but it could result in escalation of violence and a change in the world posture from being against Vietnam to partial support for Vietnam.
It would be difficult for us to encourage violence. We can give you intelligence briefings. We know of no recent movements of Soviet troops towards your borders.
I have no other answer for you….
The next day, Carter and Deng met alone, and Carter handed Deng a note (as yet unpublished) summarizing the American position. According to Brzezinski: “The President himself drafted by hand a letter to Deng, moderate in tone and sober in content, stressing the importance of restraint and summarizing the likely adverse international consequences. I felt that this was the right approach, for we could not collude formally with the Chinese in sponsoring what was tantamount to overt military aggression.” Informal collusion was another matter.
On February 17, China mounted a multipronged invasion of northern Vietnam from southern China’s Guangxi and Yunnan provinces. … One historian has concluded that the invasion force, which included “regular ground forces, militia, and naval and air force units … was similar in scale to the assault with which China made such an impact on its entry into the Korean War in November 1950.” …
The Target of China’s military was a fellow Communist country, recent ally, and longtime beneficiary of Chinese economic and military support. The goal was to preserve the strategic equilibrium in Asia, as China saw it. Further, China undertook the campaign with the moral support, diplomatic backing and intelligence cooperation of the United States – the same “imperialist power” that Beijing had helped eject from Indochina five years earlier.
As in the Sino-Indian War, China executed a limited “punitive” strike followed immediately by a retreat. It was over in twenty-nine days. Shortly after the PLA captured (and reportedly laid waste to) the capitals of the three Vietnamese provinces along the border, Beijing announced that Chinese forces would withdraw from Vietnam, save for several disputed pieces of territory. Beijing made no attempt to overthrow the Hanoi government or to enter Cambodia in any overt capacity.
A month after the Chinese troops had withdrawn, Deng explained the Chinese strategy to me on a visit to Beijing:
DENG: After I cam back [from the U.S.], we immediately fought a war. But we asked you for your opinion beforehand. I talked it over with President Carter and then he replied in a very formal and solemn way. He read a written text to me. I said to him: China will handle this question independently and if there is any risk, China will take on the risk alone. In retrospect, we think if we had driven deeper into Vietnam in our punitive action, it would have been even better.
KISSENGER: It could be.
DENG: Because our forces were sufficient to drive all the way to Hanoi. But it wouldn’t be advisable to go that far.
KISSINGER: No, it would probably have gone beyond the limits of calculation.
DENG: Yes, you’re right. But we could have driven 30 kilometers deeper into Vietnam. WE occupied all the defensive areas of fortification. There wasn’t a defense line left all the way to Hanoi.
The conventional wisdom among historians is that the war was a costly Chinese failure. The effects of the PLA’s politicization during the Cultural Revolution became apparent during the campaign: hampered by outdated equipment, logistical problems, personnel shortages, and inflexible tactics, Chinese forces advanced slowly and at great cost. By some analyst’s estimates, the PLA suffered as many killed in action in one month of fighting the Third Vietnam War as the United States suffered in the most costly years of the second one.
Convention wisdom is based, however, on a misapprehension of the Chinese strategy. Whatever the shortcomings of its executions, the Chinese campaign reflected a serious long-term strategic analysis.
In the end, China was not able to rescue … or force Hanoi to withdraw its troops from Cambodia for another decade…. However, Beijing did impose heavy costs on Vietnam. Chinese diplomacy in Southeast Asia before, during, and after the war worked with great determination and skill to isolate Hanoi. China maintained a heavy military presence along the border, retained several disputed pieces of territory, and continued to hold out the threat of a “second lesson” to Hanoi. For years afterward, Vietnam was forced to support considerable forces on its northern border….
Ultimately over a time period more difficult to sustain for democratic societies, China achieved a considerable part of its strategic objectives in Southeast Asia. Deng achieved sufficient maneuvering room to meet his objective of thwarting Soviet domination of Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait.
The ultimate loser in the conflict was the Soviet Union, whose global ambitions had caused alarm around the world….
Equanimity in the face of materially superior forces has been deeply ingrained in Chinese strategic thinking – as is apparent from the parallels with China’s decision to intervene in the Korean War. Both Chinese decisions were directed against what Beijing perceived to be a gathering danger – a hostile power’s consolidation of bases a multiple points along the Chinese periphery. In both cases, Beijing believed that if the hostile power were allowed to complete its design, China would be encircled and thus remain in a permanent state of vulnerability. The adversary would be in a position to launch a war at a time of its choosing, and knowledge of this advantage would allow it to act … “without scruples.” …
These were not elegant affairs: China threw troops into immensely costly battles and sustained causalities on a scale that would have been unacceptable in the Western world. … But both interventions achieved noteworthy strategic goals. At two key moments in the Cold War, Beijing applied its doctrine of offensive deterrence successfully. …
Singapore’s Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew has summed up the ultimate result of the war: “The Western press wrote off the Chinese punitive action as a failure. I believe it changed the history of East Asia.”
It is clear from the book that Kissinger has a keen ability to view the world as is, rather than falling into the ideological trap of seeing the world in moralistic terms. Kissinger, in my view, truly respects China, and through respect is able to intuitively grasp the political, cultural, and historical context through which Chinese leaders and the Chinese people view the world – and in particular the West.
To be sure, Kissinger also pays tribute and articulates the importance of democracy and human rights throughout the book. But rather than using it to wage a crusade against others – to discredit or slight Chinese culture or to conveniently apply ideology to advance national interests at the expense of others – Kissinger is keen to leverage it to build bridges.
The attempt to alter the domestic structure of a country of the magnitude of China form the outside is likely to involve vast unintended consequences. American society should never abandon its commitment to human dignity. It does not diminish the importance of that commitment to acknowledge that Western concepts of human rights and individual liberties may not be directly translatable, in a finite period of time geared to Western political and news cycles, to a civilization for millennia ordered around different concepts. Nor can the traditional Chinese fear of political chaos be dismissed as an anachronistic irrelevancy needing only “correction” by Western enlightenment. Chinese history, especially in the last two centuries, provides numerous examples in which a splintering of political authority – sometimes inaugurated with high expectations of increased liberties – tempted social and ethnic upheaval….
By the same principle, countries dealing with America need to understand that the basic values of our country include an inalienable concept of human rights and that American judgements can never be separated from America’s perceptions of the practice of democracy. There are abuses bound to evoke an American reaction, even a the cost of an overall relationship. Such events can drive American foreign policy beyond national interests. No American President can ignore them, but he must be careful to define the and be aware of the principle of unintended consequences. No foreign leader should dismiss them. How to define and how to establish the balance will determine the nature of America’s relationship to China and perhaps the peace of the world.
Perhaps the most important theme to come across from the book is the notion that while ideology and one’s sense of history is important, it is not the foundation of diplomacy. Peace is. Just as China has a right to her view of history and role in that history, so does the U.S. (and West in general) to its view of history and role in that history. But both should respect each for what each other is. The trick is to find common grounds and to de-emphasize conflicts. Whatever moral imperatives one might personally believe in, working for a just, prosperous, and enduring peace ranks amongst the highest of moral imperative. Such a value is embedded in the traditional Chinese sense of a just and harmonious society – and I believe – Kissinger’s bold vision for the future as well.
Kissinger recounts in the final chapter how Asia today finds itself in a time of peace but also with a political order that is in many ways reminiscent of Europe before WWI. Would a game for balance of power force sovereign states to join alliances pitting one group of nations against another? Will the process of balancing lead to conflict?
Strategic trust between the U.S. and China by itself may not be enough to ensure peace. In the last chapter, Kissinger lays out his vision why China and U.S. should not just be partners, but be a co-architect of a new order, and through the building of that order, co-evolve with each other.
As Kissinger concluded in his book:
The future of Asian will be shaped to a significant degree by how China and America envision [their role with each other], and by the extent to which each nation is able to achieve some congruence with the other’s historic regional role. Through its history, the United States has often been motivated by visions of the universal relevance of its ideals and of a proclaimed duty to spread them. China has acted on the basis of its singularity; it expanded by cultural osmosis, not missionary zeal.
For these two societies representing different versions of exceptionalisms, the road to cooperation is inherently complex. The mood of the moment is less relevant than the ability to develop a pattern of actions capable of surviving inevitable changes of circumstances. The leaders on both sides of the Pacific have an obligation to establish a tradition of consultation and mutual respect so that, for their successors, jointly building a shared world order becomes an expression of parallel national aspirations.
When China and the United States first restored relations forty years ago, the most significant contribution of the leaders of the time was their willingness to raise their sights beyond the immediate issues of the day. … This enabled the leaders of a generation ago to deal with their future, not their immediate pressures, and to lay the basis for a world unimaginable then but unachievable without Sino-American cooperation.
In pursuit of understanding the nature of peace, I have studied the construction and operation of international orders ever since I was a graduate student well over half a century ago. On the basis of these studies, I am aware that the cultural, historic, and strategic gaps in perception that I have described will pose formidable challenges for even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leadership on both sides. On the other hand, … [e]very great achievement was a vision before it became a reality. …
In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that perpetual peace would eventually come to world in one of two ways: by human insight or by conflicts and catastrophes of a magnitude that left humanity no other choice. We are at such a juncture.
When Premier Zhou Enlai and I agreed on the communique that announced the secret visit, he said: “This will shake the world.” What a culmination if, forty years later, the United and China could merge their efforts not to shake the world, but to build it.
My overall view of the book is very favorable. I commend Kissinger for writing an interesting, important, and visionary book. In my personal opinion though, I believe Kissinger’s vision to consist of one glaring deficiency.
I believe that as long as the West views the world through its moralist lens, the world will be inherently unstable. China does not ask the West to change itself. But if China – while justly feeling aggrieved – does not advocate any doctrine of revenge and has recalibrated its moral compass when dealing on the International Stage, why should not the West also do similar when it deals with an increasingly multi-polar world?
Perhaps Kissinger is wise not to directly confront this question. Ideology, national interests, international circumstances – these are all things that are dynamic and that can change. The focus between China and U.S. should be on continually exploring shared common interests, ideological differences not withstanding.
But, in my view, mutual respect is such a key pillar to the notion of shared partnership and co-evolution that Kissinger ought to have paid more attention to the question whether the West truly respects China, whether its forward ideological thrust is compatible with mutual respect, and whether world peace can be achieved without true, equal, reciprocating respect.
This review was organized as part of a virtual book tour on Kissinger’s new book from TLC Book Tours.
Kissinger’s Tour Stops
Wednesday, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thursday, May 12th: Mark’s China Blog
Tuesday, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednesday, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Sunday, May 22nd: Rhapsody In Books
Tuesday, May 24th: Bookworm’s Dinner
Wednesday, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thursday, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Monday, May 30th: Hidden Harmonies China Blog
Tuesday, May 31st: Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thursday, June 2nd: ChinaGeeks
Friday, June 3rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tuesday, June 7th: booker rising
Wednesday, June 8th: Power and Control
Thursday, June 9th: Marathon Pundit
Friday, June 10th: Rundpinne