Book Review On China
by Henry Kissinger. New York: Penguin Group, 2010. xviii, 586 pp.

By Ryan Pederson, PhD

While standing in line to pay for my copy of  On China , I observed that the cover story on the latest issue of  The Economist was titled “China’s military rise.” Such a title now seems ubiquitous. During the last past few years Western journalists and academics have had much to say about China’s rapid rise as an economic power, its place in global affairs and its relationship with the United States. As John Bryan Starr remarks in the opening lines of his introductory survey, Understanding China: A Guide to China’s Economy, History, and Political Culture (2010), “[t]o the limited extent that Westerners pay attention to what is going on beyond their shores, China commands a disproportionate share of that attention.”

Evaluations of China’s power and intentions vary considerably. China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (2007), David C. Kang emphasizes the benefits of China’s economic influence and the strength of its diplomatic position, arguing that East Asian states have not sought to balance Chinese power largely because they have welcomed China’s rise as a stabilizing force in the region. By contrast, China: Fragile Superpower (2007) Susan L. Shirk has emphasized China’s limitations as a global power, pointing to the country’s internal weaknesses and latent political instability.

With the publication of On China, Henry Kissinger has managed to make a unique contribution to an already lively discussion. His book is one part diplomatic autobiography, one part historical essay and one part foreign policy commentary. As a diplomatic autobiography, On China offers a richly detailed narrative that only a statesman of Kissinger’s stature and experience could have delivered. Much of his career, after all, has been devoted to enhancing or preserving the United States’ relationship with the People’s Republic of China.

Most famously, in 1971 Kissinger made a secret trip to China for talks with the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The trip ended the silence that had separated Chinese and American leaders for nearly twenty years, and paved the way for President Nixon’s Beijing summit with Mao Zedong in 1972. Beginning in the late 1970s, Kissinger served in a less formal capacity, engaging in numerous talks with Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Drawing on his notes from such meetings, Kissinger presents a lively account of key diplomatic encounters, bringing to life the personalities of the leaders involved, the contentious issues they discussed and the diplomatic game they played.

As an historical essay, On China presents an intriguing argument: that Chinese foreign policy has largely been guided by a distinct tradition of Realpolitik. According to Kissinger, Chinese leaders have a longstanding tradition of Realpolitik which rests on a strategic outlook different from that typically adopted in the West:

The Chinese have been shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik and students of a strategic doctrine distinctly different from the strategy and diplomacy that found favor in the West . . . Rarely did Chinese statesmen risk the outcome of a conflict on a single all-or-nothing clash; elaborate multi-year maneuvers were closer to their style. Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage (pp. 22-23).

Kissinger illustrates the Chinese preference for a slow accumulation of relative advantage by pointing to the contrast between chess and wei qi. In chess (the western game) the strategic objective is to deliver the decisive blow (check mate) that ends the game, whereas in the Chinese game of wei qi the strategic objective is to gain a narrow positional advantage. Kissinger repeatedly points to instances where the strategic thinking of modern Chinese leaders (even the avowedly anti-traditionalist Mao) drew inspiration from a warehouse of Chinese traditions. Such traditions include the precepts of the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu, the “Empty City Stratagem” from the fourteenth-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the time-honored practice of “[d]efeating near barbarians with the assistance of far barbarians” (p. 70).

Given the importance Kissinger ascribes to Realpolitik, it is not surprising to find that the historical figures he admires most are pragmatic men such as Li Hongzhang, the late nineteenth-century statesman who sought to strike a balance between preserving Chinese values and emulating Western sciences. Likewise, among China’s recent leaders, Kissinger’s hero is the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping, “The Indestructible Deng.” For example, Kissinger does not characterize Deng’s decision to invade Vietnam in 1979 as an act of aggression, but instead describes it as an ingenious stroke of foreign policy and a “turning point of the Cold War” (p. 340). The invasion of Communist Vietnam, which flew in the face of China’s ideological position, was not aimed at undermining Vietnamese military capacity, but was instead aimed at testing the Soviet Union and its military alliance with Vietnam. The Soviet failure to respond to this invasion exposed the weakness of the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, thereby enhancing China’s security and undermining Soviet leadership in the Communist world.

Finally, as a commentary on American policy toward China, On China does well in identifying the key issues confronting U.S. leaders, but offers too little in the way of specific recommendations. The penultimate chapter surveys the development of Sino-American relations during the first decade of the twenty-first century, thereby bringing into focus the challenges that both countries will face in negotiating their relationship in the coming years. Kissinger points, for example, to ongoing differences over Chinese monetary policy and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as to recent financial difficulties in the West. Yet, what most concerns him is the question of how the Chinese will view their own rise: will they continue to accept the officially sanctioned idea of China’s “peaceful rise,” or will they reject this understanding of Chinese power as being too constrictive?

In his concluding chapter, Kissinger attempts to answer the question posed by the chapter’s title: “Does History Repeat Itself?” The competition between the United States and China is compared to the competition between a declining Great Britain and a rising Germany in the early years of the twentieth century. The historical comparison invokes the threat of a rivalry that turns to enmity and leads to a devastating military conflict. As Kissinger points out, however, the likelihood of war between China and the United States is slight, given that leaders in both countries understand the destructive potential of a war in the nuclear age. Their competition will be economic.

Kissinger maintains that in order to preserve good relations in the face of such competition, the leaders of both countries must avoid arousing suspicion and fear: the United States must not appear to isolate or limit China’s growth, while China must not appear to exclude the United States from East Asia. Well aware that the two countries were initially brought closer together by a common opposition to Soviet power, he recommends that such pitfalls can best be avoided by framing the Sino-American relationship in terms of a common project, a “Pacific Community.”

Ryan Pederson holds a Ph.D. in History from Binghamton University, State University of New York.  He has taught field-specific curriculum courses at a variety of  higher education institutions: Binghamton, Saskatchewan and LNU-MSU College of International Business (Dalian, China). Dr. Pederson is currently pursuing his J.D. at the University of Saskatchewan.