Friday, June 17, 2011

On China by Henry Kissinger - Review

One would be hard pressed to point to any relationship between two countries that will have greater global impact over the coming decades than the relationship between the United States and China. We would be equally hard pressed to find a better guide to understanding and explaining the historical foundation, current status and future prospects of that intricate, evolving and potentially brittle relationship than Henry Kissinger.

Intellectual, academic, author, consultant to private and public leaders in both countries, and most significantly, as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford, Kissinger was arguably the primary actor whose performance on the international stage shaped the current state of Sino-American relations.

The name of Henry Kissinger's new book is "On China". A more accurate title might be "On Sino - American Relations - A Handbook for US and Chinese Diplomats and Leaders".

In the preface and prologue Kissinger is explicit about his intentions:
"This book is an effort... to explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order, and its relation to the more pragmatic, case-by-case American approach... American exceptionalism is missionary... Chinese exceptionalism is cultural... A primary focus of this book is the interaction between Chinese and American leaders since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949."
Kissinger hits the mark. It is well written in an easily accessible style that does not require prerequisite knowledge of Chinese history or culture. Yet by simple virtue of its 530 page length, breadth and depth, the book requires a reader to make a commitment and bring a strong desire to understand the historic and cultural foundation on which current Sino-American relations are built.

It is only in the last chapter and epilogue that Kissinger explains why it is vitally important for Americans (and Chinese) to make the effort to understand the cultural and psychological differences in our respective approaches to foreign relations. These differences have in the past and may again in the future lead to misunderstandings, distrust, unintended consequences and tragedy.

I suggest that anyone wondering whether to commit to the effort required by this tome to read the epilogue first. It doesn't give anything away, but it does raise the stakes and correctly frames the context needed to appreciate the rest of the book. I'll revisit the epilogue later in the review.

"On China" is organized chronologically, beginning with the early history of China and ending with a look into her immediate future. Although it is structured as a historical timeline, it is not a conventional history nor does it pretend to be comprehensive. The history is offered as a framework for understanding the roots of the Chinese world view and (if we accept Kissinger's premise) as the keys to unlocking and understanding contemporary Chinese diplomatic approaches to managing US relations.

Kissinger cites ancient Chinese texts and thinkers like Sun-Tzu and Confucius to compare and contrast American and Chinese approaches to international diplomacy. Throughout the arc of post revolutionary Chinese history, Kissinger repeatedly applies these ancient texts and principles to explain the contemporaneous Chinese attitudes and actions. In this manner he illustrates recent historic and current events including the Korean War, the Mao/Nixon/Kissinger initiatives to restore relations, two Vietnam wars and even the current currency/trade negotiations.

Here I'll offer two of many examples:

In Chapter 1 - The Singularity of China Kissinger invokes a 14th Century Chinese novel:
"The famous opening of "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms", a fourteenth-century epic novel... evokes this continuous rhythm: "The empire long divided, must unite; long united must divide, thus it has eve been." Each period of disunity was viewed as an aberration... The fundamental precepts of Chinese culture endured, test by the strain of periodic calamity."
Having established this cultural perspective early in the book, Kissinger invites us to consider the outlook of contemporary Chinese leadership as still embracing this perspective. The rapid rise of contemporary China is thus considered by their leadership as simply a return to the natural order of things. Viewed through this prism, the relatively short multi-century period of foreign imperialism, civil war, disunity, and revolution becomes just another instance of a "temporary aberration". It is instructive to note that the time-frame of this most recent "temporary aberration" in the long arc of Chinese history is roughly comparable to the period of time comprising the entire history of the United States.

Then in Chapter 8 - The Road to Reconciliation Kissinger recounts Chinese strategists advising Chairman Mao by relying on lessons from the same 14th century novel as a basis for reopening relations with the US in the face of Sino-Soviet border skirmishes:
"Ye Jianying proposed a far older precedent from China's own Three Kingdoms period, when following the collapse of the Han Dynasty, the empire split into three state striving for dominance. The states' contests were recounted in a fourteenth-century epic novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then banned in China. Ye cited the strategy pursued by one of its central characters as a template:'We can consult the example of Zhuge Liang's strategic guiding principle, where the three states of Wei, Shu, and Wu confronted each other. Ally with Wu in the east to oppose Wei in the north.'... The marshals went on to describe potential relations with the U.S. as a strategic asset."
Still in Chapter 1 - Kissinger explains the concept of "Shi" from the 2,000 year old writings of Sun Tzu:
"Hence the task of a strategist is less to analyze a particular situation than to determine its relationship to the context in which it occurs... The strategist must capture the direction of that evolution and make it serve his ends. Sun Tzu uses the word "shi" for that quality , a concept with no direct Western counterpart. In the military context, shi connotes the strategic thread and "potential energy" of a developing situation... To Sun Tzu, the strategist mastering shi is akin to water flowing downhill, automatically find the swiftest and easiest course... The Art of War articulates a doctrine less of territorial conquest than of psychological dominance; it was the way North Vietnam fought America."
Then in Chapter 18 - The New Millennium Kissinger show the concept of "Shi" being applied by current Chinese leadership to current events:
"The cultivation of harmony did not preclude the pursuit of strategic advantage. At a July 2009 conference of Chinese diplomats, Hu Jianto delivered a major speech assessing the new trends. He affirmed the first twenty years of the twenty-first century were still a "strategic opportunity period" for China. But in the wake of the financial crisis and other seismic shifts, Hu suggested that the shi was now in flux... If China guarded against potential pitfalls and managed its affairs diligently, the period of upheaval might be turned to its advantage."
Reading this section I cannot help but wonder at the complacency with which our current financial leadership (Fed Chairman Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Geithner) trivialize the financial control over our dollar and economy that we have ceded to China as a primary lender and holder of trillions of dollars our national debt. Nothing in Kissinger's book suggests that China will hesitate to use that leverage, even if it causes damage to their own economy, if they believe it necessary to protect their interest or simply gain advantage against the US in the years to come. Which, to my mind, makes it inevitable that it will indeed be used. But I digress.

Throughout On China Kissinger proceeds in this manner. First he outlines ancient texts including Confucian thoughts, Sun Tzu's Art of War, Ming Dynasty strategies for "using barbarians to check barbarians ", Han Dynasty tactics to use "five baits" to manage barbarians [foreigners], the game of "surrounding pieces" known as "Wei Qi" or "Go", and the pervasive perception afforded by millennia of Chinese cultural exceptionalism. Then he shows how these ideas and attitudes have been in the recent past and continue now to be practically applied by Chinese leadership to international relations in the modern era.

Kissinger concludes with a warning. The failure to understand the differences in strategy and tactics applied by China and the US in international relations can lead to misunderstandings with tragic consequences. In chapters 4 and 5, he contends this is exactly what happened in Korea:
"In China's conflicts with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Mao and his top associates conceived of the threat in them of a wei qi concept - that of preventing strategic encirclement. It was in precisely these most traditional aspects that the superpowers had the most difficulty comprehending Mao's strategic moves... Mao was determined to prevent encirclement by any power or combination of powers,regardless of ideology, that he perceived as securing too many wei qi "stones" surrounding China, by disrupting their calculations. This was the catalyst that led China into the Korean War..."

" ... When the Chinese view of preemption encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious circle can result: acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement. The United States and China wrested with this dilemma repeatedly during the Cold War; to some extent they have not found a way to transcend it."
Which brings us to the epilogue - where Kissinger turns his eyes from looking back to looking forward and applying the lessons learned. The epilogue may be the rasion d'etre for the book. Here Kissinger asks the question "Will History Repeat Itself?" - clearly fearing it might, and perhaps hoping his book points to a way of avoiding the future he fears.

The history that Kissinger hopes to avoid is not the recent Sino-American history that consumes his attention in the first 500 pages. Instead he invokes pre-World War I Europe where an emerging unified Germany challenged the preeminence of the dominant superpower of the age - the United Kingdom. He cites the "Crowe Memorandum" written in 1907 by a senior official in the British Foreign Office. In this memorandum (characterized by Kissinger as "brilliant") Crowe argues that future conflict is inherent in the relationship of the two powers.
Crowe concluded that it made no difference what goal Germany avowed. Whichever course Germany was pursuing, "Germany would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford." And once Germany achieved naval supremacy, Crowe assessed, this in itself - regardless of German intentions - would be an objective threat to Britain and "incompatible with the existence of the British Empire."
History would seem to judge him prescient. The obvious comparison is to a rising China building as powerful a military and economy as it can, and begs the question whether China similarly becomes an objective threat to the United States - "regardless of intentions".

Perhaps Kissinger sees this book as his own modern day "Crowe Memorandum". By calling attention to the potential dangers inherent in the relationship, he hopes to head off a similar catastrophic conflict. Certainly he finishes with suggestions to avoid such a fate, and strikes a hopeful (or wishful) note:
"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 had, were history confided the mechanical repetition of the past, no transformation would ever have occurred. Every great achievement was a vision before it became a reality. In that sense, it arose from commitment, not resignation to the inevitable."
Growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam war, I have mixed feelings about Henry Kissinger and in particular the role he played in the Nixon and Ford administrations. That said, I judge this book a success by the standards he set out in the preface, as well as by my own lofty expectations.

Reading it has changed the way I look at China, our historical relationship, and the issues confronting us today and in the future.


Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read the book and write this review. This is my second review for TLC (first here) and I received a free copy of On China (without preconditions on content) to write this review.

Check out the tour home page linked here. I was a little late, but made a point of not reading any blog or mainstream media reviews prior to completing this work. I am looking forward to comparing notes with other "On China" Virtual Tour Calendar and Reviews linked here:

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

Wednesday, June 8th: Power and Control

Thursday, June 9th: Marathon Pundit

Friday, June 10th: Rundpinne

Monday, June 13th: Booker Rising

Friday, June 17th: Divided We Stand United We Fall

EDITS & UPDATES: - Fixing typos as I find them, and adding links to other reviews as they are completed.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.


trish said...

"I suggest that anyone wondering whether to commit to the effort required by this tome to read the epilogue first."

I think you made a great case for why everyone should read this book. My knowledge of China is woefully sketchy, but it's clear that they've positioned themselves to be a super power. Being aware of their history and the American/Sino relationship history seems vital.

mw said...

Thanks for the comment(and including me in the "tour").

The central insight I got out of the read was exactly on this point. Kissinger seems almost fatalistic in the epilogue about the propensity of both countries use their military for diplomatic messaging, but then completely misunderstand each others intent with tragic consequences. With Nationalist jingoism on the rise in both countries, the potential for disaster is out there.