by Henry Kissinger
Penguin Press, 2011, 608 pp.
HAPPILY MISSING from current rancorous debates over the policies of the Obama administration is the issue of what to do about the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There are, however, strikingly different perspectives on how to manage the relationship among American analysts, in and out of government. Henry Kissinger, along with Richard Nixon, contributed mightily to the opening of relations with the PRC in the early 1970s. His recent book, On China, is a lengthy justification of what he did then and explanation of his current thoughts on how to avoid conflict with a rising China.
The upsurge of Chinese military power in the last decade poses a serious threat to the interests of the United States and to the international order created after the Second World War. The face-off between Beijing and Washington in the Taiwan Strait—between two nuclear-armed powers—is arguably the most dangerous confrontation on the globe. Specialists, however much they disagree on the nature of the Chinese threat, are virtually unanimous in contending that the two countries must cooperate.
There are a number of politicians and intellectuals who are intensely critical of China, some of whom perceive American policy since the end of the Cold War as appeasement. Whether committed anti-Communists or dedicated advocates for human rights, they want regime change—a Chinese liberal democracy. Although we have been astonished in recent years by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the revolutionary tide in the Middle East, the odds against similar events occurring in China are enormous. There is little if anything the United States can do to bring about the “peaceful evolution” of Chinese society that American statesmen and politicians have called for since the 1950s. The China we see today is the China with which the U.S. government must deal for the foreseeable future.
Perceptions of the “China threat” center on the growing capacity of its government to disrupt the existing international order. Militarily, it is acquiring the means to project power outside East Asia and to challenge the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific, specifically in the vicinity of Taiwan. Its experiments with cyber-warfare have been unsettling to the Pentagon. Economically, its extraordinary need for raw materials has driven up prices on a wide range of commodities. It has expanded its extraction operations to every continent save Antarctica and manipulated the market for “rare-earth” minerals. Its skewed currency exchange rate is set without regard for the difficulties it causes the United States and other countries. It cheats on its WTO obligations to open its domestic markets and it wreaks havoc with its disregard for intellectual property rights. Politically, it has protected a number of states in conflict with the United States because of human rights violations: Burma, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Not least, its rise offers an alternative to Western democratic and open-market models of state organization.
Missing is a clear indication of what Beijing intends to do with its renewed power. The official line is that China has no aggressive intentions, that it is still a developing country, and that it will be decades before its military can compete with the United States. On the other hand, leading members of the People’s Liberation Army and some intellectuals are more belligerent, warning Americans and others not to challenge China’s ever-expanding concept of its “core interests.” Recent efforts to intimidate its neighbors in the South China Sea suggest at the very least the possibility that as the PRC’s power grows, it will not resist the temptation to behave assertively, as great powers, including traditional China and the United States, usually have.
There are a number of prominent American intellectuals—Andy Nathan at Columbia and Rod MacFarquhar and Elizabeth Perry at Harvard, among them—who doubt that the current projections of the PRC’s rise are sustainable. Some foresee a collapse of the Communist regime; others simply argue that China’s economy will falter. They note flaws in the banking system, especially nonperforming loans to state enterprises. They point to mounting unrest evidenced by tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrations across the country every year. More recently, demographers have pointed to the aging of China’s work force and the absence—caused by the one-child rule—of youthful replacements. And the demands of Chinese laborers for higher wages and better work conditions are driving some industry abroad. The intelligence community in the United States has considered various scenarios involving the collapse of the Beijing regime. But China’s extraordinary economic growth continues, in marked contrast to the current struggles in Europe and the United States, and the omnipresent security apparatus in the PRC has enabled the Communist Party to stifle domestic opposition with ease.
KISSINGER’S ON China may be seen as his valedictory statement on Chinese-American relations. Like most of his writings since he left office in 1977, much of the book is self-promoting and glosses over some of his more egregious mistakes in his initial contacts with Zhou Enlai, most notably his offering greater concessions on Taiwan at the outset of negotiations—more movement toward the abandonment of Taiwan—than Zhou might have imagined. His analysis of Beijing’s reasoning and methods is nonetheless worthy of consideration. He insists, of course, that cooperation between China and the United States is essential to world peace and stability, as well as the interests of the two nations. He constantly implies that it is the American protection of Taiwan and Washington’s demands that Beijing improve its record on human rights, however admirable the values these policies reflect, that are the principle sources of tension in the relationship. He does not ask Americans to abandon their values but suggests that his own realist approach, in which they are subordinated to the presumed needs of the state, is infinitely superior.
The first part of the book is a potted history of traditional China up to but not including the Republican era. He uses this history to explain Chinese sensitivities and strategies. His discussion of sensitivities is a sophisticated variation of the familiar Chinese complaint about the “century of humiliation,” the years in which China was plagued by European, Japanese, and American imperialists. Kissinger includes some of China’s earlier problems, such as the depredations of the Mongols, and stresses the country’s historic fear of encirclement. Much like the Chinese, however, he neglects to discuss the humiliations they inflicted on their neighbors in the course of the centuries during which their leaders built the Chinese Empire—the maximum extent of which the PRC now claims as its territory. In the creation of that empire they were no less arrogant, no less ruthless than the Europeans, Japanese, or Americans in the creation of theirs. They relied on conquest and the subjugation of militarily inferior people whom the Chinese portrayed as subhuman to justify their own conduct. The obvious point, obscured by Kissinger’s discussion of Confucianism and historic strategies, is that there is no reason, cultural or genetic, to expect China as a great power to act any less aggressively than have other great powers over the millennia.
The critical flash point in Chinese-American relations today remains Taiwan. In the late 1940s, when Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and the remnants of his defeated mainland army ruled the island with brutal disregard for the local population, the Truman administration attempted to abandon it. War in Korea forced the administration to change course and to aid Jiang’s one-party dictatorship. Most officials critical of Jiang, a favorite of the American Right, were purged during the McCarthy era. Eisenhower and Dulles increased the flow of assistance and signed a mutual defense treaty with Taipei. American opposition to Beijing’s determination to reunite the island with the mainland became the principal sticking point in Chinese-American conversations. Not until the Nixon administration was a second attempt made to abandon Taiwan. Nixon and Kissinger risked anger on their right flank but, determining that a working relationship with the PRC was of greater value to the United States than was its Taiwanese protectorate, indicated to Zhou and Mao Zedong their willingness to back away from Taipei. The assumption in both Washington and Beijing was that without American support, Jiang’s regime eventually would collapse, facilitating a PRC takeover.
But Taiwan did not collapse, not even after the normalization of Chinese-American relations and the end of the alliance during the Carter administration. Instead it developed as a robust democracy, frequently led by American-educated politicians who shared American values. Support for Taipei spread in the United States as liberals joined conservatives in voicing their delight with the transformation of Taiwan’s political culture. Attempts by the PRC to intimidate the island’s people were thwarted by the United States, most obviously when Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups to the region in 1996. The Taiwan issue once again became a major source of tension between Washington and Beijing.
Kissinger never openly calls for abandoning Taiwan, but there is no doubt that he still believes the relationship with China is too important to be jeopardized by continued support for democratic Taiwan. Throughout his career and in On China, he stresses his preference for Realpolitik. He praises Bismarck and others less concerned with ideals than with national interest. He has little use for America’s “missionary” zeal to spread its values and sees men like Zhou and Mao as admirable strategists in his own image.
If there is such a thing as a Kissinger Doctrine, it is to put values aside and focus relentlessly on strategic interest. Applied to the relationship with China, specifically in the years since China’s rise became apparent, he has argued for an end to American criticism of China’s one-party dictatorship, and for an end to complaints about China’s human rights abuses. Always a supporter of the Westphalian notion that states keep out of the internal affairs of other states, he pronounces the Chinese to be today’s model Westphalians. If Washington wants to avoid conflict with a rising China, it would be wise to yield on these points and concentrate on those issues in which the PRC and the United States have shared interests.
THERE IS, of course, another approach: balancing ideals and national interest. Indeed, it could be argued that support for American ideals abroad is in the national interest, that promoting democracy and respect for human rights across the globe increases the chances of living in a world in which American interests can thrive. The United States has for many years been an attractive model for other peoples because of its open society, its democracy, and its protection of human rights. Its focus on these virtues proved attractive during the Cold War. They can prove attractive again, if promoted without the use of force—if Washington can overcome the stigma attached to its sense of mission during the George W. Bush administration.
The Chinese cannot be expected to enjoy American criticism of their political culture; nor will they be pleased by Washington’s continued support for Taiwan. These differences and American opposition to Chinese behavior abroad doubtless will cause friction in the years ahead. The Chinese are no more likely than Americans to accept complaints about their actions without pushing back. But that’s what we have diplomats for. These issues can be knocked about, raged over, negotiated—all without military conflict.
Today the PRC is in no position to replace the United States as the dominant power in world affairs, but Chinese analysts are exhilarated by the prospect of American decline. If we want to live in peace with China for the next fifty to one hundred years, the Kissinger Doctrine suggesting deference to Chinese sensitivities is the wrong approach. Americans have to demonstrate that their nation is not in decline. They must cope successfully with the economic and political problems they have confronted in the first years of this century. They must be prepared militarily to deter the adventurism to which successful Chinese empires have succumbed in the past. American analysts across the political spectrum, no matter what their perception of China’s intent, agree that the principal threat to the international primacy of the United States comes from within.
Warren I. Cohen is a professor emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and senior scholar in the Asia program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations.