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Henry Kissinger On China's Past and Future

Just as I was finishing the Kissinger/Nixon ‘Detente’ chapter of John Lewis Gaddis’ “Strategies of Containment“, I came across this excerpt from Henry Kissinger’s new book “On China”. Kissinger, whose strategic leadership comes across very well in Gaddis’ book, dishes about his secret trip to Beijing in 1971 to lay the ground work for American recognition of the CCP and much more:

Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing on July 9, 1971

So my team set off to Beijing via Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi and Rawalpindi on an announced fact-finding journey on behalf of the president. My party included a broader set of American officials, as well as a core group destined for Beijing—myself, as national security adviser, three aides and two Secret Service agents. The dramatic denouement required us to go through tiring stops at each city designed to be so boringly matter-of-fact that the media would stop tracking our movements. In Rawalpindi, we disappeared for 48 hours for an ostensible rest (I had feigned illness) in a Pakistani hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas—but our real destination was Beijing. In Washington, only the president and Col. (later Gen.) Alexander Haig, my top aide, knew our actual mission.

When the American delegation arrived in Beijing on July 9, 1971, we had experienced the subtlety of Chinese communication but not the way Beijing conducted actual negotiations, still less the Chinese style of receiving visitors…

Strain was nowhere apparent in the Chinese reception of the secret visit or during the dialogue that followed. In all the preliminary maneuvers, we had been sometimes puzzled by the erratic pauses between their messages, which we assumed had something to do with the Cultural Revolution. Nothing now seemed to disturb the serene aplomb of our hosts, who acted as if welcoming the special emissary of the American president for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China was the most natural occurrence.

This is a great example of how individual people and personalities can affect international politics. The US-China rapprochement has power politics written all over it, but Nixon’s staunch anti-Communist background and his placement of Kissinger, an academic from the Realist school of international relations and history, were key elements in this dramatic geopolitical reversal. Kissinger went on to discuss President Nixon’s trip to China:

Henry Kissinger On China's Past and Future

President Nixon’s visit to China February, 1972

Our hosts made up for the missing demonstrations by inviting Nixon to a meeting with Mao within hours of our arrival. “Inviting” is not the precise word for how meetings with Mao occurred. Appointments were never scheduled; they came about as if events of nature. They were echoes of emperors granting audiences.

The first indication of Mao’s invitation to Nixon occurred when, shortly after our arrival, I received word that Zhou needed to see me in a reception room. He informed me that “Chairman Mao would like to see the President.” To avoid the impression that Nixon was being summoned, I raised some technical issues about the order of events at the evening banquet. Uncharacteristically impatient, Zhou responded: “Since the Chairman is inviting him, he wants to see him fairly soon.” In welcoming Nixon at the very outset of his visit, Mao was signaling his authoritative endorsement to domestic and international audiences before talks had even begun. Accompanied by Zhou, we set off for Mao’s residence in Chinese cars.

Mao’s residence was approached through a wide gate on the east–west axis carved from where the ancient city walls stood before the Communist revolution. Inside the Imperial City, the road hugged a lake, on the other side of which stood a series of residences for high officials. All had been built in the days of Sino-Soviet friendship and reflected the heavy Stalinist style of the period. Mao’s residence appeared no different, though it stood slightly apart from the others. There were no visible guards or other appurtenances of power. A small anteroom was almost completely dominated by a Ping-Pong table…

…Mao rose from an armchair in the middle of a semicircle of armchairs with an attendant close by to steady him if necessary. We learned later that he had suffered a debilitating series of heart and lung ailments in the weeks before and that he had difficulty moving. Overcoming his handicaps, Mao exuded an extraordinary willpower and determination. He took Nixon’s hands in both of his and showered his most benevolent smile on him. The picture appeared in all the Chinese newspapers.

Mao and Nixon, wow. Would like to be a fly on that wall. Kissinger has more to tell than just of stories past regarding the Middle Kingdom. He, I believe accurately, contrasts the Chinese worldview with that of the US/West:

China’s World Outlook

In general, Chinese statesmanship exhibits a tendency to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future all interrelated. In contrast to the Western approach of treating history as a process of modernity achieving a series of absolute victories over evil and backwardness, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasized a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world could be understood but not completely mastered.

For China’s classical sages, the world could never be conquered; wise rulers could hope only to harmonize with its trends. There was no New World to populate, no redemption awaiting mankind on distant shores. The promised land was China, and the Chinese were already there. The blessings of the Middle Kingdom’s culture might theoretically be extended, by China’s superior example, to the foreigners on the empire’s periphery. But there was no glory to be found in venturing across the seas to convert “heathens” to Chinese ways; the customs of the Celestial Dynasty were plainly beyond the attainment of the far barbarians.

If Kissinger is correct, then the inordinate fear of the coming Chinese century held by the American public is overly pessimistic to say the least. China may be a global force economically and will attempt to gain greater control over East Asia, but it is likely that their ambitions will not go much further. This of course can be countered by China’s encroachments in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, etc. and by their strong efforts to grow a blue water navy. In short, I believe Kissinger’s view of a Chinese cyclical view to be mostly accurate, but no one knows exactly how this current leadership cadre will lead what is a country growing extremely fast in a world much different than the times of China’s last empires.

Henry Kissinger On China's Past and Future

Lastly, Kissinger paints the current situation in a pragmatic, realist light:

US-China Power Politics

The question ultimately comes down to what the U.S. and China can realistically ask of each other. An explicit American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed—in part because China is an indispensable trading partner for most of its neighbors. By the same token, a Chinese attempt to exclude America from Asian economic and security affairs will similarly meet serious resistance from almost all other Asian states, which fear the consequences of a region dominated by a single power.

The appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship is less partnership than “co-evolution.” It means that both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests.

A little like; ‘You don’t step on my toes, and I won’t step on yours’. This of course is easier said than done and sometimes someone’s toes finds themselves in precarious situations. Kissinger’s portrayal is sound though: Attempting to contain China with an ‘ideological crusade’ is the wrong strategy for the US and China meet with great resistance if it seriously attempts to kick the US out of East Asia. The relationship will have to be carefully managed to say the least. Developing……for the next few decades.



Patrick Frost

Patrick Frost recently graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science - International Relations. His MA thesis analyzed the capabilities and objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and beyond and explored how these affected U.S. interests and policy.

Areas of Focus:
Eurasia, American Foreign Policy, Ideology, SCO