In On China, Henry Kissinger makes a broad attempt to tell the story of China’s history, in the hope of being able to provide much-needed context to one of the leading global issues of the early 21st century: the essential yet confusing relationship between the United States and the rising Asian giant. By combining a general, if superficial history of a civilization that “seems to have no beginning” with an inside look at the two nations’ labyrinthine diplomatic relations that have now spanned four decades, Kissinger largely achieves this goal.
(Penguin Press, 608 pages, 2011)
In order to explain the intricate history of U.S.-China relations since Nixon sent Kissinger and a small team on its secret visit to Beijing to explore the possibility of opening dialogue, the former secretary of state spans thousands of years of Chinese history in a few hundred pages. Despite its obvious brevity, Kissinger’s book is able to make some key points, which seem to be designed to set up his more detailed analysis, which centers around recent developments and the future of the relationship between the world’s major powers.
To start, Kissinger manages to show an authentic and deep respect for both Chinese history and its people. Indeed, there are passages of the book where he genuinely seems to be in awe of its evolution and achievements. In showing this respect, Kissinger is able to discuss his idea of the United States and China as competing exceptions. For Kissinger, both of these nations interact with the world with a sense of exceptionalism, a belief in the singularity of their experience and role. On the one hand, he argues, China believes in its historical singularity, in its eternal nature, its unwavering strength. The very foundation of its worldview is “the notion that China was unique—not just a ‘great civilization’ among others, but civilization itself.” That China is forever, that it can withstand all that is thrown at it, is largely responsible for its idea of itself, and its careful, analytical, far-sighted style of diplomacy. American exceptionalism is of a squarely opposite nature, one rooted in the belief that America is a singular ideal. That it is the great national experiment, that it is young, and at times impetuous, has dictated its case-by-case, solutions-oriented diplomacy. As America rose to prominence, these two beliefs and styles (in addition to their oppositional ideologies) created a markedly complicated but necessary relationship.
The background history of China is really nothing more than a set up for what Kissinger really wants to talk about, which is the recent story in which the author himself is a major character. To explain the difficult differences in the Chinese and American approaches, he uses what at first would seem to be the rather banal example of the popular strategy games in the respective countries:
China’s most enduring game is wei qi...[it] translates as ‘a game of surrounding pieces’; it implies a concept of strategic encirclement...Multiple contests take place simultaneously in different regions of the board...At the end of a well-played game, the board is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength. The margin of advantage is often slim, and to the untrained eye, the identity of the winner is not always immediately obvious...Chess, on the other hand, is about total victory. The purpose of the game is checkmate, to put the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed.
These opposing strategies and goals appear repeatedly through the account of U.S.-China relations, which has had to walk a strange wire between the American idea of decisive progress and the Chinese belief in gradualism.
On China is at its most interesting when Kissinger himself is involved in the story. This should come as no surprise to those who have followed the long and varied career of this statesman (or war criminal depending on your perspective). Ultimately, anything by Kissinger is of course about Kissinger. This book is an attempt to capture his idea of the history of this important relationship and yes, his monumental role in it. Luckily, he is, at the least, an extraordinary character, and the various transcripts of his conversations with Mao and every Chinese leader since are remarkable. They display a preposterously complex relationship, a fascinating cast of characters, and a man who was somehow able to serve as both a bridge between two often opposing forces, while representing one of them. Kissinger seems to owe a lot of his success in this regard to the fact that he often seems to operate more from a Chinese style of diplomacy. He is interested in the long view, at least in dealing with China, and there is no doubt that his belief in the exceptionalism of China’s history, an acceptance of its view of itself, and a respect for its manner of negotiation were instrumental in placing this relationship at the forefront of global diplomacy. While there is no doubt that Kissinger is a controversial figure, with many blemishes on his record, On China is successful because it is able to convincingly convey that this task was, and still is, incredibly difficult, and that Kissinger was right about the importance of China in respect to the greater global questions of power, influence, and progress.