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BOOK REVIEW: On China By Henry Kissinger

(No Chinese feathers were ruffled during the making of this book)

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 23, 2011
Published Under the Title: The new Peking order
Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

July 1971 is an eventful month for Nixon’s National Security Advisor (at the time referred to as a Secretary of State in everything but the title). He disappears from Pakistan, resurfacing in Peking and no one is the wiser. He manages to keep at least one of the two secret servicemen in the dark about the (earth-shattering) nature of his whirlwind trip. The secret mission to China, undertaken at Nixon’s behest, marks the beginning of a beautiful (!) “period of strategic cooperation” that has somehow passed numerous stress tests, withstood serious setbacks (Tiananmen Square) and seemingly insurmountable obstacles (Taiwan).

Archived issues of TIME magazine reveal that this former Secretary of State (1973-1977) was once hailed as “the American magician” by the Egyptians and labelled a “superstar” by Belgian and West German newspapers. Others simply dubbed him the “miracle worker of the Middle East”. Admittedly, some latter day historians have been more reserved in handing out accolades.

On the 40th anniversary of what was then seen as his greatest coup, Kissinger observes in Beijing that China — as the world’s largest creditor stands “on the cusp of the next world order” — a position once occupied by the US in 1947. His new book coolly assesses the four decade-old Sino-American relationship as “co-evolution” and not “partnership”, addressing the challenges posed by China’s growing stature amid proclamations of “peaceful development” (formerly ‘peaceful rise’) and the US’s need to retain both its “competitiveness and its world role.

But On China goes beyond the intricate foreign policy manoeuvres or ‘fancy footwork’ needed to keep that relationship afloat or why, for that matter, the US felt it needed to do so in the first place. It draws upon conversations with four generations of Chinese leaders to show how these warriors perform on an intellectual battlefield.

Here, readers not only get to hear the fascinating back-channel story of Kissinger’s hush-hush visit, they untangle four millennia of China’s history to appreciate “Chinese statecraft of accomplishing long-term goals from a position of relative weakness.” Kissinger has logged enough time fencing with Oriental minds to be able to break the Chinese Cipher without recoiling at its propensity for promoting domestic anarchy or clamouring for ways to rewrite their core philosophy. He recounts his more illuminating experiences of Chinese-style diplomacy. Who knew that “hospitality, ceremony and carefully cultivated personal relationships could be used as tools of statecraft”?

Between weathering many storms (some of its own creation), managing the barbarians (outsiders), recalibrating society on a whim and sending the Soviets into a paroxysm by exaggerating their ability to survive a nuclear strike — Red China has been slowly inching its way towards a new power bloc. The leaders responsible for overseeing an imperious China’s “century of humiliation”, managing its period of diplomatic isolation and putting it through the throes of the Cultural Revolution are meant to sway the audience with their exquisite diplomatic stagecraft and enigmatic prose. Deng is seen “conducting affairs with aplomb and self-assurance with which Chinese leaders seem naturally endowed.” Zhou has been described as a quintessential cold warrior who would have won the approval of American conservatives. Even when Kissinger admits the difficulty in summing up or comprehending “Mao’s elliptical and aphoristic comments”, he praises him for leaving behind a unified China, “clearing away the underbrush for reforms never intended by the Chairman, having taken a war-wracked country, manoeuvring it between competing domestic factions, hostile superpowers, an ambivalent Third World and suspicious neighbours.”

This China is not afraid of taking on a bigger adversary but has no hegemonic designs, is willing to wait for a lifetime for what it considers its rightful property and every once in a while does the phoenix routine. One marvels at the spectacle of invoking strategic principles from a millennium old event. Yet knowing that they can turn into aggressors just to prove a point (Indo-China half war) can be a tad disconcerting.

In Kissinger’s view, “The China of today — with the world’s second largest economy and largest volume of foreign exchange reserves is a testimonial to Deng’s vision, tenacity and common sense.” He goes on to add that this was “achieved at horrendous cost by relying on the tenacity and perseverance of the Chinese people, using their endurance and cohesion, which so often exasperated him (Deng), as the bedrock of his edifice.

He reminisces about the US’s initial contact where “neither side had an illusion of changing the others basic convictions” adding that “it was precisely the absence of any such illusion that facilitated our dialogue.” Sino-American rapprochement is shown as having started “as a tactical aspect of the Cold War,” eventually becoming “central to the evolution of the new global order”. Every so often Kissinger slips back into an advisory role, arguing that a reward for this rapprochement “would not be a state of perpetual friendship or a harmony of values but a rebalancing of global equilibrium that would require constant tending.” He also offers helpful insight into the potential direction of Chinese policy described as “a composite of ideology and national interest.

If China’s stealth rise threatens the established order, it makes sense that the White House roving emissary of yore would respond to these tectonic shifts preferably without disturbing the old order he helped craft. On China provides a comprehensive tour of the Chinese mainland marking the deep impression left by the Kissinger-era diplomacy and setting the tone for upcoming foreign policy matches.

The Penguin Press;

Pp 586; Rs 1,895

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