Demystifying China

By Shipp, John | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Demystifying China


Shipp, John, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Demystifying China

John Shipp reviews Henry Kissinger /Sest foreign policy tome

The 'fundamental shift in the structure of the international system brought about by the resurgence of China is a familiar story.

An occasionally neglected part of this story is that such a state of affairs was made possible when US president Richard Nixon opened high-level contact and normalised relations with communist China in the early 1970s. For two decades prior, the United States had recognised the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, as the sole legitimate ruler of all China. Less than ten years after rapprochement, China would begin a program of 'Reform and Opening Up under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, which would set China on a course to be the world's largest economy by 2016.

Henry Kissinger was central to these events as National Security Adviser to Nixon, then Secretary of State to both Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Strategic and economic rapprochement between the United States and China was spurred by mutual mistrust of Soviet intentions and the need to balance against them. In such a context, finding common cause was relatively easy: 'That China and the United States would find a way to come together was inevitable given the necessities of the time.'

Kissinger reveals in cogent narrative how Chinese society has oscillated between openness and autarky, and the divergent pursuits of modernisation and tradition. These oscillations are a common thread running through Chinese history since Western contact until the present day.

Much of his assessment of SinoAmerican relations immediately prior to and since rapprochement draws upon notes and correspondence between Kissinger and Chinese leaders from his many visits to Beijing, both while he served the Nixon and Ford administrations and afterwards as a private citizen.

His experience negotiating high-level visits and discussing the nature of international affairs with leaders from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao runs throughout On China. As do flashpoints over Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Tiananmen.

Kissinger finds the origins of tension in misperception:

When the Chinese view of preemption encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious cycle 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.

Kissinger also faults Western leaders for perceiving 'Communism as a monolith', and in doing so failing to take advantage of SinoSoviet tensions before Nixon and Kissinger's initiatives.

In the final pages, Kissinger switches from historian to analyst, offering his own authoritative take on what China's rise in relative power means for international order, and what approach will reduce the risks of intense security competition.

According to Kissinger, commentators on both sides are revisiting twentieth century rivalry between Great Britain and Germany as an 'augury' of future Sino-American relations. China, as On China By Henry Kissinger Penguin Press, 201 1, 586 pages.

a resurgent continental power with an authoritarian political culture, draws comparison with Germany pre-World War I: while the United States, 'primarily a naval power' with a democratic form of government draws comparison with Britain. The emergence of China as a 'strong, unified state' might, it is proposed, elicit similar responses as those of Germany's neighbours: 'Such a system has historically evolved into a balance of power based on equilibrating threats'.

Kissinger goes on to draw parallels between contemporary American arguments for confrontation with the 1907 Crowe Memorandum. Like British Foreign Office official Eyre Crowe, advocates of confrontation conclude that conflict is inevitable.

Crowe concluded that German leaders' avowed peaceful intent was irrelevant to the prospects of war and peace whether or not they were sincerely meant. …

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