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Kissinger’s Book ‘On China’ – A Review

It is not a surprise that the book captioned ‘On China’, authored by Dr Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State under President Nixon, is receiving wide attention throughout the world. After all, it was he, as a diplomat par excellence, bears responsibility for the historic Nixon-Mao meeting, held in Beijing in 1972, which resulted in the Sino–US rapprochement, bringing about a fundamental change in the global geo politics. In fact, a strategic environment favouring such change already existed; the leaderships of the two nations had been signalling their keenness to find a policy alternative in response to the cold war between the West on one hand and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other, as well as the Sino-Soviet rift. Kissinger played a role in ensuring a logical conclusion to such trends.

2. The book gives an interesting insight into how the two sides viewed the outcome of the rapprochement. Important is Kissinger’s findings that the rapprochement led to re-entry into the global stage of China and widening of strategic options for the US. On its part, as noted by Kissinger, the PRC saw in Nixon’s presence in its soil as “an instance for China utilising the contradiction, dividing up enemies and enhancing its capabilities” (Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Notice on Sino-US joint Communiqué, 7 March 1972). No body can miss the significance of the different language used by the US and China.

3. Kissinger could visit China 50 times since 1971 and establish a personal rapport with all the Chinese leaders – Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. His impressions carried in the book, on such high level interactions, particularly on the sensitive US – China negotiations that led to the rapprochement, are therefore of special value to all scholars, historians and students engaged in China studies. Credit should especially go to Kissinger for his profound analysis of China’s strategic behaviour, diplomacy and negotiations in a historical sense and correlation of them to the evolution of balance of power in 21st Century.

4. Kissinger’s brilliance lies in his ability to explain the international behaviour in the modern era of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in terms of the country’s past cultural roots.  He reveals to the readers how a modern leader like Mao could ‘initiate major national undertakings by invoking strategic principles from millennium old events’. Though other China specialists have also done so, the lucidity of Dr Kissinger’s approach is unparalleled, catching the fresh imagination. The case in point is his assessment of Chinese and Western exceptionalisms as streams  representing different philosophical and military traditions. As he explains, Chinese exceptionalism is ‘subtle, indirect and cultural without a need to spread their traditional values to other countries’. In contrast, Western exceptionalism involves ‘decisive clash of forces’ and is missionary with an obligation to spread Western values to other parts of the world. Kissinger brings out a significant historic Chinese trait – “China judges all other states at various levels of tributaries, on the basis of approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms”; it can be said that this influences the mindset of the rulers in China even today, providing a lesson to other nations now diplomatically engaging a rapidly rising and asserting China.

5. Kissinger excels in his account of the Chinese Wei Qi chess (‘Go’ in Japan), and its relevance to China’s current strategic thinking. This should be of great interest to the strategic community outside China.  Wei Qi, as Kissinger correctly perceives, is a complicated game based on relative gains to be made for long range encirclement; the winner is not immediately obvious and the Wei Qi player aims to impose no checkmate on the opponent, instead offers a series of stalemates. Kissinger tells that the work ‘Art of War’ written by the Chinese Strategist Sun Zu contains Wei Qi concepts, laying  stress on ‘indirect attack’ and ‘psychological combat’, based on the premise that “ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting”. Notable is his opinion that Mao and other leaders in China applied Wei Qi concepts in dealing with conflicts with the US and the Soviet Union, along with their prescription of a goal for the PRC – ‘prevention of strategic encirclement’ of China. Interestingly fears on the prospects of US ‘encirclement’  continued to occupy the minds of Chinese strategists even today.

6. Let us now pay attention to the inconsistencies and deficiencies in what Dr Kissinger has said in the book.

7. First comes the unmistakable emotional approach of Dr Kissinger in his portrayal of Mao and Zhou. He finds Mao as ‘Sardonic’ and ‘Philosopher King’ comparing the late Chairman to Emperor Qin Shihuang, the founder emperor of China. Zhou is termed by him as a ‘Confucian sage’. Any adulation by its nature is against the interest of objectivity; Kissinger’s case is no exception. Looming large in this context is Kissinger’s disinclination to make any moral judgement on key contentious issues like Mao’s mistakes, China’s wars with India and Vietnam, Tibet problem and Tian An Men student protests. Why cannot he call spade, a spade?

8. Kissinger acknowledges that Mao’s Cultural Revolution’ resulted in ‘a spectacular human and institutional carnage in China’. At the same time, his assessment that for most Chinese, the Cultural Revolution is a ‘necessary evil’ sounds gratuitous. SO is the case with his additional remarks that  Mao’s doctrines of ‘continuous revolution’ and ‘On contradictions’, were in the service of an ultimate goal drawn from the Confucius concept of ‘Da Tong’ or the ‘Great Harmony’. Also to be seen in the same context is Kissinger’s opinion that as the PRC is emerging in the 21st century, many Chinese will continue to hold Mao with respect for his historical role and that though the ten year ‘turmoil’ is a failure it set the stage for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in seventies and eighties.

9. Kissinger’s views expressed in the book on the causes of 1962 Sino-Indian war appear more in favour of Chinese positions than those of India. He calls the war only as a Chinese ‘attack’ on, not an ‘aggression’ against India. He finds in the attack a Chinese exercise of Wei Qi in Himalayas with attendant ‘careful preparation’, ‘attention to psychological and political factors’, ‘quest for surprise’ and ‘rapid conclusion of the action’. Kissinger notably throws light on China’s intentions to give a ‘shock’ that would impel India to begin negotiations with China.  He seems to doubt the strength of  India’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and –Aksaichin,by saying that they have evolved out of the boundaries drawn by the British. He also suggests that India made some ‘miscalculation’ by launching a ‘forward policy’ which triggered the Chinese attack, besides driving home the point that China conquered no territory in the 1962 war, indulging only in claims of territory south of McMahon line.

10. Kissinger interestingly also clubs China’s border war with India with the former’s territorial conflicts with other countries like Russia and Vietnam in discovering a common feature in Beijing’s actions – ‘Give a sudden blow to the opponents, to be followed quickly by a political phase’. This may be of special interest to all nations which have unsolved border disputes with China.

11. It may be wrong to assume that Kissinger continues to have an anti-India bias. To be fair enough, though he described India as a ‘Soviet Stooge’ during the 1971 Bangladesh war, he recognised India’s rationale in conducting nuclear test in 1998 in its security interests. In 2005, he called India as a strategic partner of the US.

12. Apparent is also Kissinger’s leaning  towards the Chinese side in the matter of assessing China-Vietnam war in 1979. He connects the Chinese invasion with Beijing’s perceived need to preserve strategic equilibrium in Asia’.

13. Kissinger says that he was ‘shocked’ over the way in which the 1989 Tian An Men protests ended , implying his dissatisfaction over suppression of the demonstrators by Deng. He at the same time admits that unlike other Americans, he recognises the ‘Herculean task’ performed by Deng to remould China for a decade and half after the protests. He gives a colour to the protest by saying that the demonstrators wanted to weaken the Government, tempting it to indulge in rash acts. Over all, Kissinger seems to lay more stress on the progress made by China after the protests, rather than on condemning outright the government’s crack-down on the pro democracy students.

14. Striking is the fact that Kissinger avoids any mention of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the plight of the Dalai Lama and his followers. He only notes the close relationship existed between the Centre and Tibet since the Mongol conquest of 13th century.

15. On the contemporary scene, Kissinger considers US – China relationship as essential for global stability and peace; it should not be a zero sum game and both nations should work for a ‘shared’ world order as expression of ‘parallel national aspirations’. Does this sound his indirect endorsement of a US-China G-2 contemplated to dominate the world? Perhaps not, as he himself said in 2009 that the G-2 concept will not be in the interests of both China and the United States as well as the world.

16. Accurate is Kissinger’s evaluation that the 2008 global meltdown is being seen by the Chinese people as a development which seriously undermined the mystic of Western economic prowess; the result is the present tide of opinion in China recognising the ongoing  fundamental shift in the structure of the international system. He however, does not comment on how China is behaving when such shift is still in progress. There is no explanation from Kissinger about China’s assertiveness which is causing serious concerns particularly in the country’s neighbourhood.

17. In sum, not withstanding Kissinger’s omissions and his carefully chosen line of not making any judgements on contentious issues relating to China, the book is an outstanding work benefiting China scholars throughout the world.

(The Writer Mr D S Rajan is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: The above is text of presentation made by him at a Panel Discussion on Henry Kissinger’s book ‘On China’, organised by the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, 25 August 2011. The CCCS acknowledges with thanks the permission given by the Nehru Centre to republish the presentation)

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