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Forty years back Henry Kissinger  the intellectual Secy.of State under Nixon was sent by the latter  to explore the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with China . Undertaking a secret visit through Islamabad , Kissinger’s visit led to a later visit by Nixon culminating in the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The basic reason for the two countries -estranged till then  -was to form a common front against the Soviet Union . While US saw the great benefits of close relations with China in its efforts to dismantle the communist regime of the Soviet union , China was getting increasingly insecure about its northern neighbor who had massed troops in the border and  border clashes were taking  place between the two countries  Soviets had withdrawn all the advisers from China . Many of the Science and Technology projects of China started with Soviet help including Nuclear weapon development was left in the doldrums ..

While most of the history and post modern history of China  written in  Kissinger’s book  “On China” is well known to the students of China , what makes this book more interesting and readable is the authoritative anecdotes of his meeting with consecutive Chinese leaders from Mao to Hu  Jin Tao . Snippets of conversation with these leaders  gives the inner thinking of these leaders and their way of dealing with internal and external crises and issues.

Interestingly ,  Kissinger  reveals  Mao’s  thinking behind  his decision  for a border war with India . Addressing his commanders  Mao tells them that China has  to use force to knock India back to the negotiating table advising the commanders  at the same time to be restrained and principled. That is precisely what his commanders did .- carried out  a quick and devastating attack on a woefully underprepared India  and withdrew to their original position .

Chinese reunification took place in 221 BC after  long period of dynastic rule marked by internecine wars from 475 to 221 BC called the period of warring states. The territorial claims of China stopped at the water’s edge   Between  the 10th and 13th Century  (Song dynasty ) China led the world in nautical technology . Its fleets could have carried the empire into an era of conquest and exploration. But China confined itself to its shores  and  had no interest in countries beyond its coast .A remarkable figure in China’s  ship faring activities was Admiral Zheng  He during Ming Dyasty .(1405-1433) . A Chinese Muslim eunuch ,  conscripted into imperial service ,  his voyages was with a fleet  unsurpassed in size , sophistication  and number of vessels  which dwarfed the Spanish Armada .  These expeditions stopped inexplicably in 1433  coincident with threats from the Northern Land frontier. The .fleet was dismantled and records of Zheng’s voyages destroyed. With this isolation came the Insular perception that China is the centre of the world Middle kingdom .  Hegel  once described Chinese abandonment of naval tradition   as due to  a tendency to see the Pacific ocean  as a barren waste. Given the general perception today about China’s naval ambitions can one deduce that Chinese historical neglect of the seas has changed with the modern Mahanian  concept of “ who rules the oceans rules the world “.

China produced a greater share of total world GDP than any western society in 18 of the last 20 centuries  . In 1820 it produced over 30% of the world GDP, an amount exceeding western and eastern Europe and US combined. Its problems started with the opium wars initiated by the British .          Historically the Chinese world view is also based on the belief that  the neighbours are  barbarians compared to the awesome majesty of the Emperor China dealt with recalcitrant neighbours by exploiting divisions among them – using barbarians to check barbarians.  They believed that if the tribes are separated they shun each other and obey china    The policy was to favour one or the other and permit them to fight each other  – a principle of political action which asserts that wars between barbarians are auspicious for china.  They ensured that  coalitions  among neighbours on China’s borders .is prevented. This is a policy which China seems to have carried forward to the modern days  when one sees their policy towards India and its neighbours.

China’s most enduring game is Wei Chi  called in the west by its Japanese term ‘Go’ . It translates as game of surrounding pieces i.e. the concept is of strategic encirclement. Chinese strategic concept is victory through psychological advantage  and avoidance of direct conflict . Sun Tzu in the “Art of war” . emphasizes  this and calls for  psychological and political rather than military  maneuver to  force the enemy into an unfavourable  position   from which escape is impossible .To  a commander following Sun Tzu ,  victory through deception and manipulation is more humane than triumph by superior force..

Wei Yuan  (1794 -1856) is a  Chinese mandarin  enunciated  plans for a maritime defence . According to him there are two methods of attacking  the barbarians namely to stimulate countries unfriendly to the barbarians  and to make an attack on them , and to learn the superior skills of the barbarians to control them . There are two methods of making peace with the barbarians . One ,  to let the various trading nations  conduct their trade  so as to maintain peace with the barbarians  and secondly to support  a treaty like the the first treaty of opium war so as to maintain international trade. The Chinese say that one should  resort to peace and friendship  when temporarily obliged to do so ,  and use war and defence as your actual policy  . not very different from Deng Hsiao Peng’s latter day advice to “lie low and bide our time “.  Li Hongzhang another Chinese mandarin advised on the need for self strengthening  by firearms steamships  and heavy machinery and  .knowledge and technics to produce them.

Japanese were the first to contradicting Chinese view of only one emperor in the universe  namely the Chinese one .  Japanese refused to conduct its trade with china in the guise of tribute As early as 1863 Li Hongzhang  concluded that Japan would become China’s principal security threat .Russia forced a treaty  that in order to guarantee China’s security from Japanese attacks  Russia would construct  an extension of the trans Siberian railways  across Manchuria .

Historically the Confucian tradition valued doctrine of the mean and cultivation of balance and moderation .  However “century of humiliation  “  seems to have altered this tradition and  modern day China is quite aggressive in its approach to international relations  . Even Mao claimed to be impervious to nuclear threats. and was publicly willing to accept hundreds of millions of casualties. In 1969 the four marshals recalled by Mao to outline his strategic options recommended opening  of relations with the US .  On Oct 3 1950 Zhou  warned Indian Ambassador KM Panikkar  that if  US troops would cross 38th parallel , China would intervene. Hostility between  the US and Soviets was strategic essence of cold war  and hostility of US and China dominated Asian diplomacy , but because of Mao’s rivalry with Soviet leadershsip over ideological primacy and Geostrategic analysis. the two communist states could never come together on  their common hostility to  the US.  Mao exploited the US Soviet rivalry by challenging both . Even on India , China was  upset when Khrushchev took the side of India in the first border clash .

When Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 China dealt with demarcation of border lines in strategic terms and Zhou offered to accept the  Mcmahon line  as a a basis for negotiations .  In return   Chinese wanted their  claims in Aksai chin area to be accepted by India .  But inspite of Nehru’s claims of “ not a blade of grass growing there “ India was not willing to consider this proposal , probably due to fear of public reaction  and today we are still where we were then.  Kissinger  repeats the familiar Maxwell maxim that  it is India which started the Sino Indian border war by adopting in 1961 the  forward policy  of  moving  its outposts  closer to Chinese outposts  previously established across the existing lines of demarcation – .  Indian commanders were given the authority to fire on Chinese soldiers at their discretion if they thought that they are intruding. Chinese dealt with this in the familiar Chinese style . through analysis , careful preparation , attention to psychological and political factors , quest for surprise  and rapid conclusion . However  Chinese withdrawal to their original position is also due to the fact that the conquered eastern sector territory could be held only over seriously extended supply lines across forbidding terrain .China was also enfeebled with a devastating famine which  had barely ended ..  Chinese have since corrected this strategic weakness with constructing rail lines up to Tibet and increasing military presence and installations in the region .

. Mao was worried about Soviet aggression and probably considered Soviet Union as a greater threat .but did not want to ask for help. This assessment had egged him on to seek  rapprochement with the U.S.  He has also correctly surmised that  this can be done only during the term of Nixon who has publicly advocated rapprochement  with People’s Republic of China .Mao announced that Nixon is welcome as a tourist or as President . Chairman has concluded that the problems between US and China  would have to be solved with Nixon..  China had entered the relationship with the U.S. , as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism

Another interesting aspect of Mao’s policy is the attitude of the two countries towards the Taiwan issue.  During Mao’s  meeting with Nixon  the Taiwan issue did not come up seriously  There were no threats  or no demands  after 136 deadlocked ambassadorial meetings as the  Taiwan issue seems to have lost for Mao any  urgency . Mao told Nixon that the question of US relations with China should be separate from China’s relations with Taiwan.  “We can do without Taiwan for the time being . and let it come after 100 years. Why the great haste?  . It is only an island with a population of dozen or more million. “ . ,.  Mao was eager to remove the impression of any threat from China to the US.  He made it clear that “in the present situation the state of war does not exist between the two countries “. . Saying that our troops stays home and does not go abroad Mao removed the concern that China may intervene in Vietnam war.

Another interesting facet of Mao’s character brought out by Kissinger in his book is Mao’s attitude towards “right wing Governments” ie Republicans in the U.S. He said that he preferred dealing with right wing governments on the ground that they were more reliable. Kissinger quotes Mao as saying “I am completely happy when people on the right come to power “. He tells Nixon that ideology is no longer relevant to relations between the two countries. Saying “Seize the hour and seize the day “he makes a self deprecating comment about people like him sounding a lot of big cannon . things like “ the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism , revisionism  and all reactionaries  and establish socialism “ !

Nixon in a prophetic forecast said that despite china’s turmoil and privation its people’s outstanding abilities would eventually propel China into first rank of world powers.  Nixon also insisted to the Chinese hosts that geopolitical imperatives transcended ideology. China could no longer base its foreign policy on slogans about the need to strike down American imperialism. Throughout the 1970s China was more in favour of the US acting robustly against Soviet design. ..

When China invaded Vietnam to “teach a lesson”, Moscow did not intervene inspite of mutual defense treaty between Moscow and Hanoi clearly exposing the limits of Soviet strategic reach .

Deng analysis of the strategic situation included a notification to the white house that China intended to go to war with Vietnam as it had concluded that Vietnam would not stop at Cambodia.

The Soviet military response was limited to sending a naval task force to South China Sea, undertaking a limited airlift to Hanoi and stepping up air patrols along the Sino – Soviet border. The third Vietnam War ushered in closest collaboration between China and the US. From the US side however the policy towards China after the rapprochement showed an ambivalence which continues even today .For example, during Reagan period this policy included a powerful commitment to new relationship with China which coexisted with a strong residue of emotional support for Taiwan. “Having touched the buttocks of tiger “ in Vietnam China concluded that it had withstood the high point of the Soviet Threat. The weak Soviet response marked the beginning of Soviet decline. American rearmament to China started from President Carter’s time and restricted Soviet capacity to intervene.

Some aspects of Governance in China which comes out in the discussions of Kissinger with Chinese leaders is very relevant to the current situation in India.

Deng told Kissinger that 60% of the members of the party committee are below age 60 and many are about 40.  Older leaders went into advisory committee. Nepotism was however a special problem .The realization for younger people to take charge of nation’s destiny seems to have dawned upon the Chinese much earlier and one can see the results. Unfortunately we in India wallow in gerontocracy with old men weakened by geriatric and other health issues plod along trying to lead the country. The result is there for all to see.

Explaining his action in 1989 Tian an Men square, Deng talked about the need for order.. He pointed out that other wise there could have been civil war and   disorder in china with one fifth of global population would have caused instability in the world and could have even involved great powers.

Upheavals in the Soviet bloc including the bloody overthrow of Nicolas Ceausescu of Romania heightened the sense of siege of Chinese communist party They viewed Gorbachev as irrelevant leader.  On Strategic concepts Deng advocated coping with the affairs calmly. Hiding our capacities and biding our time and maintaining a low profile. He was very clear on the priorities in the statecraft .Development is the absolute principle .He  advocated  market principles , risk taking , private initiative , and the importance of productivity and entrepreneurship – all heretical principles once upon a time in Mao’s China.  He emphasized the importance of science and technology treating   intellectuals as part of the working class. Deng had come to define the criteria of good governance in terms of well being and development of ordinary person.

In a candid conversation with Kissinger Deng indicated that the reason for his insistence on retiring was his conviction that he would make mistakes in his  old age . “Old people have strengths but also great weaknesses. They tend to be stubborn, for example .and they should be aware of that. The older they are the more modest they should be and more careful not to make mistakes in their later years . We should go on selecting younger comrades for promotion and helping to train them .Don’t put your trust only in old age. ….. When they reach maturity we shall rest easy . Right now we are still worried.”

Govt of India and Congress Party   – Are you listening???

All in all Kissinger’s book on China is a good exercise helping the reader to snippets of Chinese leaders’ world views and views on Governance. It is a different matter that the aged intellectual completely avoids the “Hyde” part of China’s international diplomacy especially their help in nuclear proliferation to Pakistan , their aggressive attitude on South China sea etc.


(Shri S.Gopal is currently Visiting Professor holding  Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee Chair in the National Institute of Advanced Studies , Bangalore . He can be reached at

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