Henry Kissinger in China was always a gratingly and irritatingly smug presence, but Henry Kissinger “on China” is madly baffling. After nearly 600 pages, Kissinger fails to address the key question: why and how did President Richard Nixon decide that it was in America’s interests to protect communist China?
- On China
- by Henry Kissinger
Kissinger tells us that this de facto alliance was personally decided by Nixon in August 1969 just as the Soviet Union was preparing to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on China. Nixon had decided the Soviets were the more dangerous party and that it was against American interests for China to be “smashed” in a Chinese-Soviet war. “It was a revolutionary moment in US foreign policy,” Kissinger explains. “An American president declared we had a strategic interest in the survival of a major communist country.”
In October 1969, Mao Zedong was so convinced war was nigh, he ordered all Chinese leaders to disperse around the country, except for the indispensable Zhou Enlai. Kissinger says that it was only Moscow’s uncertainty about America’s response that led the Soviets to postpone the project. Soon after, Kissinger, as Nixon’s national security adviser, engaged in the secret negotiations that led to the American president’s meeting with Mao in 1972, an event that astonished America’s enemies and its friends.
Nixon’s policy has guided eight American presidents and four generations of Chinese leaders. It continued after the Soviet Union, and the military threat it posed to China, had disappeared. It continued even after the outrage that followed the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Three weeks after 4 June, the White House sent secret envoys to reassure the communist leadership that the Sino-American alliance would continue no matter what.
Kissinger can truly claim to be the chief architect of what was and remains one of the pillars of the international order. He advised and directed White House China policy for four decades, and on 50-odd visits to China has consulted with every one of its leaders. That, not the large fees he pockets for appearing at one of those regular business conferences boosting economic ties, is why he always looks so pleased with himself in China.
The alliance is as crucial to understanding world history as Britain and America’s decision to make an ally of Stalin in order to defeat Hitler, rather than the other way round, the result of which was the establishment of a Soviet empire in Europe rather than a German one.
Kissinger says that at the time it seemed the Soviet Union was more dangerous because, unlike China, it was an expansionary, aggressive power. Is this true? China had sent troops to Korea and Vietnam (not 100,000 as Kissinger claims, but closer to 500,000), as well as to Burma and Cambodia, and had financed and trained insurgencies in a dozen countries – which would cost millions of lives. There wasn’t much to choose between them.
Kissinger says he wrote the book to “explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order”. But what we really want is a justification for this policy. Even at the time it was a bizarre move, but with the advantage of hindsight it is even more peculiar. What exactly did America ever gain from it? It certainly enabled China’s rulers to stay in power despite Mao’s catastrophic rule, but no evidence has emerged that the alliance directly contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
On the contrary, if Beijing and Moscow had gone to war, surely it would have been to America’s great advantage. America might have emerged victorious from the Vietnam war and saved Cambodia from the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule. The long-standing threat to South Korea and Taiwan might have disappeared and the Soviet gains of the 1970s, such as in Angola or Afghanistan, might not have been made.
One supposes that Nixon feared a swift Soviet victory in China, but Kissinger does not say that. Instead, he constantly invites us to share his pleasure at the brilliance and subtlety of Chinese leaders, no matter who they are: Zhou, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping. Even when he meets Mao – senile and dribbling – Kissinger can’t help being blown away by his supposed brilliance.
Yet Mao was by then recognised even by his followers as a mad monster. He had managed to make enemies of practically everyone in China, starved up to 50 million people to death, repeatedly purged the army and party, imprisoned or exiled millions, and ruined the economy. He led the country into ruinous and costly wars with every one of China’s neighbours and was now willing to sacrifice tens of millions more in a nuclear war with the Chinese Communist party’s great benefactor, the Soviet Union.
Kissinger explains that actually this was all yet another dazzling example of Mao’s skilful diplomacy, learned from studying the ancient Chinese arts of statesmanship, specifically an instance of Zhuge Liang’s “empty city stratagem”. Mao would supposedly lure the Soviets deep into the countryside and then destroy them. In fact, Kissinger should have practised the Taoist concept of wu wei and done nothing. It was evident even then that Mao and Zhou would be dead within a few years and had prepared no succession. Kissinger recounts how the famous ping-pong diplomacy only started when Mao, slumped over the table in a drug-induced haze, suddenly woke and gave the orders to his nurse.
Whoever followed Mao would have to rescue China from its total isolation and restore the economy. They would have to go cap in hand to America for help, and Washington could dictate its own terms. Instead, Nixon turned up in Beijing as a supplicant, waiting anxiously to be summoned to the emperor’s side, listening to tutorials in strategy. In return for this blessing, the Chinese persuaded the Americans to withdraw from Taiwan, and then to support China’s murderous protégés, the Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, forced them to lose the war in Vietnam, to sacrifice Tibet, and of course to sacrifice America’s moral principles.
As Kissinger remarks of another occasion: “At a moment of great national danger – which its own analysis demonstrated – China nevertheless acted as an instructor on strategy.”
In truth, the Chinese couldn’t believe their luck in finding such a naive and biddable partner as Kissinger. He gratefully accepts whatever the Chinese leaders tell him at face value, especially their nonsensical self-serving version of Chinese history. For instance, he starts the book with Mao explaining that Tamurlaine was really a Chinese general – Tamurlaine wanted to invade China.
Kissinger implies that only a clever diplomat such as himself can catch the sophistication of the Chinese people and their “subtle sense of the intangible”. So in this book Chinese leaders never sound unreasonable, but always sensible and pragmatic, unlike the Americans, who make unreasonable demands and have confused ideas about democracy and human rights.
Kissinger has no curiosity at all: he never looks behind the curtain, let alone listens to spokesmen of the Chinese opposition. Even after Tiananmen, when the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi was holed up for 18 months in the US embassy and the subject of high-level bargaining, Kissinger didn’t bother to meet him. It’s a pity that Kissinger was never distracted from his mission to achieve “a rebalancing of the global equilibrium”. The world might have been quite a different place.