Monday, September 5, 2011

On China, by Henry Kissinger

Rarely have I turned the last page of a book and, without any conscious thought say, "phenomenal."  That was my reaction to Dr Kissinger*'s recently published broad and insightful text on China.

At 530 pages this book may look intimidating, but the writing is clear, captivating and compelling, and although it may take a few days to read, this is hardly a dense or unfriendly text.

Dr Kissinger takes us through 40 years of US diplomatic history with China.  But this is not just about the history (fascinating as it is); understanding the background that led China to its current status is extremely useful as a going forward exercise.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who does or anticipates doing business with China, to anyone who wants to understand the pre-eminent diplomatic focus that faces the next generation or two of Americans, and to anyone who believes it is important to learn from history.

To that last point:  in his introductory chapter, "The Singularity of China," Dr Kissinger provides the cultural context with which to consider interactions with the Chinese.  In so doing, he also points out a glaring flaw in American foreign relations, one that continues to unnecessarily take a toll on our military and our economy.   (It is important to point out that I'm connecting these dots; the author didn't and there's no indication it was his intent.)   It is this:  when we think about interactions with other governments, we use chess as the metaphor.  "[chess] is about total victory.  The purpose of the game is checkmate, to put the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed."

In contrast, "China's most enduring game" is wei qi, approximately pronounced way chee.  "The wei qi player seeks relative advantage.  ... wei qi generates strategic flexibility."   Dr Kissinger relates this thinking to Sun Tzu's guidance on strategy:  "A successful commander waits before charging headlong into battle.  ... a doctrine less of territorial conquest than of psychological dominance..."

Consider this in the context of the continued US presence in both Iraq and Afganistan.

Back to China.   A more direct issue is the conflict between America's belief it has the moral imperative to tell other nations (and thus cultures) how to run their sovereign nations, and China's irreducible commitment, born of its history of interaction with British and other colonial interests in the past couple of hundred years, to not be bullied by other nations.    As Dr Kissinger paints it, an unfortunate event such as Tienamen Square (where in 1989 protesters were forcibly, i.e., violently removed, and more importantly, in view of the cameras of the world press) is viewed by the Chinese government as only that:  an unfortunate event.   In the eyes of the US, it is viewed as a fundamental failure of human rights.

As a consequence, Americans tend to engage in social re-engineering diplomacy, trying to tie trade agreements to changes in China's internal structure.   China's view is to simply reject meddling in their domestic affairs as meddling, and to point out that the US doesn't have its own house in order with regard to human rights.

So if you were a Chinese government official, you'd observe the unprovoked US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan (especially now that we know the weapons of mass destruction story was untrue) and translate Congress' hard line oratory as a literal risk of war.   Consider Liu Mingfu's "China Dream:  the great power thinking and strategic positioning of China in the post-American age," just briefly referenced by Dr Kissinger.    Colonel Liu (as I understand it) suggests that war can be avoided if the US can stifle its hegemonic aspirations.   (One must rely on English language analysis of Liu's writing, see perhaps Cheng Li's "China in the Year 2020: three political scenarios," at the Brookings Institute, or Christopher Hughes' "In Case You Missed It:  China dream," in The China Beat.)

To China, appearances matter, and events as simple as President Obama meeting with the Dali Lama can be viewed as attempted interference with China's domestic policy.

To put this into context, imagine a group in the US, proposing that a part of the country secede from the Union.   How would President Lincoln have interpreted a cheerful meeting in Beijing between Jefferson Davis and the Chinese head of state?   Yes, I know:  the Dali Lama is the very image of pacifism, and recently retired from his role as the head of Tibet to focus entirely on his religious leadership role.  But to the Chinese government, the parallels may be considerable.

My only complaint about this book is that the epilogue seemed too brief and too imprecise:  Dr Kissinger imagines a "Pacific community" (for example, see Lee Kwan Yew's comments) but doesn't clearly articulate the implications, including national self-interest values (to the US).  

All in all though, a small complaint about an extraordinary work from one of the finest minds of American diplomacy in action.

*Many readers may be unfamiliar with Dr Kissinger; please click on the reference link.  In short, Kissinger escaped Germany to the US where he served in the Army, got his PhD at Harvard, and in 1973 became Richard Nixon's Secretary of State.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

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