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Room Enough For Two Superpowers? A Chinese Look At Kissinger Looking At China

Article illustrative image Partner logo Kissinger meets Mao "via Instagram"

-Analysis-

BEIJING - As one of the key figures in the normalization of the Sino-U.S. relationship, Henry Kissinger’s name is well-known in China. In 1971, he led a secret delegation to visit China and took the very critical first step forward in high-level exchanges between China and the United States.

Forty years after his first visit to Beijing, his book, On China has been published in Chinese. 

The book dwells mostly on how China and America managed to step away from Cold War  confrontation and hostility to find a path towards conciliation and collaboration. As one of the central participants of this period, Kissinger does have some unique insight.

From his point of view, past history provides a mirror for the two countries’ decision-makers.

When modern China was established in 1949, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson proclaimed the idea of establishing a new Sino-U.S. relationship built on mutual respect and mutual help. But the outbreak of the Korean War disrupted the strategic structure in East Asia and caused China’s “one-sided” choice to support socialism and the former Soviet Union.

This was in essence a choice of confrontation with the United States. It does not mean that China shares common interests with the former USSR. It was not until the end of the 1960s that, due to the changes that both countries underwent in domestic political patterns and in East Asia, China and America returned to the path that Dean Acheson had envisioned.

Kissinger stressed repeatedly in his book the two principles of “equality” and “pragmatism.” But what does he mean by that?

He points out that traditional Confucianism, strategic thinking and a “counter-barbarian” or “anti-foreign” stance had a very critical influence on ancient China’s diplomatic tactics. On the diplomatic front, the Chinese decision-makers on the one hand boost China as a sovereign state with arrogance, and on the other hand use the diplomatic skill of containing one barbarian with another barbarian. These manifestations are based on the Confucian concept of hierarchical order.

In Kissinger’s eye, the traditional idea of using a counter-barbarian strategy and thinking of a system of vassal states still persists in the minds of some Chinese leaders. The description is not entirely false, but it is not accurate either.

Mao Zedong had the characteristics of a traditional Chinese policymaker who sought to maximize his own benefits in the contradictions between other nations. This was the modern version of the ancient saw of “overcoming barbarians by barbarians.” Mao’s vision of Asia looked like the reconstruction of an imperial clan.

However, the situation has changed since the era of Deng Xiaoping. Although Deng still embodied the mystery that existed among the supreme policymakers of ancient China’s political culture, in a diplomatic context Deng adhered to the principles of equality and pragmatism. This diplomatic approach has been followed by all China’s leaders after him.

Kissinger is neither a historian, nor a scholar of culture. His discourse about Chinese tradition and history are rather aimed at providing diplomatic thinking and resolving the issue of current and future Sino-U.S. exchanges.

What kind of "rise"?

His focus is on the impact of a “rising China,” as leaders in Beijing emphasize the benefits of China’s “peaceful rise” for East Asia and for the world.

Meanwhile, in specific diplomatic events, China had often taken a tough stance in safeguarding its national interests, and has appealed to domestic opinion by playing up its strong position in Asia -- as well as in the rest of the world. This leads Kissinger to raise a fundamental question: Will a strong China necessarily lead to irreconcilable conflict between China and America?

Taking the conflicting interests between Britain and Germany prior to World War I as a point of comparison, Kissinger draws the conclusion that when there is friction between two nations’ interests and that it is regarded as irreconcilable, a conflict will be inevitable. It can only result in a zero-sum game, whereby there can ultimately remain only one superpower.

Still, if the two nations recognize that frictions are inevitable, they may be able to make adjustments necessary for a peaceful situation to be maintained.

Kissinger acknowledges that as China becomes more and more powerful, more frictions are bound to occur, amplified by the two countries’ different forms of government.

In both his optimism and worries, Kissinger manifests a certain kind of American naïveté. His understanding of China's internal ideological trajectory is simplistic and misleading.

In China, since the mid-1990s, the public has demanded that the government be tough in foreign affairs. At that time, a best-seller called China Can Say No stirred up nationalist sentiment. The more recent Unhappy China is merely updating that book for the new era. Separated by a decade, both books are badly written and aimed at inciting their audience by playing to strict economic interests. And even if the audience finds in these books an emotional catharsis, they have no effective impact whatsoever on the Chinese government’s foreign policy.

*Zhang Naidong is a lecturer at Renmin University in China

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