Avoiding U.S.-China Cold War


In 1971, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger visited China to negotiate a “world shaking” alliance between the two Cold War adversaries.  Since then, he has continued to help manage the Sino-American relationship, most notably in the aftermath of the June 4 crackdown, when Kissinger is said to have negotiated a deal that permitted the dissident Fang Lizhi, who had sought sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, to flee to the United States, thereby resolving a potentially explosive political impasse. 

In his new book On China, Henry Kissinger offers a framework for future U.S.-China relations by looking back at China’s diplomatic history, starting from 1793-4, when the Qing empire rebuffed Britain’s Lord George Macartney’s attempt to establish a diplomatic relationship.  Back then, Britain, like the United States today, was a missionary power, intent on spreading the gospel of Christianity and free trade.  But China back then saw itself as it sees itself today: The Middle Kingdom, the glorious sun that tributary states must revolve around in order to receive its light.   

Kissinger explains the difference in Western and Chinese diplomacy and geo-political strategy with two board games.  Westerners play chess, positioning its power on the board, striking at the enemy with logic and planning.  Chinese play Go, a game in which winning requires encircling your opponent. 

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To understand how differently these two games are played, consider Kissinger’s first visit to China to negotiate with Premier Zhou Enlai what would later become the Shanghai Communique.  Kissinger came to China with a timetable and talking points, but Zhou preferred that Kissinger visit the Forbidden City, and extend his stay.  Whereas Kissinger hoped to achieve his diplomatic mission quickly and directly, Zhou surrounded Kissinger with flattery and personal attention to break down his defenses.

Since that fateful rite of passage, Kissinger has continued to advise Chinese and American Presidents, and by writing On China no doubtKissinger hopes current and future policymakers can benefit from his understanding of Chinese thinking.  And as a policy book, On China demonstrates how Kissinger has mastered the games of both chess and Go so that he can communicate effectively to both his Chinese and U.S. foreign policy audiences.    

For China’s current and future policymakers, Kissinger reminds them of Mao Zedong’s disastrous diplomacy, in which the Great Helmsman managed to surround and almost strangle China by alienating the Soviet Union, the United States, and India while debilitating China’s industrial capacity and ability to wage war.

To criticize Mao Zedong, Kissinger first surrounds him with obsequious praise before turning Mao’s own words against him. 

In 1958, Chairman Mao ordered the shelling of Taiwan’s offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, deliberately provoking the United States, which had treaty obligations to defend Taiwan.  And why play such a dangerous game?  Here’s Mao’s reported reasoning for his actions:

“[T]he bombardment of Jinmen [Quemoy], frankly speaking, was our turn to create international tension for a purpose.  We intended to teach the Americans a lesson.  America had bullied us for many years, so now that we had a chance, why not give it a hard time?”

When Khrushchev sent his Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko to Beijing to calm down his impetuous ally lest he start a nuclear war, Mao explained to Gromyko how China and the Soviet Union could destroy the Americans, albeit at the cost of hundreds of millions of Chinese lives:

“I suppose the Americans might go so far as to unleash a war against China.  China must reckon with this possibility, and we do.  But we have no intention of capitulating!  If the USA attacks China with nuclear weapons, the Chinese armies must retreat from the border regions into the depths of the country.  They must draw the enemy in deep so as to grip U.S. forces in a pincer inside China…Only when the Americans are right in the central provinces should you give them everything you’ve got.”

Kissinger contrasts Mao Zedong’s foreign policy with that of Deng Xiaoping, but careful to not disrupt the cosmic Communist unity that Chinese leaders so cherish, he first explains that Mao’s Cultural Revolution had paved the way for Deng’s economic reforms: “Mao destroyed traditional China and left its rubble building blocks for ultimate modernization.” 

In contrast to Mao’s vengeful pride, Deng practiced a pragmatic humility, traveling to the West to solicit for technology and expertise to help modernize China, an act that Mao would have interpreted as treason.  Kissinger avoids quoting “brilliant” Mao’s famous aphorisms, but does quote Deng’s 24-character statement on how China ought to manage international affairs:  “Observe carefully; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

For Kissinger, China’s fragile geo-political and economic situation can be directly linked to Mao’s violent idealism, while China’s strategic alliances and economic rise can be credited to Deng’s modest pragmatism.  That’s a very strong message to China’s current leadership, who are witnessing a revival of Mao Zedong rhetoric in the Chinese military, as exemplified by Col. Liu Mingfu’s book China Dream.       

For American policymakers, Kissinger directly cautions them to ignore Chinese nationalistic rhetoric (just as Zhou Enlai once cautioned Kissinger to ignore Mao’s rhetoric). For Kissinger, Communist Party leaders are first and foremost Chinese strategists who practice Realpolitik: “China’s strategy generally exhibits three characteristics:  meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options, and detached exploration of operational decisions.” 

Kissinger believes that by building diplomatic institutions (what he calls the “Pacific Community”) China and the United States could avoid another Cold War;  The Qing’s rebuff of Lord Macartney is a history that must not repeat itself.    

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