But the story of Nixon’s opening to China, the meetings with Mao Zedong, and the ensuing ups and downs in US-China relations are now familiar to those who have followed the relationship. One is left wondering if the book could not have been made shorter and better-focused.
Acting as President Nixon’s national security advisor, Kissinger made his first, secret trip to China in late 1971 to set the stage for Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to the country in early 1972. In the 40 years that followed, Kissinger visited China more than 50 times. He had unparalleled access to several Chinese leaders – from Mao to Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin.
"On China" is based largely on the former secretary of state’s transcripts of talks with those leaders and his analysis of Chinese culture and its impact on Chinese foreign policy. He’s convinced that China must be dealt with through compromise, cannot be pressured on human rights, and must be understood in terms of a lasting feeling on the part of the Chinese that they were humiliated by Western powers during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th.
In Kissinger’s view, China, though it does see itself as exceptional, does not proselytize or claim that its institutions are relevant outside China. American “exceptionalism,” in contrast, is missionary, as Kissinger describes it. Americans believe in internationally recognized universal values, such as freedom and
human rights. He argues that in order to reduce human rights violations in China, the US must engage the Chinese Communist Party and not confront it: “Once enough confidence has been established, changes in civil practice can be advocated in the name of common purpose or at least the preservation of a common interest.”
When it comes to the Chinese army’s bloody Tiananmen crackdown on unarmed protesters in June 1989, however, Kissinger stops short of condemning the action. He explains that for Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader at the time, the Tiananmen protests “stirred the historical Chinese fear of chaos and memories of the Cultural Revolution – whatever the stated goals of the demonstrators.”
Kissinger then goes on to state that “This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has its different perspectives depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis.” The closest he gets to a condemnation of the massacre is to acknowledge that the suppression was “harsh.”
Kissinger also says that given its cultural background, China has historically not sought to impose its values on others. But this is not at all the case today. One need only look at the colonial aspects of China’s repressive actions in Tibet and Xinjiang, where Beijing is imposing its own institutions, controlling monasteries and mosques, and mandating the teaching of the Chinese language to the detriment of the local languages.
Toward the end of the book, Kissinger offers some prescriptions for how the US and China can work together to maintain a stable, peaceful Asia. He suggests that we should elevate crisis discussions with China into a more “comprehensive,” multilateral framework that seeks to eliminate the underlying causes of tension.
That’s exactly what the US has been trying to do recently by proposing rules of the road for navigation through the South China Sea – a vast expanse, most of which China claims as its own. But China has made clear that it would prefer to deal with conflicts over the exploration for oil in the South China Sea on a country-by-country basis and not through any broader framework.
When it comes to the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Kissinger proposes addressing the problem by means of an overall security structure, or “an agreed peaceful order for Northeast Asia.” This strikes me as unrealistic given the failures of the discontinued six-nation talks that began eight years ago and that were aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
China and the United States appear to have totally different priorities on the Korean peninsula. China appears ready to continue propping up its ally, North Korea, because that country’s collapse could lead to a massive flow of refugees into China and would remove a counterweight to US power on China’s northeastern border. China may not want a nuclear North Korea, but that appears to be a secondary priority for Beijing. For the US, however, an end to the North Korean nuclear program has to be its first priority.
Kissinger also states that “an aspect of strategic tension in the current world situation resides in the Chinese fear that America is seeking to contain China – paralleled by American concern that China is seeking to expel the United States from Asia.” To ease both Chinese and American fears, he proposes an even more sweeping but unrealistic vision – the concept of a “Pacific Community” in which the US and China and other major countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and Australia participate.
A Pacific Rim forum already exists, however – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum – which includes all of the countries mentioned by Kissinger
except for India. Security issues have been added to its trade-focused agenda. But it has not scored any major breakthroughs in upholding Asian peace and security. And what advantage would US allies Japan and South Korea see in joining such a US-China partnership when the US and China frequently find themselves so far apart on so many issues?
Furthermore, might such an arrangement not weaken these two nations’ alliances with the US?
Kissinger’s "On China" may sell well in China, although for any approved Chinese edition, the censors might have to remove his fleeting reference to Mao’s “legacy of grandiosity and brutality.” In China, criticism of Mao is still largely taboo.