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Pres. Richard Nixon entered office with a grand plan to reshuffle the geopolitical deck. China had top billing in his designs, and an opening to Beijing was within reach. Nixon primarily wanted a China card to play against the Soviet Union. He also viewed relations with Beijing as a potential way to exit Vietnam honorably.
China wanted–desperately needed–a thaw with the United States as well. Beijing was emerging from the horrendous Cultural Revolution unleashed by Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The Soviet Union was prepared to “smash” China as border disputes between the two powers were escalating. And, by the early 1970s, when Sino-American negotiations intensified, Beijing feared that Vietnam might win the war against the United States (ironically, with the assistance of China), enter into an alliance with the Soviet Union, and challenge China’s Asian hegemony. In sum, the People’s Republic was back on its heels and eager to do business with the United States.
While Washington faced its own difficulties, China’s position was far more precarious. But instead of negotiating for the best normalization deal possible with a weakened China, then-national-security adviser Henry Kissinger set in motion a pattern of unproductive relations. During the negotiations, China continually raised the price of doing business, erecting obstacles that Washington had to remove for the prize of normal relations. This pattern of Sino-American relations has barely changed.
The story of how the rhythms, tenor, and characteristics of the Sino-American relationship began is recalled in vivid detail and with characteristic eloquence by Kissinger in his new book, On China. The brilliant and larger-than-life Kissinger was a central player in Nixon’s China policy. The book is thus equal parts memoir, analysis of Chinese strategic history, and attempt by Kissinger to explain his role in Sino-American relations over the past three decades. The history portion, to which Kissinger devotes considerable space, is the weakest part of the book. It is riddled with errors and clichés. (These mistakes have been well documented by the scholars Arthur Waldron, Jonathan Spence, and Jonathan Mirsky.) For example, whether China ever had a unitary civilization or was as homogeneous a populace as Kissinger describes is a matter of debate among historians.
Kissinger can be excused for the weaknesses of his history of China. His main purpose in writing the history is to prove that China has a distinct way of statecraft and a worldview that colored his negotiations and continues to shape Sino-American relations today. In Kissinger’s telling, the elements of this statecraft include subtlety, indirection, and strategic positioning. The Chinese play wei qi–an ancient game that one wins by properly positioning oneself and surrounding an opponent. Westerners play chess, a more direct and confrontational game. Kissinger uses this metaphor to describe each side’s strategic inclinations. Once this contrast is established, Kissinger turns to how Sino-American diplomacy has unfolded.
But the book’s dominant theme–the disjuncture between Chinese and Western strategic practice–is problematic. According to Kissinger, Chinese statesmen–unlike their Western counterparts–make no fine distinction between diplomacy, politics, and war; rather, they engage in all three simultaneously to gradually and patiently advance their objectives. When Kissinger turns to Western strategic culture, however, he creates a straw man. To assert that in the Clausewitzian tradition, “with war the statesman enters a new and distinct phase” is a striking misinterpretation. In fact, as Kissinger himself acknowledges, the Prussian military theorist made precisely the opposite point: War, he famously wrote, is politics by other means. In fact, politics at all levels drives the American way of war in all its dimensions. It would certainly come as a surprise to Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno as well as to Amb. Ryan Crocker, the architects of the Iraq War turnaround, that the soldiers and diplomats they led were destined to engage in force-on-force clashes devoid of political considerations. The diplomatic-military team behind the Iraq surge employed highly sophisticated statecraft–combining killing terrorists with providing security and helping Iraq fashion a stable society. For an earlier example of American strategic practice, one need only look to Lincoln’s approach to war. Our Civil War president rode herd on his generals to ensure that the aim of all military operations was to keep the Union intact rather than to drive back a Southern insurrection. Even as war raged, and he become more focused on crushing the rebellion, he kept a keen eye on how to rebuild and reconstruct the South. Kissinger is far too intelligent to make this mistake about Clausewitz specifically and American statecraft more broadly. Perhaps his purpose is to deliberately exaggerate a contrast with China?
But his depiction of Chinese strategic traditions is off the mark as well. It is not clear that China always employs strategies of subtlety, indirection, and encirclement. While China achieved surprise in its intervention in Korea, the waves of Chinese soldiers attacking American soldiers did so rather directly. Its bracketing of Taiwan with missiles in 1995 and 1996 was not exactly a display of subtlety either.
Kissinger’s pop assessments of Chinese versus American ways of strategy point to a larger problem: His analyses of the sources of American foreign policy are cursory and somewhat shallow. If American statecraft is as Kissinger describes–characterized by frontal assaults in the military realm and a lack of nuance in diplomacy–then of course China will seem more sophisticated and subtle. But the analysis holds neither for the United States nor for China. In the U.S., the “exceptionalism” Kissinger describes as a sometime driver of foreign policy indeed enjoys a strong purchase both in the polity at large and among its leaders. Americans strongly believe that their country is exceptional: It is founded on a set of ideals and principles that are universal. But Washington usually shows great sophistication in how and when it presses others to accept these universal principles. Take the case of Asia: American leaders pushed their stalwart Cold War allies South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines toward democratic reform. We needed these countries to help contain Communism and looked the other way when they abused their citizens’ rights until we could do so no more. If this alliance diplomacy is not an example of sophisticated statecraft, then what is? In contrast, Chinese statecraft over the past three years undermines any claim to Chinese subtlety. Beijing has managed to antagonize Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and India–hastening the very encirclement Beijing so fears.
This brings us back to the story of Sino-American rapprochement. In the end, Kissinger’s story is damning of his own diplomacy. He writes that Nixon had two main goals: garnering Chinese help in an American withdrawal from Vietnam and taking advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to create a more favorable balance of power for the United States. But the price of this policy turned out to be unduly high. Kissinger entered the negotiations without preconditions, but China had many. Most pressing for China was its demand that the U.S. abandon its Cold War ally, Taiwan. Kissinger was too pliable. Washington agreed to withdraw military support, and, under Kissinger’s successors, diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China. What did Kissinger actually receive in return? The book does not provide any concrete answers.
Moreover, it’s clear in retrospect that China’s eagerness for American backing was driven by a desire to squash Vietnam’s ambitions in Southeast Asia and relieve the danger of a Soviet attack. It was under the watch of national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski–a kindred spirit of Kissinger in the arts of realpolitik–that China attacked Vietnam with tacit U.S. support.
During the ten years of Sino-American diplomacy that led to a normalization of relations, China accomplished all of its goals. It deterred a Soviet attack, secured the de-recognition of Taiwan, began to receive much-needed investment from the United States, and demonstrated to Vietnam that it would not cede its dominance in Asia. It was indeed quite an accomplishment for a poor, internally ravaged country facing a dire threat from a superpower to receive unrequited concessions and support from the United States. But China’s success may have had less to do with diplomatic acumen than with the diplomacy of Kissinger and his successors.
Kissinger was mesmerized by China’s leadership, including the murderous Mao, Chou En-lai, and Deng Xiaoping. He was too enthusiastic about the prospect of achieving a world-historical breakthrough with an ancient civilization he clearly reveres. In retrospect there is no reason why Nixon-Kissinger, Ford-Scowcroft-Kissinger, and Carter-Brzezinski could not have driven a harder bargain. China was in a bad state. It is likely that Washington could have gotten more out of the negotiations. For example, under President Nixon, then-ambassador to the United Nations George H. W. Bush tried unsuccessfully to maintain recognition for the ROC in the United Nations while simultaneously supporting the PRC’s claim to China’s permanent seat on the Security Council.
But Kissinger makes no mention of this effort. Did he not support it? Surely a more sophisticated diplomacy could have allowed for U.N. recognition of both the PRC and the ROC–just as both East and West Germany and North and South Korea were recognized–without prejudicing the final disposition of competing claims of sovereignty. (It is one of the gross perversities of international politics that North Korea is a signatory to U.N. conventions that it regularly violates and receives lavish attention from U.S. diplomats, while Taiwan, a democracy with a stellar human-rights record, is excluded and isolated.) Leaving aside the injustice done to Taiwan, American geopolitical interests were harmed by this diplomatic malpractice. A dose of clarity about the U.S. and U.N. position on the island’s status could deter conflict. Finally, Kissinger writes that he made the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Taiwan “conditional on the settlement of the Indochina war.” Indeed, the war was settled–with the humiliating withdrawal of U.S. forces leaving the South Vietnamese to the tender mercies of Ho Chi Minh’s followers.
Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China was important and consequential–as Nixon famously wrote, we could not let this massive and once-great country with all its latent talent sit outside the “family of nations.” The opening also paved the way for Deng to unleash the impressive entrepreneurial energies of the Chinese people. But the supposedly hardheaded realpolitikers who negotiated normalization made a series of bad deals. As he himself points out, Kissinger set the tone for future diplomatic transactions–and like him, Kissinger’s successors failed to see the leverage the U.S. had over China. In 1989, as China felt the heat from Communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, the cry for freedom among domestic protesters, and the emergence of a reformist faction within the Chinese elite, Deng Xiaoping sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to kill the protesters. It took only a few months for Washington to promise Deng secretly that all would be fine after a decent interval. (Kissinger is quick to point out that he played a role in this particular turnabout.) In retrospect, that was the time to exert maximum pressure on China to form democratic institutions.
And therein lies the heart of the problem with Kissinger’s book and, more important, his diplomacy. Democratic reform in China is the last great hope for lasting peace in Asia. What the “realpolitikers” never grasp is that for Americans, a preference for democracy’s march is not a paean to special interests, but a deeply imbedded national theory of how peace is won.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.
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