The China Challenge

By Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger on the China Challenge –


Societies and nations tend to think of themselves as eternal. They also cherish a tale of their origin. A special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning. It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than as a permanent natural phenomenon. In the tale of the Yellow Emperor, revered by many Chinese as the legendary founding ruler, China seems already to exist…….

The most dramatic event of the Nixon presidency occurred in near obscurity. Nixon had decided that for a diplomatic mission to Beijing to succeed, it would have to take place in secrecy. A public mission would have set off a complicated internal clearance project within the U.S. government and insistent demands for consultations from around the world, including Taiwan (still recognized as the government of China). This would have mortgaged our prospects with Beijing, whose attitudes we were being sent to discover. Transparency is an essential objective, but historic opportunities for building a more peaceful international order have imperatives as well.

So my team set off to Beijing via Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi and Rawalpindi on an announced fact-finding journey on behalf of the president. My party included a broader set of American officials, as well as a core group destined for Beijing—myself, as national security adviser, three aides and two Secret Service agents. The dramatic denouement required us to go through tiring stops at each city designed to be so boringly matter-of-fact that the media would stop tracking our movements. In Rawalpindi, we disappeared for 48 hours for an ostensible rest (I had feigned illness) in a Pakistani hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas—but our real destination was Beijing. In Washington, only the president and Col. (later Gen.) Alexander Haig, my top aide, knew our actual mission.

When the American delegation arrived in Beijing on July 9, 1971, we had experienced the subtlety of Chinese communication but not the way Beijing conducted actual negotiations, still less the Chinese style of receiving visitors. American experience with Communist diplomacy was based on contacts with Soviet leaders, principally Andrei Gromyko, who had a tendency to turn diplomacy into a test of bureaucratic will; he was impeccably correct in negotiation but implacable on substance—sometimes, one sensed, straining his self-discipline.

Strain was nowhere apparent in the Chinese reception of the secret visit or during the dialogue that followed. In all the preliminary maneuvers, we had been sometimes puzzled by the erratic pauses between their messages, which we assumed had something to do with the Cultural Revolution. Nothing now seemed to disturb the serene aplomb of our hosts, who acted as if welcoming the special emissary of the American president for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China was the most natural occurrence……….

Seven months later, on Feb. 21, 1972, President Nixon arrived in Beijing on a raw winter day. It was a triumphant moment for the president, the inveterate anti-Communist who had seen a geopolitical opportunity and seized it boldly.

As a symbol of the fortitude with which he had navigated to this day and of the new era he was inaugurating, he wanted to descend alone from Air Force One to meet Zhou, who was standing on the windy tarmac in his immaculate Mao jacket as a Chinese military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The symbolic handshake that erased Dulles’s snub duly took place. But for a historic occasion, it was strangely muted. When Nixon’s motorcade drove into Beijing, the streets had been cleared of onlookers. And his arrival was played as the last item on the evening news.

As revolutionary as the opening itself had been, the final communiqué had not yet been fully agreed upon—especially in the key paragraph on Taiwan. A public celebration would have been premature and perhaps weakened the Chinese negotiating position of studied equanimity.

Our hosts made up for the missing demonstrations by inviting Nixon to a meeting with Mao within hours of our arrival. “Inviting” is not the precise word for how meetings with Mao occurred. Appointments were never scheduled; they came about as if events of nature. They were echoes of emperors granting audiences.

The first indication of Mao’s invitation to Nixon occurred when, shortly after our arrival, I received word that Zhou needed to see me in a reception room. He informed me that “Chairman Mao would like to see the President.” To avoid the impression that Nixon was being summoned, I raised some technical issues about the order of events at the evening banquet. Uncharacteristically impatient, Zhou responded: “Since the Chairman is inviting him, he wants to see him fairly soon.” In welcoming Nixon at the very outset of his visit, Mao was signaling his authoritative endorsement to domestic and international audiences before talks had even begun. Accompanied by Zhou, we set off for Mao’s residence in Chinese cars.

Mao’s residence was approached through a wide gate on the east–west axis carved from where the ancient city walls stood before the Communist revolution. Inside the Imperial City, the road hugged a lake, on the other side of which stood a series of residences for high officials. All had been built in the days of Sino-Soviet friendship and reflected the heavy Stalinist style of the period. Mao’s residence appeared no different, though it stood slightly apart from the others. There were no visible guards or other appurtenances of power. A small anteroom was almost completely dominated by a Ping-Pong table……..

In recent years, China’s encounter with the modern, Western-designed international system has evoked in the Chinese elites a special tendency in which they debate—with exceptional thoroughness and analytical ability—their national destiny and overarching strategy for achieving it.

The world is witnessing, in effect, a new stage in a national dialogue about the nature of Chinese power, influence and aspirations that has gone on fitfully since the West first pried open China’s doors.

The previous stages of the national-destiny debate asked whether China should reach outward for knowledge to rectify its weakness or turn inward, away from an impure if technologically stronger world. The current stage of the debate is based on the recognition that the great project of self-strengthening has succeeded and China is catching up with the West. It seeks to define the terms on which China should interact with a world that—in the view of even many of China’s contemporary liberal internationalists—gravely wronged China and from whose depredations China is now recovering.

An example of the “triumphalist” line of thinking is in Col. Liu Mingfu’s 2010 book “China Dream.” In Liu’s view, no matter how much China commits itself to a “peaceful rise,” conflict is inherent in U.S.-China relations. The relationship between China and the U.S. will be a “marathon contest” and the “duel of the century.” Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum; the only alternative to total success is humiliating failure.

Neither the more triumphalist Chinese analyses nor the American version—that a successful Chinese “rise” is incompatible with America’s position in the Pacific, and the world—have been endorsed by either government, but they provide a subtext of much current thought. If the assumptions of these views were applied by either side—and it would take only one side to make it unavoidable—China and the U.S. could easily fall into an escalating tension…….

When China and the U.S. first restored relations 40 years ago, the most significant contribution of the leaders of the time was their willingness to raise their sights beyond the immediate issues of the day. In a way, they were fortunate in that their long isolation from each other meant that there were no short-term day-to-day issues between them. This enabled the leaders of a generation ago to deal with their future, not their immediate pressures, and to lay the basis for a world unimaginable then but unachievable without Sino-American cooperation.

In pursuit of understanding the nature of peace, I have studied the construction and operation of international orders ever since I was a graduate student well over half a century ago. I am aware that the cultural, historic and strategic gaps in perception will pose formidable challenges for even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leadership on both sides. On the other hand, were history confined to the mechanical repetition of the past, no transformation would ever have occurred. Every great achievement was a vision before it became a reality.

In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that perpetual peace would eventually come to the world in one of two ways: by human insight or by conflicts and catastrophes of a magnitude that left humanity no other choice. We are at such a juncture.

When Premier Zhou Enlai and I agreed on the communiqué that announced the secret visit, he said: “This will shake the world.” (here shake = change greatly**) What a culmination if, 40 years later, the U.S. and China could merge their efforts not to shake (here shake = damage**) the world, but to build it.***

** a humorous play on the word “shake” with two entirely opposite meanings – (a pun).

*** His advice.

—Adapted from “On China” by Henry Kissinger, to be published Tuesday by the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Henry A. Kissinger………



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