Henry Kissinger's "On China" falls somewhere between a lap of honour and a potboiler. It is always a pleasure to experience Kissinger's massive, strategic intellect at work and he was, after all, present at the creation. At the same time, this book, for all its 530 pages, offers little new perspective and is so uncritical of its subject that it reads like an authorized history.
"On China" comprises three main parts. The first two hundred or so pages provide a panoramic, four thousand year history of the Middle Kingdom. The second section deals in detail with the momentous period of Kissinger's own involvement in his official role as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State and in the years following when he still had a fair degree of access to and influence over the principals on both sides. The final stretch speculates about the future and whether China and the United States will be able to plot a course of productive "co-evolution" or are doomed to enact a modern version of Europe's nineteenth century rivalry among the Great Powers.
Kissinger sees Chinese foreign relations as shaped by its vast dimensions of time and space. Its leaders work under "a mantle of almost limitless history." The Middle Kingdom is so vast and so vastly populous that it can afford to think of itself as self sufficient and can absorb virtually all assaults by outsiders - even, Mao promised, a nuclear attack would kill a mere three hundred million. For China, the central metaphor is the game of wei qi (or "Go" in its Japanese version) and not chess (though chess too originated in Asia). Whereas the West thinks in terms of "victory," the Chinese pursue "relative advantage....through elaborate, multi-year maneuvers." Except for the relatively brief period when China was eclipsed and bullied by Niall Ferguson's technologically superior West (plus Japan), it represented on the order of thirty percent of world GDP. Its current resurgence is simply a resumption of its natural status. Kissinger admires this long horizoned realpolitik and contrasts it favorably with his old bÍte noire, the United States' periodic outbursts of ideals-based foreign policy.
Kissinger's recounting of his personal role is moderately interesting, but the tale has been told many times before - indeed there has even been a major opera written about it. He gives due credit to Richard Nixon but this is mainly his own story. His reverence for his Chinese interlocutors is almost boundless. Thus he glosses over the Stalinesque scale of Mao's atrocities to focus on his strategic genius; he listens intently to the aging Chairman's "bantering and elliptical ... conversation" and decodes his every Chauncey-Gardnerish uttering as a gem of oracular wisdom.
Kissinger's interpretation of China is decidedly one dimensional, focusing on the geopolitical dimension of the story and then predominantly on Sino-American relations. The roles of Russia, India, Japan, Korea and Europe in the future evolution of China's strategy receive only superficial analysis. He makes little attempt to explain or even describe the economic miracle of the past thirty years other than to give credit to Deng's "reform and opening up" policy for unleashing it. He does not consider the implications of China's role as the world's creditor, or how rising costs might affect its economy - already factories, even some owned by Chinese companies - are moving to Vietnam and Bangladesh. He does not wonder how the demographics of an aging population and the rise of generations of single child families of piano-playing "little emperors" might affect the evolution of policy. He brushes over the potential for unrest, whether from ethnic or religious minorities, the disadvantaged or an increasingly educated, world travelled and vast middle class - recent election results in Singapore suggest that even a prosperous and pampered Confucian population can eventually tire of a benign autocracy. He barely mentions China's steady building up of its military capabilities, its economic imperialism, its propping up of dodgy regimes, its disregard of intellectual property rights and its extensive cyber-espionage activities.
Much of the writing in "On China" is generic, possibly reflecting the role of Schuyler Schouten, Kissinger's principal research assistant. There are too few character summings up of the caliber of his comment on Jiang: "the least Middle-Kingdom-type of personality that I encountered among Chinese leaders." And there is a disappointing dearth of Kissingerian aphorisms such as "Strategists rely on the intentions of the presumed adversary only to a limited extent. For intentions are subject to change," or his comment on Deng's retirement which perhaps was equally about himself: "the nostalgia of those who are leaving activity in which, by definition, every action made a difference, for a world in which they will soon be largely spectators."
Kissinger's closing plea to China and the United States is that they must find a way to avoid a new cold war. He prescribes the way forward as being some form of Pacific arrangement akin to the North Atlantic alliance. He is not very specific and his optimism is not very convincing.