Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

Mao to Now

In his exploration of China,Kissinger analyses the strong undercurrents of Tibetan issue and the international moves made by Beijing before the 1962 war.

On China
Henry Kissinger

Allen Lane

Pages: 608

Rs 899

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Henry Kissinger’s latest book,this time devoted exclusively to an exploration of China’s past,present and its unfolding future,has hit the bookstores. Several reviews and comments have already appeared in Western newspapers,not surprising given his unique vantage point in observing,analysing and,above all,empathising with China’s civilisational “singularity”,as he puts it.

The former US secretary of state interprets contemporary China through the prism of its historical continuities and cultural particularities,which have evolved over the centuries,dismissing its socialist ideology and Marxist experiments as recent but brief detours from a journey impelled by a compelling sense of national destiny.

The overarching strategy that underlies China’s conduct of foreign policy,he suggests,draws greater inspiration from its ancient classics and interpretations of Chinese history rather than the mundane logic of balance of power. For China,regaining its centrality as the pivot of the Asian system,as it believes it had been for centuries before the advent of Western imperialism,is an inevitable restoration of its rightful place in the world. Kissinger not only does not contest this Chinese version of history,but also gives it a certain intellectual legitimacy and even a degree of seductive allure. After all,he had,what he considers,a privileged encounter with an exotic and unique civilisational phenomenon.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sections narrating his meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. His reverence and indeed even adulation for Mao whom he calls the “philosopher king” and his sophisticated and urbane grand vizier leap at you from the pages. Had we not had the benefit of more recent narratives which tell a more sordid story of the personal and political failings of these revolutionary leaders,Kissinger’s reverential characterisations may have been quite persuasive.

Chinese leaders,past and present,have excelled at theatre,and Kissinger played his part of the humble supplicant,grateful to be admitted into the presence of the carefully cultivated and larger-than-life persona.

I was in Beijing during the days when an audience with Mao and later even with Zhou had become the touchstone of a visiting dignitary’s success. These were granted without notice,after great suspense had been built up,sometimes at odd hours of the night,so that the meeting could not but be touched with an aura of almost magical intensity. Things are different today but the addiction to political theatre is rarely missing from China’s diplomatic repertoire. That an otherwise unromantic realist like Kissinger should fall prey to it testifies to its potency.


Kissinger believes that Chinese strategies and tactics often derive from ancient precepts and historical classics. The Chinese game weiqi is played with counters over squares on a board,where the objective is to surround and defeat an adversary. This is unlike chess,said to be derived from the ancient Indian board game of chaturanga,where the assets of the adversary are knocked off the board,in a series of calculated moves,until the king is checkmated. What is intriguing is that Kissinger,in his Prologue,has projected China’s defeat of Indian forces in the 1962 war,as a classic application of the weiqi principles by Mao. But the “knock out blow” which Mao is reported to have ordered to bring India back to the negotiating table,appears to derive more from chess than weiqi. India did not go back to the negotiating table until after several years,so Mao’s objective was not achieved.

Kissinger is more insightful in his analysis of India-China relations in Chapter 7,where he looks at the “Himalayan Border Dispute and the 1962 Sino-Indian War”. This section requires careful reading. What emerges is that the decision to escalate what were essentially border skirmishes,to the delivery of the “knockout blow”,was related less to to the competitive assertion of territorial claims and more to Chinese perception of threat to its hold over Tibet. Kissinger says,“But when the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 and was granted asylum in India,China began to treat the issue of demarcation lines increasingly in strategic terms.” This points to an acknowledgment that resolving the Tibetan issue between India and China may be essential to a settlement of the border issue.

There was also China’s reading of the international situation as providing an opportunity for its action. According to Kissinger,the Chinese made the move only after obtaining assurances at the Sino-US talks at Warsaw that the US had no intention of using the China-India border tensions as an excuse “to unleash Taiwan against the mainland”. Kissinger quotes from the memoirs of Chinese ambassador Wang Bingnan that the US assurance played “a very big role” in Beijing’s decision to proceed with operations in the Himalayas. The other important consideration was the assurance received from Soviet leader Khrushchev that in case of war,the Soviet Union would back China under the terms of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of 1950. As Kissinger explains,this must have been related to Khrushchev’s need for Chinese support over what would soon erupt as the Cuban missile crisis. Once that crisis was over,the Soviets reverted to a position critical of China concerning the dispute.


The lesson to be drawn is that in assessing Chinese behaviour,it is imperative that we constantly and carefully analyse the regional and international environment,beyond what happens at the border itself. The more sources of support India is able to build up through a diversified set of relationships,the greater the restraint on Chinese aggressive behaviour.

In this context,it may be worthwhile to look at the events surrounding the India-Pakistan war of 1971 which led to the birth of Bangladesh. In this case it was India which checkmated Chinese and US intervention with the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971. Kissinger had a rather unsavoury role to play in the run-up to the war in the then Eastern Pakistan. In a meeting with Huang Hua,the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations,on December 10,1971,Kissinger urged,in almost explicit language,that China carry out military operations against India in order to relieve the pressure on Pakistani forces. He said that if “East Pakistan is to be preserved from destruction,two things are needed — maximum intimidation of the Indians and,to some extent,the Soviets.” In pursuit of this,he conveyed president Nixon’s message that “if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security,and it took measures to protect its security,the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic”.

When Huang Hua ignored this thinly veiled call to arms against India,Kissinger went on to make his point even more explicit: “When I asked for this meeting,I did so to suggest Chinese military help,to be quite honest. That’s what I had in mind…” (see Memorandum of Conversation,No. 274,National Archives,Nixon Presidential Materials).

Interestingly,China continued to ignore the suggestion which points to a more prudent application of the weiqi principle.

In the Epilogue,Kissinger dons the hat of a statesman to argue that the US and China must break from historical parallels and construct a cooperative relationship rather than be locked in an adversarial contest. He acknowledges that in China there are influential voices recommending a robust and assertive posture with the aim of displacing the US as the No. 1 power. A contest with the US is seen as unavoidable and history would seem to point in that direction. Be that as it may,Kissinger argues that the inevitability of such an outcome should be replaced by an alternative vision of merging the efforts of the two powers,“not to shake the world,but to build it”.

One cannot quarrel with that.

First published on: 28-05-2011 at 01:26:24 am
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