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Key player looks at China

Henry Kissinger explains how U.S. and Chinese strategic thinking differs.

By Henry Kissinger

Penguin Press. 586 pp. $36

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Reviewed by Minxin Pei

No living American has played a more important role than Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state, in bringing about the historic rapprochement between the United States and China.

Without the daring diplomatic gamble by Richard M. Nixon and Kissinger that helped end China's isolation, it is hard to imagine that China could have achieved its stunning economic transformation in the last three decades.

Apparently not content with his contribution as a policymaker in forging one of America's most important bilateral relationships, Kissinger has set his sights on an intellectually ambitious target in his new book On China: helping Westerners, particularly Americans, understand China's strategic thinking.

He does so from two interconnected perspectives: as a "friend of China" with unrivaled access to successive top Chinese leaders (Kissinger has made more than 50 trips to China since July 1971) and as a student of history. This enables him not only to recount the key episodes in China's interaction with the West since the Opium War in 1840, but also to draw deep insights into China's traumatic encounter with much stronger Western powers.

The conventional wisdom about China's troubled relationship with the outside world - a version of history commonly taught in China today - is that, as the Middle Kingdom that faced no real threat to its preeminence for two millennia, China became a helpless prey when industrialized Western powers blasted open its doors with superior firepower in the mid-19th century.

Not so, Kissinger argues. What impressed him about China is that, despite its undeniable weakness, its rulers managed to keep the Chinese empire more or less intact through a century and a half of wars and political turmoil.

The secret of China's statecraft, Kissinger observes, is its strategic acumen, pragmatism, and patience. To elaborate this point, Kissinger offers an analogy: The logic of Western diplomatic statecraft is similar to that of chess, a game about total victory achieved through a decisive battle. In achieving their strategic goals, Western powers focus on acquiring overwhelming material superiority. In contrast, Chinese strategic thinking resembles wei qi, a complex board game in which the player who slowly builds up positional strength and encircles his opponent's pieces ultimately wins.

In managing China's encounters with the West, as in playing wei qi, Chinese leaders since the late Qing dynasty have been obsessed with avoiding strategic encirclement by hostile powers. Kissinger, an adroit practitioner of realpolitik, gives the Chinese high marks in this regard.

The strategy China has adopted to preserve its security consists of three essential elements. First, the Chinese skillfully use barbarians against barbarians. In the late 19th century, the Qing dynasty played Russia off against Japan. During World War II, Chiang Kai-shek's government allied with the United States to fight Japan. In the early 1970s, Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai reached out to the United States to forge an anti-Soviet strategic alliance.

Second, in case the use of force is necessary to prevent strategic encirclement, Chinese leaders would practice what Kissinger calls "offensive deterrence" and initiate conflict even from a position of significant relative weakness. Thus, Mao decided to enter the Korean War against a nuclear-armed United States in 1950 even though the Chinese People's Liberation Army was poorly armed and the new People's Republic was barely a year old. The same strategic logic drove Beijing's decisions to fight border wars with India, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s.

The third element of China's strategic culture is its emphasis on gaining psychological advantage rather than outright victory. In Kissinger's view, Mao's apparently reckless behavior in confronting both superpowers in the 1960s was actually not reckless at all. Mao's motivation, Kissinger observes, was not to defeat his enemy decisively at the first encounter (practically impossible given China's military weakness), but to "change the psychological balance . . . and alter his calculus of risks."

If this theory explains China's behavior in the past, when the country was weak, does it have any predictive value for the future, when China is much stronger?

Kissinger does not address this issue directly. Intriguingly, toward the end of the book he refers to a memo written in 1907 by Eyre Crowe, a senior diplomat in the British Foreign Office who saw Germany's rise as a direct threat to Great Britain regardless of Germany's intentions or policies. Kissinger firmly believes that history does not need to repeat itself, and that a strategic conflict between the United States and China, the world's sole superpower and its most likely contender, is not inevitable.

However, Kissinger offers no convincing answer to how a dangerous U.S.-China rivalry can be averted. He notes, correctly, that China will be preoccupied for an extended period with daunting domestic challenges (particularly an aging population) and that the competition between the United States and China is more likely to be economic than military. Yet he does not see how the two countries can build strategic trust.

The answer actually hides in plain sight. In his fascinating account of how successive Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, were befuddled by America's interest in human rights and democracy in China, Kissinger should have a clue. As long as the United States and China are governed by two fundamentally different political regimes, it is impossible to establish strategic trust. That makes cooperation difficult and rivalry more likely. Kissinger the consummate realist is loath to admit this. But Kissinger the astute observer of American politics must have known the answer.