Henry Kissinger on China

The former national security advisor shares his views on the Sino-American relationship.

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit in New Delhi, November 16, 2008
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi, November 16, 2008 (WEF/Norbert Schiller)

Former national security advisor and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Henry Kissinger, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Wednesday to promote his book On China (2011) and discuss the future of what is probably the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

One of the dissonances in the Sino-American relationship that fuels tension and mistrust is each country’s very different approach to foreign policy. As Kissinger explained during President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington DC earlier this year, the Chinese don’t understand how American strategies are often generated by individual pressures and pressure groups. “They put them together as if they were part of an overall design.”

The Chinese have a very unemotional view of international relations by contrast. “They tend to connect the dots.” When America is simultaneously selling weapons to Taiwan and urging China to appreciate its currency, hardliners interpret that as an attempt to deceive China — prompting shows of strength in East Asia which, from the American perspective, seem at odds with the country’s self proclaimed “peaceful rise,” thus further eroding trust.

When the Chinese view of preemption encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious circle can result — acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement.

Already, the Chinese feel boxed in from the east where they face a chain of unallied nations, ranging from South Korea to Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to Indonesia to Australia. It seeks to preempt having to face all these nations in league with the United States by simultaneously boosting economic ties and intimidating the smaller states of Southeast Asia — moves which, in the West, are readily interpreted as warning signs of future aggression, compelling strong words and reminders of America’s security commitment to all its Asian partners.

Rather than attempting to “organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade,” the United States would do better, Kissinger suggests in his book, to work with China to build a new “Pacific community” — a permanent framework in which disputes can be peacefully resolved.

Outside of the Pacific, China and the United States find themselves involved in South Asia without a clear sense of direction. Although both want to prevent Afghanistan “from becoming a terrorist base after the American withdrawal,” there is virtually no cooperation among them. “The big challenge,” Kissinger told Morning Joe, “is to see if we can get our policies on Afghanistan not identical but parallel enough.”

China directly borders on both Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a sizable Muslim population of its own with a secessionist movement in its midst. Yet it has so far stayed on the sidelines, ready to take advantage of economic opportunities in Afghanistan but relying exclusively on American security forces to safeguard them. “As long as we are there, we’re doing their job for them,” said Kissinger.

With its strong ties to Pakistan, China could play an important role in resolving the war but India is a frustrating factor. Whereas the Americans see Pakistan as a “necessity” in the fight against extremism and understand that their long-term partner in the region should be India, “China looks at Pakistan as a balancer to India” with which it has its own quarrels.

If the United States leave Afghanistan too soon, Kissinger feared that it might succumb to fanaticism once more and become the battleground in a proxy war between India and Pakistan with the former supporting the democratically-elected government and the latter elements of the Taliban. The bigger threat in South Asia though is the whole region witnessing a nuclear standoff with the world’s two greatest powers — China and America — backing either side of the equation.

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