Book review: Kissinger, On China

Henry Kissinger’s “On China” is part historical and strategic tour de force, part personal memoir, part political legacy. It’s a book you must read.

Starting with a quick survey of China’s long history, Kissinger sets out to investigate the interaction between China and other powers near and far — from the barbarian management strategies practiced by the Middle Kingdom over millennia, through the unequal treaties of the 19th century, to the subsequent century and a half of turmoil, both foreign and domestic.  Kissinger is at his best as a writer and story-teller when he can mix strategy, history, personal memory, and the explication of diplomacy: The diplomacy and negotiation of the 1960s and 70s are at the heart of the book, and worth the read alone — both as an account of Chinese and US strategic challenges and eventual alignment, and as the story of careful negotiation and diplomacy, with all its absurdities and difficulties.

Yet, all that — and the subsequent material about the country’s stabilization under Deng and tense relationships post Tiananmen — is merely a foil before which Kissinger sets out, in the book’s epilogues, the strategic imperatives and challenges that the US (and the West more broadly) face in interacting with a resurging China today:

Both sides run great risks through confrontation; both sides need to concentrate on complex domestic adjustments.  Neither can afford to confine itself to its domestic evolution, important as it is.  Modern economics, technology, and weapons of mass destruction proscribe preemption.  The histories and economies of both countries compel them to interact.  The issue is whether they do so as adversaries or in a framework of potential cooperation. […] history lauds not conflicts of societies but their reconciliations.

Are we facing an inevitable conflict (as Germany and the UK might have before World War I, by some analysis), Kissinger asks, or can we manage to evade conflict, by recognizing what relationships, what histories, and what potential futures are at stake?