LOS ANGELES – It is very tempting to proclaim “On China” as the most important new nonfiction book of 2011. But that it may well be.
Several reasons compel this judgment.
The first is that this extraordinarily clear-headed analytical study has just one central focus: China. It does not wander all over the lot and try to incorporate some tiny study of Montenegro: For China is the home for close to one out of very four citizens of this planet and, of course, China is no longer asleep.
Reason number two is that any authoritative study of China, such as this one, helps us understand the all-important China-U.S. relationship. What are the stakes here? It seems reasonable to believe that if Beijing and Washington construct their policies on parallel tracks that are as accommodative of each other as is consistent with their respective national interests, then the probability of a world war occurring will be greatly reduced.
Those are therefore some stakes.
The third obvious reason why this book merits special ranking is that its author is Henry Kissinger, now 88.
Whatever your politics and whatever you may think of him (the seriously illegal bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, Nixon, the wiretapping of his own aides, etc.) this is a deep thinker who knows China the way (say) Bill Gates knows the logic of software or Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
The former Harvard professor was, after all, the policy pioneer who in the early 1970s made history with his boss, President Richard Nixon, by tearing down the diplomatic wall between America and China. Since then, Kissinger has tracked China’s evolution with patience and perspective and surely understands it at least as well as anyone outside China.
This is why “On China” has, in the book’s initial reception on the mainland, gotten such great press. China Daily, the largest English language newspaper, hailed the book, drawing on a dispatch from its New York office, as the number-one story of the day (May 31). The banner headline across the top read: “Kissinger’s Book a Warning to China, U.S.” The point of the article was that the author’s historical perspective affords an analysis of China’s behavior and intent that absolutely must inform policymaking on both sides of the Pacific. The Kissinger book, wrote China Daily, offers “a clue of how the world’s two largest economies should handle their relations.”
This is not exactly faint praise. And the importance of getting that relationship right (balanced, contextual, stable, mutually regarding) is vital, whatever — again — one thinks of the author. Implicit in the China Daily article is the fear that, in getting the bilateral relationship right, neither side is blameless. Hence the headline’s finger-pointing at China as well as the U.S.
Kissinger’s methodology is not new, but in some ways, in this day and age of fancy-statistics social science, it is unusual: Let the remorseless lessons of the past be the best guide as to what the future might hold.
Only the sweeping and unemotional gaze of history can offer a proper perspective on the events and personalities of our era. This is why this new book could well contribute to world peace and stability if Beijing and Washington permit its central themes to be influential.
What are those themes? Just one example will have to suffice: Consider Chapter 13, about why China decided to go to war against communist “comrade” Vietnam in the late 1970s. This took place, of course, even after the mighty U.S. had unceremoniously withdrawn … defeated, exhausted, demoralized.
The value of the analysis of the interaction between Hanoi and Beijing is its clarity, and its emphasis on the decisive role of national-interest over ideology. After all, here were two alleged communist countries going at each other fiercely. Most observers at the time were shocked. But by analyzing China from the perspective of its traditional tactic of “preemptive deterrence,” and viewing Hanoi from its long-held regionally imperialistic ambitions, the author demonstrates why the behavior of neither country was demonstrably irrational, much less unpredictable.
To put it plainly, the Chinese had concluded that an advancing Vietnam would not stop with the occupation of only Cambodia and, unless deterred, would go on to gobble up Thailand (and then presumably Malaysia and Singapore as well). Yes, Beijing believed in the Domino Theory, too! The end result would be a Southeast Asian mini-empire on China’s doorstep (sort of like a North and South Korea united under Seoul backed by the U.S. military — another potential nightmare scenario for Beijing).
Why is this history so relevant? Well, just follow Kissinger’s analysis further and what you get is a better understanding of the current tension and turmoil in the South China Sea. Why is China behaving as it is (that is, badly)? Why is Hanoi playing so curiously nice-nice with America, even as the scars of the terrible war with the U.S. remain evident today (because it trusts China even less and detests it even more than the U.S.).
Without the benefit of historical perspective, the present remains inscrutable and the future a constant surprise. But not so much if you carefully read your Kissinger. This invaluable book is very highly recommended.
Professor Tom Plate of Loyola Marymount University has been writing syndicated columns about Asia and America since 1996. His recent books on Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad in the series “Giants of Asia” have been best sellers in Asia. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center. Beverly Hills, California.