Kissinger's China

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

India must never allow itself to be used by the United States as a counter to or a check on China. It is impractical and hazardous.

THIS book should be read by every Indian student of China's foreign policy, especially by those who fawn on Henry Kissinger every time he comes to India to dish out his stale leftovers. Caught red-handed, as it were, in a contest with Richard Nixon on who could abuse Indira Gandhi more, an Indian channel readily gave him prime time on which to voice his regard for her memory, but without explaining why he had spoken as he did in the first instance. It is silly to ask him on every single trip that he makes to India why he sent the USS Enterprise to intimidate India during the Bangladesh war. Not surprisingly, not once did any journalist, in the print or electronic media, or, for that matter any of our China experts, ever confront him with incontrovertible evidence on his attempt to instigate China to attack India during that war.

That was on Friday, December 10, 1971, at a safe house in New York, where he met China's Permanent Representative to India, Huang Hua, and his colleagues, including George H.W. Bush. The meeting was held from 6.05 p.m. to 7.55 p.m. After repeated hints fell on the astute Huang's calculatedly deaf ears, Kissinger shed all ambiguity and said, When I asked for this meeting, I did so to suggest Chinese military help, to be quite honest. If it intervened, the United States would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People's Republic, meaning that it would help China stave off any attack by the Soviet Union in retaliation for its attack on India (William Burr (Ed.); The Kissinger Transcripts; The New Press; pages 52-55).

On July 7, 1971, he told Vikram A. Sarabhai, Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, when they met in New Delhi, that under any conceivable circumstances the U.S. would back India against any Chinese pressures (ibid, page 79). He might have been asked in J.P. Kemble's words, Perhaps it was right to dissemble your love/But Why did you kick me downstairs?

Kissinger's infatuation with China is of relatively recent origin. In the first phase of his career he won fame as a brilliant writer on strategic affairs, Europe's history and modern diplomacy, and on the U.S.' foreign policies, with emphasis on the Soviet Union. His ignorance of Asia was as well known as it was abysmal. He consistently took a hard line on the Soviet Union even after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power.

The famous path-breaking secret trip to China in July 1971 was designed to counter the Soviet Union. Thereafter, each power was played off against the other. Out of office and with all hopes of return gone, he set up Kissinger Associates, of which he is chairman. It is described vaguely as an international consulting firm. We owe to the highly regarded journalist Walter Isaacson a thorough and scrupulously fair exposure of this firm in his superbly researched biography Kissinger (Simon & Schuster, 1992; pages 730-752).

Here are a few extracts: The secretive world of Kissinger Associates involved a lucrative blend of strategic advice, foreign affairs insight, good connections, some door-opening, and the cachet that came from one of the world's most marketable names. The consulting firm, which was founded soon after Kissinger left office, became an active business in July 1982, when he realised that he did not feel like writing a third volume of memoirs and that Ronald Reagan was never going to make him Secretary of State. With no legal training and little financial acumen, he could not follow the usual revolving-door practice of returning to a law firm or bank. So he set himself up as a statesman for hire, one who would, for a hefty fee, purvey foreign policy expertise to private corporations, undertake diplomatic assignments for them, and serve as a personal national security adviser to their chairman.

In the sleazy realm of Washington lobbying and influence-peddling, Kissinger's behaviour was relatively benign. Unlike the scores of top officials who leave government and immediately set up shop as lawyers or lobbyists in order to sell their connections to major corporations, Kissinger decided that he would never lobby the U.S. government on behalf of any client. In addition, he waited five years, more than a full presidential term, before actively pursuing business. Although he occasionally travelled with his clients and helped them get in to see world leaders whom he knew, he was not primarily a door-opener living off his connections. Instead, the product that he sold was mainly his own insight and analysis of foreign affairs. Nevertheless, his phenomenal success provided an interesting glimpse into the world of influence, where prestige and access come with a big price tag.

By the early 1990s, Kissinger Associates had more than two dozen corporations as clients, about three-quarters of them American. The list was a closely guarded secret, and the contract with Kissinger Associates barred either side from revealing the relationship. Yet from proxy statements, other financial forms, government disclosure requirements, interviews, and the tendency of businessmen to talk about their relationship with Kissinger, it is possible to come up with a list of the major clients that had contracts or project arrangements with his firm in the early 1990s. The list he provides is a list of some of the biggest companies in the world.

The firm was not listed in the telephone book. Nor was its name on the directory of the steel-and-glass Park Avenue office tower that housed its headquarters.

In fact, part of what Kissinger Associates had to sell was the famous name and rumbling accent. An executive who had to make a tough foreign investment decision could feel safer if, when presenting the plan to his board, he could talk about the breakfast he had with Kissinger on the subject and invoke his insights. He liked to cast himself as the middleman trusted by both sides rather than as an agent serving only the interest of his client. Kissinger recoiled at the notion that he sometimes served as a glorified fixer, but at least one-quarter of his project work was cutting through bureaucratic problems that clients faced in foreign countries. This often involved making a few well-placed phone calls to friends in top government positions. Similarly, Kissinger used to deny rather heatedly that he served as a door-opener.

But as time went on, Kissinger became less fastidious about refusing to do any door-opening partly because it is a natural business instinct to help provide introductions and to call on well-placed friends for help, and partly because the impropriety of doing so receded the longer he remained out of office. Increasingly during the speculative boom years of the 1980s, Kissinger sought to branch into the field of putting together deals, such as the joint venture he tried to assemble in Burma involving Daewoo and Freeport-McMoRan.

Kissinger did not try to give specific advice about the price of gold or the next OPEC [Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] pricing decision; his talk was more thematic, at times even abstract. Still, the board members and managers hung on his words as if they were received wisdom. Kissinger spoke of the coming upheavals in the Moslem world, the potential for isolating the Arab radicals and for forming a pro-West consensus in the Middle East [West Asia].

No one came away from the session with a specific nugget of practical advice; in fact, most had trouble recalling anything concrete that Kissinger said. But even months later, many of them were still talking about how brilliant' Kissinger's disquisition was.

Nothing that Kissinger did as a consultant was illegal, nor did he even skirt the edge of the law. In fact, his activities were generally more pristine than what was common practice in Washington. But like his foreign policy, Kissinger's world after he left office was filled with linkages. His attempt to juggle the roles of media commentator, business consultant, and unofficial government adviser provides an interesting case study of the standards of public, business, and journalistic conflicts of interest.

A clearer set of potentially conflicting interests arose out of Kissinger's work as a columnist and commentator. One of the basic rules of American journalism is that reporters and pundits should not have a financial stake in the issues they cover, especially if it is a secret. Kissinger, however, occasionally advocated positions, in his newspaper column and on television, that could benefit the interest of his clients. Some perspective is warranted. People in journalism are more likely to recoil at this breach of the trade's ethics than would an average citizen. But Kissinger's readers would have been better served if, at the very least, he had disclosed any financial links his clients had in the issues he discussed.

Every now and then, however, Kissinger tackled a topic in which his clients had a direct financial stake. In defending this practice, he argued that it was absurd' to think that he would tailor his opinions to suit his clients' financial interests, and there is no evidence that he ever did. Yet it is reasonable to believe that his thoughts on some of these complex issues were influenced by listening to the strong opinions of people who were paying him quite well.

Intertwined interests

An even clearer and more controversial case of intertwined interests involved China. On the day after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989, ABC News sent a Minicam to Kent to interview its paid consultant live on the evening news. What should America do, Dr. Kissinger?' asked Peter Jennings. Emphasising the importance of maintaining good relations with China, Kissinger advised, I wouldn't do any sanctions.' Throughout the summer, he continued to advocate these positions during appearances on ABC, with which he had a $100,000-per-year contract. In his subsequent newspaper columns, Kissinger likewise argued strongly against economic sanctions against China. Although he wrote that he was shocked by the brutality', he argued that this was an internal matter.

At the time, although the viewers of ABC or the readers of the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post syndicate did not know it, Kissinger's business involvement with the Deng regime in China was extensive. He had helped Atlantic Richfield negotiate a deal to market oil it had discovered in China. He had worked with ITT, which wanted to hold a board meeting in Beijing, and found an agency in China to act as the host. He provided advice and introductions for H.J. Heinz executives who were trying to set up a baby-food facility there. He was then negotiating with the Chinese government on behalf of Freeport-McMoRan, which was trying (unsuccessfully) to work out an arrangement for developing major coal and copper mines there. American International Group, whose international advisory board he chaired, was seeking licences in Shanghai, where it was also building an office tower. In addition, Kissinger's relationship with the Deng regime was such that he could bring clients and guests to China and be met by the top leadership, a highly marketable asset.

Kissinger's most ambitious scheme for dealing with China was a limited investment partnership he established called China Ventures. Officially launched in December 1988, six months before the Tiananmen crackdown, its purpose was to allow a group of top American corporations to invest in new enterprises and joint ventures in China. Kissinger was chairman, chief executive, and general partner of China Ventures. For that, he was to receive management fees that could total more than $1 million per year plus 20 per cent of any profits that the partnership made after paying an 8 per cent return on investors' capital.

The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post subsequently printed an editor's note' explaining, in light of his defence of Deng in his columns, that Kissinger had a latent business venture in China. It did not mention that he also had five or six clients for whom he had been handling other projects in China (pages 731-750, emphasis added throughout). Did he acquire any Indian clients on any of the trips to India? Unlikely.

Courtship of China's leaders began in right earnest as Kissinger Associates expanded its reach. By then he had acquired a certain reputation in his own country. Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, who knew Kissinger well from their Harvard days in the early 1960s, characterised him as one devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors. His wit and self-deprecatory humour provided some saving grace. The Chinese were impressed but not overawed. Mao Zedong spoke contemptuously of Kissinger to his personal physician Li Zhisui and to the British Prime Minister Edward Heath: Just a funny little man. He is shuddering all over with nerves every time he comes to see me.

This book reflects the flawed character of its author and his marked desire to please the Chinese and thus promote his own enormous interests and stakes in that country. It also provides some very useful insights into the Chinese style of diplomacy. The sweep of history at times potted is laced with reminders of their contemporary relevance, which are, at places, far-fetched.

What stands out is a strong partiality for China in its dispute with India to the point that not one Indian source is cited. It is shoddy scholarship with glaring factual errors that testify fundamentally to sheer ignorance of a vital phase of China's foreign policy. A formidable group of researchers cannot help a writer who himself knows little. It is not a mere bloomer to write, From the beginning of the People's Republic, China played a world role surpassing its objective strength. This is factually untrue, more so what follows: By [ sic] consequence of its fierce defence of its national patrimony, the People's Republic of China became an influential force in the Non-Aligned Movement the grouping of newly independent countries seeking to position themselves between the superpowers (page 102). The ignorance is crass and unforgivable.

China was never a member of the NAM, it could not possibly have been, and, indeed, did not desire to be. Remember Mao's famous declaration early in the day We lean on one side only and a third way does not exist. In 1949, Mao called Nehru a collaborator of imperialism.

China and India

The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Alliance (1950) ruled out China's membership of the NAM. In his essay On New Democracy, published in 1940 and reprinted in 1954, Mao wrote: They must support either one or the other for there is no third way (Stuart Schram; The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung; 1963; pages 255 and 259). Of the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Kissinger writes: The conference created a novel and paradoxical [ sic] grouping: the alignment of the Non-Aligned. Mao had sought Soviet support as a counterweight to potential American pressure on China in pursuit of American hegemony in Asia. But concurrently he tried to organise the non-aligned into a safety net against Soviet hegemony. Which is why Zhou Enlai was sent to the conference (page 163). It is only too well known that NAM was born in 1961, not in 1955. The Bandung Conference had U.S. allies such as Pakistan and Turkey and non-aligned countries like India. How ignorant can you be?

The book begins with Mao's decision in October 1962 to attack India (page 1), precisely on October 6 (page 190). What follows is palpably untrue: India claimed the frontier demarcated during British rule, China the limits of imperial China. Very slick and very untrue. India foolishly cited the Ladakh-Tibet Treaty of 1842 on the crucial western sector. That was before Kashmir became part of the British empire in 1846. China, to be fair, did not rely on the limits of imperial China. On the contrary, it asserted, very rightly, that in the west the boundary was never defined. What follows is almost a tacit approval of Mao's decision (page 2) to attack India in 1962: His motivating force was less to inflict a decisive military first blow than to change the psychological balance, not so much to defeat the enemy as to alter his calculus of risks.

Read this: China viewed the McMahon Line as a symbol of British plans to loosen China's control over Tibet or perhaps to dominate it. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru claimed a cultural and sentimental interest in Tibet based on historical links between India's classical Buddhist culture and Tibetan Buddhism. But he was prepared to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty in Tibet so long as substantial autonomy was maintained. In pursuit of this policy, Nehru declined to support petitions to table the issue of Tibet's political status at the U.N.

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. Zhou offered a deal trading Chinese claims in the eastern part of the line for Indian claims in the west, in other words, acceptance of the McMahon Line as a basis for negotiations in return for recognition of Chinese claims to Aksai Chin.

Almost all postcolonial countries have insisted on the borders within which they achieved independence. To throw them open to negotiations invites unending controversies and domestic pressure. On the principle that he was not elected to bargain away territory that he considered indisputably Indian, Nehru rejected the Chinese proposal by not answering it (pages 186-187). The highlighted portions are factually wrong.

As a matter of record, Nehru responded to Zhou Enlai's letter of January 23, 1959, which raised a dispute before the Dalai Lama fled to India, with his letter of March 22, 1959. Their correspondence culminated in their summit in New Delhi in April 1960. So much for Nehru not answering China's proposal. Incidentally, there is the same tacit approval of China's attack on Vietnam in 1979 as well.

The author's comments on China's traditional strategies are useful. A Han Dynasty Minister described the five baits with which he proposed to manage mounted Xiongnu tribes to China's north-western frontier: To give them elaborate clothes and carriages in order to corrupt their eyes; to give them fine food in order to corrupt their mouth; to give them music and women in order to corrupt their ears; to provide them with lofty buildings, granaries and slaves in order to corrupt their stomach and, as for those who come to surrender, the emperor (should) show them favour by honouring them with an imperial reception party in which the emperor should personally serve them wine and food so as to corrupt their mind. These are what may be called the five baits.

Some of the dilemmas China faced in the 19th century in the face of the colonial powers' onslaught were the same as those that confronted Indians during that period. The representative of a society under siege by vastly more powerful countries and significantly different cultures has two choices. He can attempt to close the cultural gap, adopt the manners of the militarily stronger and thereby reduce the pressures resulting from the temptation to discriminate against the culturally strange. Or he can insist on the validity of his own culture by flaunting its special characteristics and gain respect for the strength of its convictions (page 72).

For nearly four decades a top-ranking mandarin, Li Hongzhang, was China's face to the outside world. He was convinced of China's moral and cultural superiority but was very much alive to its weakness as well. He warned the Emperor in a bluntly worded 1872 policy memorial. To live today and still say reject the barbarians' and drive them out of our territory' is certainly superficial and absurd talk. They are daily producing their weapons to strive with us for supremacy and victory, pitting their superior techniques against our inadequacies. The present situation is one in which, externally, it is necessary for us to be harmonious with the barbarians, and internally, it is necessary for us to reform our institutions. If we remain conservative, without making any change, the nation will be daily reduced and weakened. Now all the foreign countries are having one reform after another, and progressing every day like the ascending of stream. Only China continues to preserve her traditional institutions so cautiously that even though she be ruined and extinguished, the conservatives will not regret it (page 74).

Deterrence Theory

Particularly relevant is Kissinger's description of China's theory of deterrence in contrast to that of the West. China attacks pre-emptively in order to deter. The West prevents war by superior arms. China believes in the offensive deterrence concept designed to deal a psychological blow to the morale of the adversary.

They ascribe no particular significance to the process of negotiation as such; nor do they consider the opening of a particular negotiation a transformational event. They do not think that personal relations can affect their judgments, though they may invoke personal ties to facilitate their own efforts. They have no emotional difficulty with deadlocks; they consider them the inevitable mechanism of diplomacy. They prize gestures of goodwill only if they serve a definable objective or tactic. And they patiently take the long view against impatient interlocutors, making time their ally (page 222).

China's ambition, as Deng Xiaoping put it, is to establish a new international political order, while Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Communist Party, declared in 1991: In today's situation ideological factors are not important in state relations. Around the same time, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen told the author that the international order cannot remain unipolar indefinitely and that China would work towards a multipolar world and thus end American pre-eminence. The book has instructive excerpts from transcripts of Kissinger's talks with China's leaders after he left public office early in January 1977.

Peaceful rise

By far the most interesting parts of the book are the ones which deal with China's peaceful rise. Some Chinese analysts believe that the West will never permit its hegemony to be challenged and China, should, therefore, consolidate its power and assert its claims to world power and even superpower status.

Kissinger records: Two widely read Chinese books symbolise that trend: an essay collection titled China Is Unhappy: The Great Era, the Grand Goal, and Our Internal Anxieties and External Challenges (2009) and China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (2010). Both books are deeply nationalistic. Both start from the assumption that the West is much weaker than previously thought, but that some foreigners have not yet woken up; they have not truly understood that a power shift is taking place in Sino-Western relations.' In this view, it is thus up to China to shake off its self-doubt and passivity, abandon gradualism, and recover its historic sense of mission by means of a grand goal'.

Both books have been criticised in the Chinese press and in anonymous postings on Chinese websites as irresponsible and not reflecting the views of the great majority of Chinese. But both books made it past governmental review and became best-sellers in China, so they presumably reflect the views of at least some portion of China's institutional structure. This is particularly true in the case of China Dream, written by Liu Mingfu, a PLA [People's Liberation Army] senior colonel and professor at China's National Defence University. The books are presented here not because they represent official Chinese government policy indeed, they are contrary to what President Hu [Jintao] has strongly affirmed in his U.N. address and during his January 2011 state visit in Washington but because they crystallise certain impulses to which the Chinese government has felt itself obliged to respond.

A representative essay in China Is Unhappy sets out the basic thesis. The author, Song Xiaojun, starts from the premise that even under the present circumstances, the U.S. and the West remain a dangerous and fundamentally adversarial force: Countless facts have already proven that the West will never abandon its treasured technique of commerce at bayonet-point', which it has refined over the course of several hundred years. Do you think it is possible that if you return the weapons to the storehouse and put the war-horses out to pasture' that this will convince [the West] to simply drop their weapons and trade with you peacefully?

PLA senior colonel Liu Mingfu's 2009 China Dream defines a national grand goal': to become number one in the world,' restoring China to a modern version of its historic glory. This, he writes, will require displacing the United States.

China's rise, Liu prophesies, will usher in a golden age of Asian prosperity in which Chinese products, culture, and values set the standard for the world. The world will be harmonious because China's leadership will be wiser and more temperate than America's, and because China will eschew hegemony and limit its role to acting as primus inter pares of the nations of the world. (In a separate passage Liu comments favourably on the role of traditional Chinese emperors, whom he describes as acting as a kind of benevolent elder brother' to smaller and weaker countries' kings.)

Liu rejects the concept of a peaceful rise', arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Due to the competitive and amoral nature of great power politics, he writes, China's rise and a peaceful world can be safeguarded only if China nurtures a martial spirit' and amasses military force sufficient to deter or, if necessary, defeat its adversaries. Therefore, he posits, China needs a military rise' in addition to its economic rise'. It must be prepared, both militarily and psychologically, to struggle and prevail in a contest for strategic pre-eminence.

The publication of these books coincided with a series of crises and tensions in the South China Sea, with Japan, and over the borders of India, in such close succession and of a sufficiently common character as to prompt speculation whether the episodes were the product of a deliberate policy. Though in each case there is a version of events in which China is the wronged party, the crises themselves constitute a stage in the ongoing Chinese debate about China's regional and world role.

The books discussed here, including the criticisms of China's supposedly passive elites', could not have been published or become a national cause celebre had the elites prohibited publication. Was this one Ministry's way of influencing policy? Does it reflect the attitudes of the generation too young to have lived through the Cultural Revolution as adults? Did the leadership allow the debate to drift as a kind of psychological gambit, so that the world would understand China's internal pressures and begin to take account of them? Or is this just an example of China becoming more pluralistic, allowing a greater multiplicity of voices, and of the reviewers happening to be generally more tolerant of nationalist voices? (pages 504-507). In India, the China experts do not publicise those writings.

Towards the end, Kissinger recalls the brilliant memorandum submitted by Sir Eyre Crowe, who rose to become Permanent Under Secretary in the British Foreign Office, on New Year's Day 1907, a propos Germany's growing power. He ranks as one of the most cerebral and far-sighted diplomats. Crowe wrote: It would not be unjust to say that ambitious designs against one's neighbours are not as a rule openly proclaimed, and that therefore the absence of such proclamation, and even the profession of unlimited and universal political benevolence, are not in themselves conclusive evidence for or against the existence of unpublished intentions. And since the stakes were so high, it was not a matter in which England can safely run any risks. London was obliged to assume the worst, and act on the basis of its assumptions at least so long as Germany was building a large and challenging navy (page 519).

Kissinger's recipe is a Pacific Community comprising the U.S, China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia to ease the fears. His omission of Russia is significant (page 528). This would establish a tradition of consultation and respect. Would he have offered such terms even to Gorbachev's Soviet Union?

Is that sufficient? He himself has, time and again in his writings, stressed the need for a stable order based on legitimacy and balance of power. It is, therefore, odd that he should omit to quote the most famous and relevant passage in the Crowe Memorandum. Is that a mere oversight?

It reads: History shows that the danger threatening the independence of this or that nation has generally arisen, at least in part, out of the momentary predominance of a neighbouring state at once militarily powerful, economically efficient and ambitious to extend its frontiers or spread its influence, the danger being directly proportionate to the degree of its power and efficiency and to the spontaneity or inevitableness' of its ambitions. The only check on the abuse of political predominance derived from such a position has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such groups of forces is technically known as the balance of power, and it has become almost an historical truism to identify England's secular policy with the maintenance of this balance by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single state or group at a given time.

India must never allow itself to be used by the U.S. as a counter to or a check on China. It is impractical, to begin with. Also hazardous the U.S. will cut a deal with China over India's head. It will doom India and China to perpetual conflict. India's present course is right. We pursue a friendly relationship with China without losing sight of our vital interests or China's growing might and clout.

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