Compromised: Henry Kissinger’s China Syndrome

On China
Henry Kissinger (New York: Penguin, 2011)

In his sweeping new book, On China, Henry Kissinger seeks “to explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order.” To do so, he surveys China’s history from ancient times to the present, analyzes the country’s troubled relations with foreigners, admires the strategies of its policymakers, and expresses hopes for America’s ties with Beijing.

When Kissinger writes about China’s past, he displays a subtle understanding of the country. When he relays his conversations with the endlessly fascinating Mao Zedong, he dazzles us. When he considers the future, however, he flounders.

Related Essay

Fatal Attraction: China's Strengthening Partnership with North Korea

The alliance between Beijing and Pyongyang has always been dysfunctional, but increasing Chinese clout in North Korea clouds the prospect of successful change in this failed state.

And On China is, in reality, all about future relations with Beijing. The master strategist picks his subject well, because America faces no more important external challenge at either this moment or for the foreseeable future. As Kissinger notes, “The relationship between China and the United States has become a central element in the quest for world peace and global well-being.”

As part of this quest, Kissinger articulates a vision of “a Pacific Community,” which he describes as “a region to which the United States, China, and other states all belong and in whose peaceful development all participate.” The concept, based on the Atlantic Community formed after the Second World War, would both “reflect the reality that the United States is an Asian power” and respond “to China’s aspiration to a global role.”

Nonetheless, in his more sober moments, Kissinger implies there is not much possibility of ever reaching across the world’s largest ocean to form this grand community. Indeed, he even admits that simply creating a “partnership” between Washington and Beijing would be difficult. A more likely development is what he calls “co-evolution,” which means that “both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict.” The most he says about this scaled-down goal is that the two sides should “attempt to elevate familiar crisis discussions into a more comprehensive framework that eliminates the underlying causes of the tensions.”

As his tentative language reveals, Kissinger’s hopes for the future of Sino-American relations are more about what should not happen than what should. And what should not happen?


First, relations between the United States and China should not degenerate into a zero-sum game. In contrast to his few airy sentiments about regional community organizing in the Pacific area, he devotes pages to analyzing what happens when great nations compete without inhibitions. For this, he focuses on the late-nineteenth-century story of the rise of more than three dozen sovereign German states, which formed first the loosely organized German Confederation and then a powerful nation in the heart of Europe, thereby irrevocably changing a once-stable European system.

Kissinger shows that the English saw that conflict with Germany was inevitable, not so much because of Berlin’s avowed intentions but because of its growing strength. The British Foreign Office, therefore, viewed formal German assurances as meaningless. As early as 1907, diplomacy became ineffective, and war almost inevitable. “The crisis of the system was inherent in its structure,” he writes in what are the most thoughtful pages in the book.

Kissinger then takes his penetrating analysis of Europe’s changing dynamics a century ago and applies it to relations between China and the United States now. Although he notes in the epilogue to his book that “even the most precise analogy does not oblige the present generation to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors,” he clearly worries that America and China are following the path that England and Germany took a century ago.

To avoid the hardening of attitudes, Kissinger gets to the second thing that should not happen in Sino-American relations: Washington should not seek to change the nature of the Chinese state. His review of millennia of history is really an argument that China is too big, too proud, and too independent for outsiders to influence. For Kissinger, the issue is not whether we Americans would prefer China to be a functioning democracy—we certainly would—but whether we can actually make it one. Even if we could, he asks what price we are willing to pay to achieve this objective. And there is one more thing: any attempt to change China’s system of governance “is likely to involve vast unintended consequences.”


Kissinger sensibly argues the “best outcome” for us is to combine two approaches to diplomacy. “Realists,” he tells us, should recognize that policies must incorporate American values, and “idealists” should be patient. The fundamental problem with Kissinger is not his abstract formulation of mixing realism with idealism but the fact that realism so dominates the mix. On China presents many opportunities for him to affirm enduring American values, and he declines all of them.

Moreover, Kissinger declines to condemn China’s leaders for their brutality. It is bad enough that he endorses the Communist Party’s general rationale for continued authoritarianism, but it’s even worse that he goes one step further and suggests that the protestors in 1989 provoked the regime to engage in mass slaughter. And on this matter, the most that he says is, “This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has different perceptions depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis.”

Kissinger adopts the same non-judgmental posture—which is a disguised way of siding with the status quo of Chinese authoritarianism—when referring, for instance, to a series of recent crises over China’s borders with India, Japan, and neighbors surrounding the South China Sea: “In each case,” Kissinger writes, “there is a version of events in which China is the wronged party.”

Such statements represent a troubling abdication not only of judgment but of analysis as well. First, Beijing’s attempt to assert sovereignty over areas under the control of others is not some diplomatic sideshow—it is China’s principal national goal at this time. The crises Kissinger lists, therefore, reveal a fundamental trend of Chinese aggressiveness. Second, most of the crises to which he alludes involve matters where China’s territorial claims are either weak—such as those involving the Senkaku islands administered by Japan—or just plain ludicrous—as in Beijing’s claim that the entire South China Sea is a Chinese lake or its inability to renounce sovereignty over Indonesia’s Natuna islands. In all cases, Beijing is attempting to change the status quo, actually employing force in some cases or even entering waters administered by other nations, thereby threatening the peace.

And it is not just other territorial claimants that have experienced Beijing’s new belligerence. In March 2009, Chinese vessels and aircraft harassed two unarmed US Navy surveillance ships in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. None of these incidents warrants mention by Kissinger in the book. And they should: the Chinese actually tried to steal a towed sonar array of the USNS Impeccable, thereby committing an act of war against the United States. China’s increasingly disturbing tactics make it hard to see, even in a Rashomon-like vision of moral relativity, how China might be considered “the wronged party.”

In the only other reference to these series of hostile acts, Kissinger writes, referring to neighboring nations, “China’s relations with almost all of them have deteriorated over the past one to two years—a trend the Chinese leadership is seeking to reverse.” Unfortunately, the weight of evidence points away from Beijing’s trying to improve relations. In fact, relations with its neighbors have soured, although Kissinger fails to say so, because of China’s overt hostility. On China simply refuses to criticize Chinese leaders, even in the face of obviously bellicose conduct.


It is striking, and even a little sad, that such an intellectually powerful figure as Kissinger, who has been unafraid of making judgments and acting on them over the course of a remarkable career, could suddenly lose his voice on the subject of China at one of the most consequential periods in its long history. He apparently believes, based on his long review of history encapsulated in On China, that it would be inadvisable to irritate the country’s sensitive leaders. Yet as he seeks to avoid geopolitical conflict, he is perpetuating the very conditions for it, continuing decades of perverse incentives.

The United States, following Kissinger’s own policy prescriptions established in the 1970s, has often failed to speak out loud about unacceptable Chinese conduct. In fact, Washington has often rewarded Beijing, even during periods of especially unconstructive behavior. So the Chinese, suffering no penalty, have naturally continued their antagonistic policies. Then, all too often, we rewarded them still more, all in the name of pursuing “friendly” ties. As long as we continue this dynamic into the indefinite future, as Kissinger essentially suggests we do, China has less incentive to become a responsible member of the international community.

Our failure to speak out about Beijing’s conduct could have horrific consequences. Writing about nukes at the end of On China, Kissinger says, “The spread of these weapons into hands not restrained by the historical and political considerations of the major states augurs a world of devastation and human loss without precedent even in our age of genocidal killings.”  Yet he doesn’t find space in 530 pages of text to talk about China’s transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, which continues to this day, or its direct assistance to Pakistan’s bomb program, which began in the mid-1970s. There is not one reference to either China’s continuing direct support for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or Pyongyang’s sales of technology to rogues.

Nuclear weapons pose the only existential threat to the United States, but we have, over the span of three decades, applied Kissinger’s notions and subordinated the critical goal of stopping proliferation to that of integrating the Chinese into the international system. What’s the point of trying to include them in the community of nations if they have been trying to destabilize that community by spreading the world’s most dangerous technologies?

Kissingerian notions of cooperation or co-evolution with China sound wonderful in theory, but the point is that Chinese policymakers are not buying into them. At least Kissinger notes in this book that the United States cannot play a generous game without reciprocity. If Beijing sees the United States as an adversary, the United States, he notes, will have to do the same.


What is missing from this book is not so much the correct analytical framework—no one is against good relations as a theoretical matter—but a factual context. How does Washington seek close ties to an arrogant authoritarian state that shares no strategic goal with us and that is, among other things, supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq, launching cyber attacks against the Pentagon, maintaining predatory trade practices in clear violation of its international obligations, permitting its flag officers and senior colonels to talk in public about waging war on the United States, engaging in the largest espionage campaign against America in history, threatening the democracy of Taiwan, backing Pakistan’s campaign of terror against India with diplomatic and material support, and bolstering almost every rogue state on the planet?

Kissinger disparages those who believe “a constructive long-term relationship with nondemocratic states is not sustainable almost by definition,” and he has trouble with the notion that “true and lasting peace presupposes a community of democratic states.” Yet the fact remains that democracies almost never go to war against each other and that the challenges Beijing poses are not merely those of a rising power but are ultimately rooted in its increasingly corrupt and hard-line political system. And as Kissinger, to his credit, states earlier in the book, “Some congruence on values is generally needed to supply an element of restraint.”

History does not provide any examples of sustainable friendships between great-power democracies and large autocratic states. So Kissinger is taking a large leap of faith when he proposes long-term cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Although the book is not called On India or On Japan, the famed statesman still owes it to us to explain why we should not move closer to New Delhi or Tokyo—or both—instead of Beijing.

As Kissinger notes, Chinese strategists see the first two decades of this century as a “strategic opportunity period” for China. That means, unfortunately, we can expect a risk-taking Chinese policy, especially because Beijing’s leaders perceive the United States to be in terminal decline and no longer able to oppose their ambitions. We are, in their view, no longer “a paper tiger.” Instead, they think we’re really “an old cucumber painted green.”

In these circumstances, relations with Beijing are bound to be tense, and it’s time for us to create a new paradigm, not continue the one Kissinger helped design eight American presidents and four Chinese leaders ago, and which he seeks in this book to paint green.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.

OG Image: