Begin by remembering who the author of this book, "On China," is. Henry Kissinger, most familiar to Americans as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, is, even if we ignore Christopher Hitchens' allegation that he is a "war criminal," nonetheless a profoundly problematic character, especially on the subject of China.
For one thing, he is chairman of Kissinger Associates, an international political consulting firm based in New York City and counting among its clients some of the biggest American companies doing business in China. So the man clearly has a financial incentive to relate a version of Chinese affairs conducive to the interests of these companies – the very ones that have been offshoring American jobs and worsening America's trade balance through their imports.
Anyone naïve enough to imagine that all this doesn't make any difference probably shouldn't be reading books about politics in the first place.
Furthermore, Kissinger is demonstrably a man of appallingly callous moral judgment, most notoriously exemplified by his (since apologized for) statement that "if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern." (He is himself not only Jewish but a refugee from Hitler; if you figure this one out, please explain it to me.)
This callousness shows clearly in his new book on China – which is, after all, the nation with the largest number of exterminated citizens in the 20th century. Although obviously well-aware of the 30 million or so victims of the Chinese Communist Party, he confines his outrage to the laconic remark that for some people, "the tremendous suffering Mao inflicted on his people will dwarf his achievements."
After all, Mao united a nation previously riven by warlords and revolutionaries, and made China a superpower. Too bad about the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Bad things happen.
Kissinger is similarly ambivalent about the Tiananmen massacre. One must understand the situation autocrats are put in by these things...
It is clearly the superpower game that most holds Kissinger's attention. Readers familiar with his previous books, especially the excellent 1994 "Diplomacy," will already be aware that the sheer game of power, on the grandest possible scale, is what he likes and does best. (The further into the past his subject matter, the more trustworthy he is; "Diplomacy" begins in 1648.)
This certainly makes for interesting reading for those who wish to know how the game is played, as this is no armchair or ivory-tower historian talking. This is a man who was there – especially in the case of China, with which America reestablished diplomatic relations during his tenure in office.
Unfortunately … How do we know, even if Kissinger is supremely qualified to tell us the truth of Sino-American relations over the last 40 years, that he is actually doing so, rather than some brilliantly packaged distortion that serves whatever interests he happens to entertain at the moment?
We don't; that is always the catch-22 of taking the word of practitioners.
The insider tales he tells of how China's relations with the U.S. evolved under her various different leaders are certainly interesting. A large portion of them are probably even accurate. But the overall picture one comes away with is that something is missing.
That something, basically, is economics. For the blunt fact is that if not for China's extraordinary economic performance in the last 30 years, and the extraordinarily aggressive policies by means of which that performance has been achieved, Americans would still think of China mainly as the origin of the world's finest ceramics, a superb cuisine, and little else. After all, the whole Red Menace thing, which was genuinely important during the decade or so during which communism seemed to have even odds of taking over the world, is now passé.
Readers seeking an understanding of China's economy and its future effects of the U.S. will find little in this book. Far better to read Richard Navarro's "Death by China" for a vivid survey of the problem or Eamonn Fingleton's "In the Jaws of the Dragon" for serious analytical depth. Even Martin Jacques's "When China Rules the World" and James Kynge's "China Shakes the World" would be better.
Kissinger does not pretend to be an economist, so to some extent, this is to be expected. But it is also very convenient for him, as the act of airbrushing out of the picture the titanic economic conflict between the China and the U.S. (and increasingly Africa, Latin America, and others) enables this book to adopt a fundamentally "don't worry, be happy" attitude – albeit one dressed up in the impressively serious tones of high geopolitics.
Nonetheless, that is his basic message in this book: the U.S. and China should be friends, should superintend a benign and stable world order, cannot afford to be driven into conflict by their differences, etc. etc.
It certainly sounds like a pacific and responsible message. It endorses precisely the status quo that the moneymen who fund Kissinger's jet-set socialite lifestyle crave. But under circumstances in which China is successfully waging a relentless war of economic attrition against the United States, it is a counsel of folly.
What America needs most right now, in relation to China, is a strategy for defending itself in the economic war between them. Given that China has advanced its economic aggressions without triggering "a new Cold War," there is no reason to suppose that a serious American defense would do so either, if handled with minimal good sense.
This, not reflections on the influence of the Sun Tzu on Chou En-lai, is the strategic problem to which one wishes a superb strategic mind like Kissinger's would give its attention.