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Review: ‘On China’ by Henry Kissinger

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By Henry

Penguin, 608 pages, $36

Updated: August 13, 2011 2:15AM

As China and the United States enter the 21st century jockeying for position and preeminence on the global stage, Americans would be well-served to better understand the motivations of our superpower and economic rival across the Pacific Ocean.

In On China , statesman Henry Kissinger draws on historical records and 40 years of direct interaction with four generations of Chinese leaders to analyze the link between China’s ancient past and its present day trajectory. In doing so, the man who helped shape modern East-West relations presents an often unsettling, occasionally hopeful and always compelling accounting of what we’re up against.In the West, we sometimes characterize a good old-fashioned drubbing by explaining that the smart guy in the room was playing chess, while the other guy was playing checkers. But, as Kissinger offers, what if the other guy in the room is playing China’s most enduring and far more complex game,

wei qi ?

While chess is about controlling the center of the board, single-mindedness and total victory through head-on clashes, wei qi (pronounced way-chee) is about strategic flexibility and encirclement, victory through psychological advantage, mitigating the strategic potential of its opponent’s pieces and avoidance of direct conflict. As Kissinger explains it, wei qi is emblematic of a national mindset the Chinese have used to their strategic advantage for thousands of years.

If it conjures recollections for Americans of strategies used in Vietnam and Korea, it should. Kissinger reminds that Sun Tzu’s famed treatise, The Art of War , is the military equivalent of wei qi, and remains central today to China’s worldview.

Kissinger, 87, explains that Chinese statesmanship “exhibits a tendency to view the strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future all interrelated. ... Strategy and statecraft become means of ‘combative co-existence’ with opponents. The goal is to maneuver them into weakness while building up one’s own shi, or strategic position.”

According to Kissinger, President Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China likewise demonstrated in modern times another stratagem rooted in classical Chinese culture; that of “pitting ‘barbarians’ against each other, and enlisting faraway enemies against those nearby.” At the time, Soviet forces were threatening China’s northern border. From the Chinese perspective, the Shanghai Communique that resulted from the Nixon trip resulted in the faraway barbarian (U.S.) announcing its opposition to the regional expansionist designs of the nearby barbarian (U.S.S.R.). Hostilities soon ceased.

In fascinating detail, Kissinger also attaches historical context to pivotal political and military events and draws on personal experience to place the reader at the table with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. And he reminds that centuries before there was American exceptionalism, there was Chinese exceptionalism — a “friendly, if condescending aloofness” — a fact China does not let the world forget.

Going forward, says Kissinger, “the question ultimately comes down to what the United States and China can realistically ask of each other.”

The appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship is “less partnership than ‘co-evolution,’” says Kissinger. “It means that both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict.

“The United States and China owe it to their people and to global well-being to make the attempt,” Kissinger concludes. “Each is too big to be dominated by the other. Therefore neither is capable of defining terms for victory in a Cold War type of conflict. They need to ask themselves the question.... ‘Where will a conflict take us?’”

Our own leaders might want to also ask the question: How does a country playing chess compete with a country playing wei qi.

Alan P. Henry is a local free-lance writer.

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