A new cold war: Henry Kissinger & the rise of china
Edited by Sanjay Barua & Rahul Sharma
February 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Beijing, China, between US President Richard Nixon and China’s Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, which future historians may well mark as an inflection point in global history.
This event signalled a rapprochement between the US and China which had fought several proxy wars in Korea (1950), Vietnam (1965-72) and face-offs in lesser battles in other countries around the world. It was the outcome of top-secret negotiations between communist China’s top leadership and a clandestine visit via Pakistan of Dr. Henry Kissinger, America’s secretary of state and a highly acclaimed foreign affairs scholar-strategist a year earlier.
These first ever meetings had been initiated by the two American leaders to cut down to size the Soviet Union, with whom the US had been engaged in a prolonged ideologically-driven Cold War. Last July (2021), to mark the golden jubilee of Kissinger’s secret visit to China which has dramatically changed the balance of global power, public intellectuals Sanjaya Baru and Rahul Sharma commissioned this excellent compendium of 19 essays, penned by disparate experts in foreign affairs and international diplomacy to expound upon the fallout of that great thaw in US-China relations.
The galaxy of international policy wonks and analysts who have contributed to Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China — A New Cold War include Kishore Mahbubani, Kanti Bajpai, Rana Mitter, Sujan Chinoy, Suhasini Haidar — names perhaps familiar to Indian readers, plus US, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia foreign policy experts. Their impressive credentials are summarised in an index of this compendium.
Without exception, all of them have contributed valuable insights explaining the rapid rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from a backward third world country devastated by famines during Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1965-75) social engineering experiments, into the world’s second largest economic and military power. The rise of modern China began with the Kissinger-Nixon diplomatic initiative 50 years ago. Today PRC is a formidable rival to the US and has transformed the post-World War II global order.
Kissinger’s covert visit to China which is mile-stoned, if not celebrated, in this volume of essays was driven by his many years of study of European balance of power politics. When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he appointed Kissinger, then a Harvard professor to break the Soviet/China communist nexus.
To appreciate the historic significance of the Kissinger/Nixon rapprochement with communist China in the early 1970s, it’s important to bear in mind that after 1949 when the Red Flag was hoisted by Mao Zedong in Peking (Beijing), the US — a staunch ally of pre-communist China, and the Kuomintang government led by Generalissimo Chiang-Kai Shek during World War II — hadn’t acknowledged the communist regime. Until Nixon and Mao shook hands in Beijing in 1972, the US continued to maintain the fiction that Formosa/Taiwan to which Chiang-Kai Shek retreated after being routed by Mao on all battlefields, was the legitimate government of China.
But following Kissinger’s breakthrough visit, the US immediately proposed the ouster of Taiwan from the UN Security Council and its replacement with the PRC government in Beijing. This opened the floodgates of American largesse and bonhomie with PRC. Over the next several decades successive US administrations released high technology and weaponry to PRC, “granted MFN (most favoured nation) status to China, relaxed Cold War rules so that the US and its allies could sell advanced technology to Beijing, provided credits so that the Chinese could import US technology, and approved World Bank loans,” writes Kanti Bajpai. In 2001, the Clinton administration endorsed China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which opened the US while Western markets to China’s exports. Classified as a less developed country, Chinese manufactures were exempted from import duties in Western markets while Chinese industry was protected by high tariff walls.
American expectation was that as communist China prospered and was drawn into the global economy, it would relax its communist ideology and transform into a social democracy and respect human rights. These expectations have been totally belied. In retrospect as all contributors to this compendium observe, the CCP (Communist Party of China) regime in Beijing ingeniously played several naïve presidents and policy formulators in Washington. What they didn’t factor into their patronising indulgence of China was the emergence in 1978 of economic reformer Deng Xiaoping as secretary-general of CPC.
Taking full advantage of Western largesse towards China, he jettisoned the communist licence-permit-quota rules and regulations and unleashed the suppressed entrepreneurial and industrious capabilities of the Chinese people. Consequently, powered by free enterprise, China’s GDP grew by a globally unprecedented 10 percent per year for the next three decades, transforming PRC into an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse which flooded global markets under benign WTO rules applicable to developing countries.
For all his faults, Donald Trump was the first US President to realise that with their brazen intellectual property theft and currency manipulation, 21st century communist China had surreptitiously grown into the world’s second largest ($15 trillion) economy, second only to America and with the CCP firmly in control, had developed formidable military capabilities.
Meanwhile next door in India a converse tragedy of missed opportunities unfolded. India’s liberal economic reforms came in 1991. But they were not sustained and halted by a slew of scandals under the UPA-I and II governments led by the Congress party which remained hostile to private enterprise and enamoured with socialism. The outcome is that while China’s GDP has climbed to $16 trillion, India’s is a mere $3 trillion.
In the 19th century French Emperor Napolean Bonaparte is believed to have remarked: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. Fifty years ago the Kissinger/Nixon duo aroused the Chinese dragon and for the next three decades, gullible American policy wonks encouraged its appetite and growth.
Now under the iron fist of the 100 million strong self-serving CCP, China is shaking the world. And its tremors are especially strong in neighbouring India which in a classic replay of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, wasted economic reform opportunities and has remained under-developed and backward.