Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:42 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:42 | SYDNEY

On Kissinger and China


Raoul Heinrichs

16 April 2008 12:07

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter and one of the deans of US foreign policy, recently turned 80. To celebrate, CSIS threw him an honorary colloquium here in Washington on the history and directions of US grand strategy. The event attracted some of the most eminent and influential names in the business, including Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and of course Brzezinski himself.

Kissinger, who as Secretary of State in the Nixon Administration, presided over what is regarded as one of the more brilliant geostrategic power plays of the century — the normalisation of relations with China — took part in a roundtable on ‘Great Power Strategic Alignments of the 20th Century’. Speaking about the future of Sino-US relations, he presented a sophisticated set of arguments about the need for the US to cultivate and maintain a long-term, cooperative relationship with China, so as to avoid the conditions under which Chinese nationalism could become an overriding force in China’s foreign and security policies. Here’s what he had to say:

I think in the present period it is really important for us to remember... that a policy of confrontation with China will land us in a confrontation with major parts of Asia in a total change of the environment. At no stage in any Administration do we know that China would be forever benign. The task we ought to set ourselves is that we do not give incentives to substitute nationalism for communism as a unifying element, and to maintain a world in which a cooperative relationship between these two societies [the US and China] is an essential part.

It is hard to argue with Kissinger’s reasoning that the unchecked expression of nationalism in Chinese foreign policy may give rise to undesirable and destabilising outcomes. But at the same time, his statements reveal an inherent tension, perhaps even a historical paradox, in Washington’s China policy.

Kissinger’s policy of constructive engagement toward China, which sought to integrate Beijing into, rather than isolate it from the international system, strengthened the hand of pragmatists in the Chinese Communist Party, and created the economic, diplomatic, and political space in which China’s economic transformation could occur. The gradual opening of China’s economy to international trade and foreign investment was fundamental to this process, and is in large part responsible for the staggering growth rates that China has delivered for almost three decades. At the same time, America’s benign hegemonic presence in Asia continues to play a stabilising strategic role, allowing Chinese leaders to retain a tight focus on national economic development.

As a consequence of all this economic growth and reform, the people’s expectations of the state have increased sharply, while the relevance to Chinese society of Communism has been steadily eroded, and substituted by nationalism as a basis for Chinese Communist Party legitimacy.

Ironically, then, the fervent nationalism which Kissinger argues must not be allowed to pervade Chinese foreign policy, and which must be tempered by a cooperative US posture, may have its origin in a strategy designed, implemented, and supported by Kissinger himself.