I just finished reading Henry Kissinger’s book On China, a five-hundred-page volume of detailed historical accounts of China’s relationship with the West. It was an excellent read. Few statesmen and policy makers in our time understand China as well as Dr. Kissinger.
Kissinger begins by introducing the Chinese way of thinking. He couldn’t have used a better analogy than by describing a go (wei-qi) player, in comparison to a chess player:
The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage…. Where the skillful chess player aims to eliminate his opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes, a talented wei qi player moves into “empty” spaces on the board, gradually mitigating the strategic potential of his opponent’s pieces. Chess produces single-mindedness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility.
Many misunderstandings and miscommunications between China and the West are indeed caused by different ways of thinking. In my book The Chinese Dream, I attempted to explain the differences. But Kissinger has done a masterful job in getting inside the mind of a wei qi player, and illuminating for the reader many issues between the U.S. and China from a foreign policy perspective.
Both American and Chinese feel their countries are exceptional in their own right. American exceptionalism is based on the founding principles of the nation, and Americans feel they have a mission to spread the values of human rights and democracy all over the world. Chinese exceptionalism is more about their superior civilization that has lasted thousands of years, and Chinese feel a sense of pride that nations of their immediate proximity have benefited from their culture.
Kissinger pointed out that both countries have few precedents in their national experience of relating to each other. During the Cold War, the United States and China came together out of their strategic concerns of a threat from the Soviet Union. After the demise of the Soviet Union, however, that common bond has disappeared.
Now, to the United States, China is a country of comparable size with extraordinary economic achievements and drastically different culture and political system. To China, the United States is a hegemony with a permanent presence in Asia, and a “vision of universal ideals not geared toward Chinese conceptions.” If history is any indication, these two countries are bound to clash with each other, as they already are to a certain degree.
In the last chapter, “Does History Repeat Itself?”, Kissinger offered a concept of “Pacific Community.” He expressed the hope that the United States and China could generate a sense of common purpose and that the two countries could have “coevolution” despite their differences. “One goal of coevolution,” he wrote, “would be to ensure that the United States and China pool efforts, with each other and with other states, to bring about an agreed world order.”
Kissinger stressed that this goal cannot be achieved if either side tries to defeat or undermine the other. As he wrote, “an effort at coevolution requires both the United States and China commit themselves to genuine cooperation and find a way to communicate and relate their visions to each other and to the world.”
Ironically, Kissinger cited the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an example of coevolution. As I wrote here, the TPP was negotiated without the participation of China. Washington wanted to reach consensus on trading rules quickly so if China joins the TPP later, it will have to abide by the rules that the U.S. sets. This preemptive strategy may be aimed at forcing China to move toward market-oriented reforms and openness. But since it was not involved in the initial negotiation, China feels excluded and treated unfairly.
As Kissinger pointed out, the current world order was built largely without the participation of China. Therefore, China feels less bound by the rules, and China may believe that some of the rules do not apply to today’s reality, in which China is already the second largest economy in the world, and the largest trading partner for most countries.
Kissinger ends his book by saying:
This book does not predict that the United States and China will necessarily transcend the ordinary operation of great-power rivalry or of ideological disagreement. It argues that the two countries owe it to themselves and the world to attempt to do so. The practice of coevolution will take wisdom and patience. After some time, it may grow into an integral part of each country’s conduct.
I am interested in learning more about Kissinger’s idea of “Pacific Community” and coevolution of East and West. I look forward to reading his next book World Order!