Book Review: ‘On China’ by Henry Kissinger

Zhou Enlai, left, and Henry Kissinger in Beijing in 1971.
(Library of Congress / The Penguin Press)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

On China

Henry Kissinger

Penguin Press: 586 pp., $36

Henry Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the Paris peace accords that established a ceasefire in the Vietnam War and let the United States extricate itself from that quagmire. But his most enduring achievement, this massive book suggests, was in laying the groundwork for President Richard M. Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to Beijing, shaping the communiqués that ultimately led to formal diplomatic relations with China and then acting as a go-between for the world’s most powerful nation and its most populous for the next four decades.


Kissinger’s formal government career lasted just eight years, from 1969 to 1977, when he served first as Nixon’s national security advisor and then as secretary of State to Nixon and to his successor, Gerald R. Ford. His informal service to the United States, particularly in U.S.-China relations, has never stopped.

Kissinger reports making 50 trips to China, sometimes to deliver messages from presidents, sometimes to feel out the new chiefs of the Chinese Communist Party, occasionally just to show his family the sights. To four generations of Chinese leaders, he was laopengyou — an old friend — and thus was entrusted with confidences that he dutifully reported to whomever was in power in Washington, whether Republican or Democrat.

“On China,” Kissinger’s 13th book, blends an incisive strategic analysis of the moves and countermoves of China, the United States and the former Soviet Union with telling vignettes about his meetings with Chinese Communist Party leaders.

Lovers of diplomatic history may delight, as Kissinger obviously does, in his review of the misconceptions, mistakes and missed opportunities that plagued China’s relations with the United States before Nixon’s trip. In the mid-1960s, for example, the legendary Mao Tse-tung explicitly told American journalist Edgar Snow that China would never go to war against the United States or intervene in Vietnam, but U.S. officials missed the signal, Kissinger writes. The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to regard China as a bigger threat in Indochina than the Soviet Union.


Ordinary readers, however, may be more drawn to Kissinger’s entertaining and sometimes gossipy accounts of his meetings with China’s most august leaders. He describes, for example, Mao’s “bantering and elliptical style of conversation … Mao advocated his ideas in a Socratic manner. He would begin with a question or an observation and invite comment. He would then follow with another observation. Out of this web of sarcastic remarks, observations and queries would emerge a direction, though rarely a binding commitment.”

Initially, Kissinger acknowledges, he was less drawn to Deng Xiaoping, who was politically rehabilitated after Mao died and guided China’s economic modernization during a crucial decade. Kissinger describes Deng’s “acerbic, no-nonsense style, his occasional sarcastic interjections and his disdain of the philosophical in favor of the eminently practical … Deng rarely wasted time on pleasantries, nor did he feel it necessary to soften his remarks by swaddling them in parables” as Mao did. Eventually, Kissinger says, he developed “enormous regard for this doughty little man with the melancholy eyes.” China today is “a testimonial to Deng’s vision, tenacity and common sense,” he concludes.

Kissinger credits Nixon, his own patron, for showing a “unique grasp of international trends” and for recognizing in 1969 that China might be amenable to overtures from the United States. Practically speaking, it was the threat of a war along China’s border with the Soviet Union that set in motion the diplomacy that led to Nixon’s first trip to Beijing. The Soviets massed 1 million troops there and hinted at possible attacks on Chinese nuclear installations. Nixon, sworn into office just months earlier, “put forward the then-shocking thesis … that the Soviet Union was the more dangerous party and that it would be against American interests” if China were invaded, Kissinger writes. His office then issued a directive that in any Soviet-Chinese conflict, the U.S. would stay neutral but “tilt to the greatest extent possible toward China.”

The Chinese, so shaken by the Soviet buildup that they had prepared for the evacuation of most top leaders from Beijing, got the message. An explicit invitation from second-in-command Zhou Enlai to Kissinger soon followed, and together they laid the groundwork for the February 1972 session between Mao and Nixon.


During those first meetings in Beijing, there was little comment from Mao or his underlings about the United States’ continuing diplomatic relationship with Taiwan — no threats, no demands, no deadlines. That willingness to live with ambiguity over the island that Beijing officially regarded as a breakaway province was enshrined in the Shanghai Communiqué, the document issued as Nixon’s visit ended. The communiqué, unlike most official documents, has served its purposes over the ensuing decades and prevented Taiwan from ever becoming a flashpoint, Kissinger notes. Today, Taiwan is a major trading partner and investor in the mainland.

The U.S.-China relationship obviously has been strained at times, particularly after troops of the People’s Liberation Army brutally broke up student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Deng, who had dispatched the troops to the square, was denounced throughout the world. U.S. politicians demanded economic sanctions and suspension of military sales. President George H.W. Bush did impose limited sanctions. Two emissaries sent by Bush to Beijing three weeks after Tiananmen met a defiant Deng, who said, “We don’t care about the sanctions. We are not scared by them.” The Chinese summoned Kissinger himself months later. Unapologetic, Deng still insisted that if the government had not intervened, the demonstrations would have sparked a civil war. And Deng and other leaders made it clear to Kissinger that they would not tolerate bullying even from the United States on China’s domestic issues.

Kissinger’s view on Tiananmen, as on other points of contention between the United States and China, is that nothing should be allowed to undercut the strategic relationship between the countries. Those ties, he argues, kept the Soviets at bay, contributed to the decline of the Soviet empire and put China on the road to becoming a global economic powerhouse. But the old Kissinger formula has less application now that China and the United States no longer share a common enemy.

Today, frictions revolve around economic issues: The United States argues the yuan, the Chinese currency, is seriously undervalued. China ignores such pleas as well as suggestions that its people should consume more and export less. Members of Congress fret that China has emerged as the largest international holder of U.S. debt. China and its entrepreneurs disdain environmental concerns.


Kissinger offers only a general prescription for such ills: The countries must remain engaged, must keep talking, even if their interests diverge. Both are “too large to be dominated, too special to be transformed and too necessary to each other to be able to afford isolation,” he concludes.

Mathews, a former reporter and editor for The Times, established the newspaper’s bureau in Beijing in 1979.