The Australian

By Tom Switzer

On China by Henry Kissinger

SOME books derive significance not only from what they say but who says it. Such is the case with a new book by Henry Kissinger.

Along with Richard Nixon, Kissinger, the 88-year-old Nobel laureate, was the architect of the West's opening to communist China 40 years ago. Since then, the man who was the US national security adviser and secretary of state from 1969 to 1977 has visited the nation more than 50 times.

At 530 pages, plus notes, On China conducts its readers on a Kissinger's-eye tour of Chinese history. Not everyone will want the full tour, but it's an important story that helps explain the worldview of what was once known as the Middle Kingdom.

China, he argues, is an ancient civilisation long convinced of its own exceptionalism. Whereas the US version of its exceptionalism goes back to only 1776, the Chinese look back more than two millennia. The Opium wars of the 19th century, however, led to humiliation and isolationism, and the 20th-century treble of war, revolution and massacres reinforced this sense of decline.

But Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, together with renormalised Sino-American relations, awoke the sleeping Dragon and paved the way for today's rising power.

The subject of Kissinger's last chapter is the central issue: will China continue its policy of "peaceful rise", or will it become a more belligerent player on the global scene? Kissinger writes:

When the Chinese view of pre-emption encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious circle can result: acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement.

The task for Beijing and Washington is to focus less on potential conflict and more on the scope for achieving mutual accommodation.

All of this is reasonable. It is one thing to say that tensions between China and the US are inevitable: after all, friction is inevitable between any two powerful states that have regular dealings. But it's another thing to insist that such a relationship is, like the British-German rivalry a century ago, bound to be confrontational.

Kissinger's thesis is highly relevant to the Australian government. The 2009 Defence White Paper indicates that Australia's $100 billion military build-up during the next two decades is designed to help counter rising Chinese power in the wake of declining American pre-eminence in the region.

But China, according to Kissinger, is so focused on maintaining high growth rates while managing one of the world's most rapidly ageing populations that it is unlikely to "throw itself easily, much less automatically, into a strategic confrontation or a quest for world domination".

Indeed, this is especially the case when one is talking about a nation that has suffered invasion, civil war, mass famine, political purges and chaotic upheaval since the 1930s. But a US-led coalition to contain China could backfire, provoking the threat it would hope to deter.

On human rights, Kissinger argues: "Experience has shown that to seek to impose [human rights] by confrontation is likely to be self-defeating . . . especially in a country with such a historical vision of itself as China."

It is a fair point, one that administrations from Nixon to Barack Obama (not to mention Australian governments from Gough Whitlam to Julia Gillard) have accepted as the basis of Washington's (and Canberra's) dealings with Beijing.

But human rights haunt Kissinger, especially in the US where the rejection of Realpolitik is deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

It was recently revealed that he had told Nixon in 1973: "And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."

And in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, he argued: "No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators."

Add to this a perceived conflict of interest between Kissinger's extensive business dealings with Beijing and his consistently unabashed support for a policy of engagement, and it is clear his limited treatment of human rights in On China will do little to allay concerns that he is insensitive.

Still, this book has every appearance of being Kissinger's last will and testament on the subject to which he has devoted his considerable talents for the past 40 years. It has evidently been written also in the hope that it may appeal to cooler heads in Washington and Beijing at a critical turning point in history.

Given that Australians have a close security alliance with the US, and a developing trade relationship with China, we can only hope Kissinger's thesis is vindicated.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.