Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril Forty years after the U.S. and China resumed formal relations, the man who did much to advance the reconciliation tells NPR it's "of crucial importance" how the relationship between the powers evolves. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's new book is On China..

Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril

Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril

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Henry Kissinger served as national security advisor and secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Jurgen Frank hide caption

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Jurgen Frank

Henry Kissinger served as national security advisor and secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

Jurgen Frank

In the early 1970s, Mao Zedong's communist China loomed as an implacable enemy of the United States. The world's most populous country, it was also one of its poorest, convulsed by changes instituted by the regime that had led to widespread persecution and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese.

The United States and much of the world still recognized Taiwan, not the mainland, as the seat of China's legitimate government. But the much larger People's Republic of China regularly threatened to invade its island neighbor, while simultaneously launching a brutal crackdown on Tibet. Beijing was also supporting North Vietnam and communist forces in Laos and Cambodia, both fighting against the U.S. in a bloody war in Indochina.

Despite this fraught foreign policy backdrop, there proved to be one thing that could unite the two adversaries: a common rival, the Soviet Union.

Henry Kissinger, who went on to serve as secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was Nixon's national security adviser in 1972. He tells NPR's Neal Conan and NPR commentator Ted Koppel that the Nixon administration quickly concluded that tensions between Mao and the U.S.S.R. provided a potential opening for U.S.-China cooperation.

"The two previous administrations ... argued that there was a unified communist conspiracy, moving from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi, that was threatening American security," says Kissinger. "We concluded very quickly that this was not the ... correct interpretation."

In his book, On China, Kissinger describes the delicate diplomatic dance that ultimately took Nixon to the mainland in 1972 — the first public interaction between Chinese and U.S. leaders in three decades.

"In each country, certainly in ours ... there were elements who believed that the relationship between the two countries would be irreconcilably hostile," says Kissinger. "So each side had the problem of how to make an overture, without, at the same time, embarrassing itself by a rejection."

The result was a series of surreptitious exchanges orchestrated by Kissinger and his colleagues, including an almost comical attempt by the American to pass on a message to the Chinese at a Yugoslav fashion show in Warsaw.

"[We] instructed our ambassador in Poland, which was the only place where there was any contact, and the only place where the Chinese still had an ambassador ... to approach the Chinese diplomat at the next social function," says Kissinger. "Our diplomat ... went up to the Chinese. The Chinese [diplomat] ran away because he had no instructions, and didn't know what to do."

Despite the sometimes awkward lead-up to the Nixon visit, the historic meeting became a turning point in U.S.-China relations. And the U.S., says Kissinger, must continue to exert the same amount of effort in its relationship with the world's newest superpower today.

"We are going to be the two strongest societies in the world. We're going to impinge upon each other in every part of the world," Kissinger says. "There are many problems that have arisen that can only be dealt with on a global basis. So how this relationship will evolve will be of crucial importance."

Excerpt: 'On China'

Cover of On China
On China
By Henry Kissinger
Hardcover, 608 pages
List price: $36


In October 1962, China's revolutionary leader Mao Zedong summoned his top military and political commanders to meet with him in Beijing. Two thousand miles to the west, in the forbidding and sparsely populated terrain of the Himalayas, Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a standoff over the two countries' disputed border. The dispute arose over different versions of history: India claimed the frontier demarcated during British rule, China the limits of imperial China. India had deployed its outposts to the edge of its conception of the border; China had surrounded the Indian positions. Attempts to negotiate a territorial settlement had foundered.

Mao had decided to break the stalemate. He reached far back into the classical Chinese tradition that he was otherwise in the process of dismantling. China and India, Mao told his commanders, had previously fought "one and a half" wars. Beijing could draw operational lessons from each. The first war had occurred over 1,300 years earlier, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when China dispatched troops to support an Indian kingdom against an illegitimate and aggressive rival.

After China's intervention, the two countries had enjoyed centuries of flourishing religious and economic exchange. The lesson learned from the ancient campaign, as Mao described it, was that China and India were not doomed to perpetual enmity. They could enjoy a long period of peace again, but to do so, China had to use force to "knock" India back "to the negotiating table." The "half war," in Mao's mind, had taken place seven hundred years later, when the Mongol ruler Timurlane sacked Delhi. (Mao reasoned that since Mongolia and China were then part of the same political entity, this was a "half" Sino-Indian war.) Timurlane had won a significant victory, but once in India his army had killed over 100,000 prisoners. This time, Mao enjoined his Chinese forces to be "restrained and principled."

No one in Mao's audience — the Communist Party leadership of a revolutionary "New China" proclaiming its intent to remake the international order and abolish China's own feudal past — seems to have questioned the relevance of these ancient precedents to China's current strategic imperatives. Planning for an attack continued on the basis of the principles Mao had outlined. Weeks later the offensive proceeded much as he described: China executed a sudden, devastating blow on the Indian positions and then retreated to the previous line of control, even going so far as to return the captured Indian heavy weaponry.

In no other country is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event — nor that he could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions. Yet China is singular. No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.

Other societies, the United States included, have claimed universal applicability for their values and institutions. Still, none equals China in persisting — and persuading its neighbors to acquiesce — in such an elevated conception of its world role for so long, and in the face of so many historical vicissitudes. From the emergence of China as a unified state in the third century B.C. until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, China stood at the center of an East Asian international system of remarkable durability. The Chinese Emperor was conceived of (and recognized by most neighboring states) as the pinnacle of a universal political hierarchy, with all other states' rulers theoretically serving as vassals. Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy (often as a first step to being subsumed within China).

The traditional cosmology endured despite catastrophes and centuries- long periods of political decay. Even when China was weak or divided, its centrality remained the touchstone of regional legitimacy; aspirants, both Chinese and foreign, vied to unify or conquer it, then ruled from the Chinese capital without challenging the basic premise that it was the center of the universe. While other countries were named after ethnic groups or geographical landmarks, China called itself zhongguo — the "Middle Kingdom" or the "Central Country."

Any attempt to understand China's twentieth-century diplomacy or its twenty-first-century world role must begin — even at the cost of some potential oversimplification — with a basic appreciation of the traditional context.

Excerpted from On China by Henry Kissinger. Copyright 2011 by Henry Kissinger. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.