Kissinger on China's Rise
In a June 13th column for the Washington Post, "China: Containment Won't Work," Henry Kissinger argues against the views of the two Roberts: Robert Kagan and Robert Kaplan.
He also dismisses one of my analogies:
"China's emerging role is often compared to that of imperial Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, the implication being that a strategic confrontation is inevitable and that the United States had best prepare for it. That assumption is as dangerous as it is wrong."
I hadn't gone quite so far as to suggest that "strategic confrontation is inevitable," so Kissinger isn't quite fair to me on this point.
(Yes, I know Kissinger doesn't know me from a hole in the ground.)
Despite the 'unfairness,' let's look at more of Kissinger's argument:
"The European system of the 19th century assumed that its major powers would, in the end, vindicate their interests by force. Each nation thought that a war would be short and that, at its end, its strategic position would have improved."
"Only the reckless could make such calculations in a globalized world of nuclear weapons. War between major powers would be a catastrophe for all participants; there would be no winners; the task of reconstruction would dwarf the causes of the conflict. Which leader who entered World War I so insouciantly in 1914 would not have recoiled had he been able to imagine the world at its end in 1918?"
Agreed, and let's hope that neither China nor the United States are reckless. But even the careful can miscalculate when major interests are at stake. In the Cold War, the desire to avoid a major hot war between the U.S. and Soviet Union didn't prevent either from engaging in small hot wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. And what was intended as a small hot war can flare up into a large-scale conflagration if crucial national interests become involved.
Nevertheless, Kissinger is right to emphasize the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons in preventing a hot war between major powers with atomic bombs in their arsenals.
Kissinger also assures us that we need not worry about any militant Chinese imperialism:
"Military imperialism is not the Chinese style. Clausewitz, the leading Western strategic theoretician, addresses the preparation and conduct of a central battle. Sun Tzu, his Chinese counterpart, focuses on the psychological weakening of the adversary. China seeks its objectives by careful study, patience and the accumulation of nuances -- only rarely does China risk a winner-take-all showdown."
I agree that China's usual approach is one of "careful study, patience and the accumulation of nuances," but would these characterize China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam or its earlier, 1949 invasion and military occupation of Tibet? The latter even looks to my eye to be an instance of military imperialism.
Kissinger distinguishes between Russian and Chinese cases:
"It is unwise to substitute China for the Soviet Union in our thinking and to apply to it the policy of military containment of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was heir to an imperialist tradition, which, between Peter the Great and the end of World War II, projected Russia from the region around Moscow to the center of Europe. The Chinese state in its present dimensions has existed substantially for 2,000 years. The Russian empire was governed by force; the Chinese empire by cultural conformity with substantial force in the background."
Kissinger does recognize that China has been (is?) an empire, but he argues that it is not an expansionist one, unlike Russia was. I would agree that China is -- generally -- not an aggressively expansionist imperial power, but it has been expansionist. In the late 19th century, it was still attempting to increase its imperial presence in Korea and went to war with Japan in 1894 over control of Korea.
It lost that war, but the 1950 Korean War brought China back into the peninsula. A decade later, it signed the 1961 China-North Korea Friendship Treaty, which still commits China to supporting North Korea with over 50,000 ground troops "if North Korea is cornered as a result of an invasion by the United States and South Korea." While I don't expect an imminent invasion of the North by either the US or South Korea, what would happen if North Korea began to collapse?
In such a situation, cool heads can heat up, and even cold calculations might have to figure on incommensurable interests.