What's Past is Prologue: Kissinger on China

Described by the New York Times as “shrewd” and “fascinating”, On China is a tour de force account by a renowned former US Secretary of State of how China’s long history has shaped its global perspective as well as foreign policy.

Date Posted

15 Jun 2013


Issue 12, 14 Jun 2013


On China

On China

Henry A. Kissinger

Penguin Books Ltd (paperback published in April 2012); 624 pp.

Described by the New York Times as “shrewd” and “fascinating”, On China is a tour de force account by a renowned former US Secretary of State of how China’s long history has shaped its global perspective as well as foreign policy.

Competent futuring cautions against blind extrapolation from past trends. However, a reading of Kissinger suggests that modern China’s broad strategies have been and will continue to be influenced heavily by its rich past. For example, Kissinger describes Chairman Mao as drawing heavily from strategies of the Three Kingdoms of Wei (魏), Wu (吴) and Shu (蜀), an oft-romanticised civil war period in the 3rd century, to manage both Cold War superpowers. He shows how Mao secretly coordinated China’s actions with former US President Nixon and his successors to balance Soviet influence worldwide — similar to the temporary Shu-Wu alliance formed against Wei at the Battle of Red Cliff — even while both sides understood the mutual need to trumpet ideological differences publicly in order to placate their respective citizenries.

On Strategic Encirclement and Influence

Kissinger’s account of China’s strongest external fear — that of “strategic encirclement” by a coalition of its immediate neighbours — is particularly salient. He argues that China has, since antiquity, realised its inability to deal simultaneously with military threats on all its borders, and has thus sought to pre-emptively “sow disunity among [the] barbarians” by pitting them against each other. He describes how Qing diplomats had delayed the fall of China’s last dynasty by enlisting Tsarist Russia’s assistance against other European powers, and details why China invaded Vietnam in 1979 in defiance of a Hanoi-Moscow pact. Reading this, one cannot help but draw a parallel to alleged Chinese influence at the July 2012 ASEAN Ministerial meeting, which failed to issue a joint position on South China Sea developments. One might then conclude warily that more such suspected interventions could be forthcoming.

But Kissinger’s closing chapters may assure the patient reader that China has no aspirations, at least officially, towards taking over global leadership in a US-led world. Unlike America with its “missionary” zeal to propagate its values worldwide, the Middle Kingdom (or so the author suggests) seeks only to Sinicise those who willingly come forward to pay it homage, as was the case in dynasties past. In this regard, while China’s preferred relationship with its neighbours might be that of a peaceful Abang-Adik (Malay for elder-brother/younger-brother) fraternity, such influence would be decidedly shorter ranged and more defensive than America’s ideal vision of its place in the world and its relationship with strategic partners around the globe. Nevertheless, Singapore, with its relative geographic and cultural proximity to China, is bound to experience a growing degree of Chinese influence that former Secretary of State Madeline Albright has described as “too big to ignore, too repressive to embrace... and very, very proud”.

The Future of Sino-US influence in the Pacific

The trajectory of the evolving Sino-US balance of power in the Pacific and its possible second-order effects on Singapore have been pondered by many, although pessimist views appear to dominate both sides of the Pacific at present. Both Colonel Liu Mingfu (author of China Dream) and Stanford Professor Ian Morris (author of Why the West Rules — for Now) expect substantial turmoil in the world order, with flare-ups as early as mid-21st century. Kissinger’s On China, however, ends on a non-committal but generally optimistic note, making the most reassuring and credible argument to date: that China’s peaceful development is “neither a ruse... nor naive delusion... [but] best serves Chinese interests and comports with the international strategic solution”. A prudent Singapore strategy would therefore be to encourage, without compromising its own aims, China’s development along a path guided by considerations of legitimacy.

Among the many virtues of reading Kissinger’s On China is a realisation of the vastly different timescales upon which the three countries of Singapore, US and China view their history — 40, 400 and 4,000 years respectively — along with the sobering fact that for most of recorded history, the GDP and advancement of the Middle Kingdom has far outpaced that of Europe. It has been pointed out that China views current Western dominance not as a strategic shift, but as an aberration of the past few centuries that will eventually cease. On this basis, it has been argued that the much-vaunted “Rise of China” may be more accurately termed as the “Return of Sino-Centricity”. Readers of Kissinger’s account might be inclined to agree.


Leong Ming Wei is Principal Strategist in the Strategic Policy Office, Prime Minister’s Office. His current research interest is China. He holds a Master in Civil Engineering degree from Cambridge and a Master in Public Management degree from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The views expressed in this review are his own.

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