On China

Henry Kissinger was a major player in US foreign policy between 1969 and 1977. Not only being the forerunner in establishing a modern relationship with China, he also reopened US-Sino dialogues and played an important role in the talks with the Soviets before the empire collapsed.

Setting aside the controversial life and career of Kissinger himself, and a writing style that is sometimes confusing and tautological, I find his books all insightful, comprehensive and therefore should be considered as “foundation” reads before jumping to other books that zoom in on a particular issue or incident.

“On China” was my first Henry Kissinger book and it took me a month to finish. I first read it in Vietnamese but the translation was not good enough therefore I bought the original English version from Kodo to re-read. The book helps to understand China’s unique view of world order and how the country’s foreign policy undertook major changes since mid-19th century until now.

「 Part I – I’m the centre of the world 」

There are many reasons behind this Chinese perception of world order. In terms of age, it was one of the four ancient civilisations, together with Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley formed the Old World. “Chinese civilization originates in an antiquity so remote that we vainly endeavour to discover its commencement” (Évariste Régis Huc).

The vast territory and the sheer diversity of China’s culture also strengthened the sense that the country was a world itself. And through many millennia of Chinese civilisations, there was not a country that were comparable to it in scale and sophistication.

With a strong belief that China was more superior than other societies around its periphery, Chinese expected other countries to acknowledge its Sino-centric world order and trading was considered as tribute rather than ordinary economic exchange. That was how “foreign policy” worked before the country entered its suffering period under foreign force starting from the Opium War in 1840 until the Communist Party came to power in 1949.

As numerous museums across China testify, the country dwells on its past in order to justify the present. Chinese people consider those 109 years “a century of humiliation”.

「 Part II – A Century of Humiliation 」

1.  Canton Trade System

At the end of 18th century as Qing Dynasty stood at the height of its imperial greatness, the number of European traders on the southeast China coast also increased significantly. However trade activities were limited in the southern port of Canton (Guangzhou) and got closely supervised by Qing officials. Only licensed merchants were allow to trade through a monopoly guild of Chinese merchants called the Cohong.

Chinese Fan with Foreign Factories at Canton, 1790–1800

Problem arose when Western foreigners by no means wanted to follow China’s Sino-centric system, instead they were willed to replace it with their Western world-order of free trade and diplomatic relations.

Macartney Mission (1793 – 1794) was the very first British attempt to alter the prevailing format of Sino-Western relations. Despite being the most notable, best-conceived and least militaristic European effort, it failed completely. The Emperor Qianlong’s letter to King George proved to be one of the most humiliating communications in the annals of British diplomacy.

“If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial Dynasty fills you with a desire to acquire our civilization, our ceremonies and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even if your Envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil.”

“Strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things”

The French historian Alain Peyrefitte summed up the reaction in Britain in the aftermath of the Macartney mission: “If China remained closed, then the doors would have to be battered down”. The clash of two world orders was now destined to take place.

2.  The Opium War

Tea exports from China grew from 92,000 pounds in 1700 to 23 million pounds in 1800 at a cost of 3.6 million pounds of silver. Concerned that the China trade was draining silver out of England, the British searched for a counterpart commodity to trade for tea and porcelain. They found it in opium, which they planted in large quantities in India since 1757. The smuggling of opium into China increased quickly from 1,000 chests in 1773 to 40,000 chests in 1839.

Note: The British were not forcing upon the Chinese a commodity that was prohibited in their own country. On the contrary, opium was widely used in Britain and the United States as a medical or pseudo-medical potion.

The Stacking Room, Opium Factory at Patna India | Photo Credit: MIT prose from The Graphic

In 1839, Daoguang Emperor dispatched government official Lin Zexu to shut down the trade in Guangzhou and force Western merchants to comply with the official ban. Lin Zexu wrote a letter to Great Britain’s Queen Victoria seeking her support to halt the opium trade but it seemed never to have reached Victoria. The Foreign Secretary Palmerston refused to accept the letter soon after its arrival in London.

When diplomacy failed, Lin seized and destroyed 3 million pounds of opium and blockaded all of the foreigners—including those having nothing to do with the opium trade—in their factories. The First Opium War (1839 – 1842) broke out.

The war took place mostly at sea where the superiority of Western militaries and military technology like steamboats and Congreve rockets easily destroyed China’s outdated fleet. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, when the 660-ton iron steamer Nemesis entered the fray it became crystal clear that any chance for China to win the war was out of reach.

The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay on 7 January 1841 | Photo Credit: Edward Duncan

Under the Treaty of Nanking, signed on August 29, 1842, China agreed to open the five ports requested (Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai), pay an indemnity of 20 million silver dollars and grant British the right to occupy Hong Kong in perpetuity.

In the 1850s, the United States and the European powers grew increasingly dissatisfied with the terms of their treaties with China and the Qing government’s failure to adhere to them. The British forced the issue by attacking the Chinese port cities of Guangzhou and Tianjin in the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860).

3. Besieged From All Sides

As the 19th century progressed, China entered a period of domestic turmoil with Muslim rebellion in the West, Nian rebellion in central and Taiping rebellion – the most serious challenge mounted by a Chinese Christian sect in the south. Though little known in Western historiography, the conflict between the Taiping and the Qing ranks as one of history’s most damaging conflicts with casualties estimated in the tens of millions.

Location of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom “Thái Bình Thiên Quốc”

Not only getting torn by civil conflicts, China found itself besieged from all sides by different foreign threats. From across the oceans in the West came the European nations who sought to impose a new world order essentially incompatible with the Chinese one. From the north and west, the militarily dominant Russia never ceased to penetrate into Chinese vast territory. From the East, Japan set out to not only occupy the land, but also to replace Beijing as the centre of a new East Asian international order.

In order to overcome this period of upheavals, China relied on two traditional approaches of diplomatic endurance and playing off the barbarians against each other. Some of the smart moves included the setting of Russia-Japan in Manchuria and the Most Favoured Nation principle in which any privilege granted to one power should be automatically extended to all others.

The strategy of balancing the barbarians had worked to a degree. None had become totally predominant in China and in that margin, the Beijing government could still operate. However, the tactic was not without its costs and it fundamentally couldn’t solve Chinese basic weakness in modernisation and reform. The belief of China’s self-sufficiency was still too strong and the abdication of a reform-learning Emperor returned the traditionalist, headed by Empress Dowager Cixi to a predominant position.

The slow pace of reform meant that “China were to gain time without a plan for using the time they gained”. This led to further concessions in Treaty of Tianjin 1858 (opium trade got legalised), Treaty of Shimonoseki 1895 (Taiwan and Penghu got ceded to Japan).

When Beijing could no longer protect either Chinese culture or autonomy, popular frustration boiled to the surface in 1898 in the so-called Boxer Uprising. Yet the consequence was another harsh blow as the Eight-Power Allies managed to suppress the Boxers and allied Qing troops and dictated another “unequal treaty” – The Boxer Protocol 1901.

Colonial powers carve up China (1850 – 1910)

Note: Japan was also a country that believed in its divine ancestry and nurtured an almost religious commitment to its unique identity. However, when facing the same Western pressure the country drew from the challenge the opposite conclusion as China: “It threw open its doors to foreign technology and overhauled its institutions in an attempt to replicate the Western powers’ rise”.

But to put things in perspective, in Japan foreign ideas were not seen as connected to the opium trading or opium addiction as Japan largely managed to avoid.

4. The Rise of Nationalism and Communism

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, China entered another period of warring states between the Nationalist Party and Communist Party.

Meanwhile, exhausted from World War I the Western powers were no longer in a position to extend their spheres of influence in China. Russia was also busy consolidating its internal revolution therefore Japan was the only country militarily strong enough to start a program of conquest in 1937.

With the Japanese surrender in 1945, China was left devastated and divided. The Soviet Union recognised the Nationalist government but had kept its options open by supplying arms to the Communist. The United States attempted to mediate a ceasefire yet the effort proved hopeless as both party leaders proceeded to their final showdown.

In 1949, defeated by the Communists on the mainland, Chiang and two million Nationalist refugees retreated to the island of Taiwan, brought with them military apparatus, political class and remnants of national authority. Still claiming to be the legitimate government of China, Chiang vowed that he and his still substantial army would one day soon return to reclaim the mainland by force.

The establishment of People’s Republic of China on 1st October 1949 marked the end of China’s “century of humiliation” and the country’s official embarkment on the Communism path.

「 Part III – China Under Mao and Deng 」

1. Mao’s Continuous Revolution

Mao was the first ruler of China that wanted to overthrow the value system of the entire society. He thought of Confucian tradition as the weakness of the country and proposed a completely opposite approach to the theory of universal harmony, which was “continuous revolution”, “instant transformation” and “clash of opposing forces”

“Progress would come only through a series of brutal tests pitting contradictory forces against each other both domestically as well as internationally. And if these contradictions did not appear by themselves, it was the obligation of the Communist Party and its leader to keep a permanent upheaval going, against itself if necessary.”

This kind of ideological conviction defined the way Mao ran the Communist Party in China. However, reality turned out to be a series of built-in contradictions, from The Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956, The Great Leap Forward in 1958 to The Cultural Revolution in 1966. All did nothing but tore apart the country, created a deep split within the Communist Party and left China in such a devastating state.

2. Triangular Diplomacy and the Korean War

As much as Mao opposed to Confucian values, he ironically ran his foreign policy initiatives with many references to traditional Chinese works. Even in China’s conflicts with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Mao and his top associates conceived of the threat in weiqi concept of strategic encirclement.

“Long-range calculations of the configuration of forces around China’s periphery were considered more significant than a literal calculus of the immediate balance of power”

The triangular diplomacy started in 1949 when Mao Zedong’s victory was greeted with dismay in Washington and triggered a debate over who had lost China. The United States had refused recognition to the communist government and pledged support to the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. China was blocked from admission to the United Nations by the American veto and Taiwan held China’s seat on the Security Council.

To avoid a possible war outbreak, China chose Soviet Union as an ideological ally as well as a strategic partner to balance the United States. The Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance signed in 1950, however, came with a steep price.

The question to ask is that, when a treaty was already in place and Mao put so much effort in preserving peace in this period of time, how come the Korean War happened?

38th Parallel

Well, it remains even until today a dispute towards which side, China or Soviet Union, had actually given Kim Il-sung the final green light to launch his invasion to South Korea. While Stalin planned for a geopolitical benefit for the Soviet Union with the risks shifted to China, Mao had his own calculations regarding a subsequent Chinese attack on Taiwan.

In the end, things worked to Kim Il-sung’s advantage as Pyongyang got in a significantly strengthened military position. American decided to intervene in Korean War by establishing a defensive line around Pusan and sending the U.S. Pacific Fleet (Seventh Fleet) to the Taiwan Strait with a mere intention of softening public opinion and limiting American risk in Korea. However China interpreted this military move of Truman as an act of invasion which menaced China with the dreaded encirclement.

So by misinterpreting each other’s strategic design, China and US entered two years of war and another 20 years of alienation.

3. The Two Chinas

Taiwan and the Mainland of China were part of the same political entity, however the disagreement was about which Chinese government was the rightful ruler. Initially Washington proposed the idea of recognising ROC and PRC as separate states – the so-called two China solution. Both Chinese sides vociferously rejected this proposal on the ground that it would prevent them from liberating the other later.

Washington later affirmed Taipei’s stance that the Republic of China was the “real” Chinese government and held on this political position for the next two decades.

In this period of time, while Eisenhower committed to the defense of Taiwan (mutual treaty) and the whole Asia (SEATO formation), Mao many times led China into Taiwan Strait Crisis. It seemed that the CCP leadership’s purpose of shelling the islets of Taiwan was to test the Unites States’s commitment and more importantly to mobilize the Chinese people to continue the communist revolution in China.

4. Sino – Soviet Split

“Ideology had brought Beijing and Moscow together, and ideology drove them apart again”.

While the Soviet Union regarded the Communist world as a single strategic entity whose leadership was in Moscow, Mao’s Sinocentrism never allowed him to accept the role of a junior partner.

In 1955, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact of Communist countries as a counterweight to NATO, Mao refused to join. Instead, he sent Zhou Enlai to Asian-African Conference which paradoxically organise the Non-Aligned into a safety net against Soviet hegemony.

Apart from the fact that China’s leaders had not forgotten the series of “unequal treaties” from Russia, there was a fundamental difference in the essence of the two societies. “Russian rulers appealed to their people on the basis of their endurance, not their greatness”.

The deepest ideological clash came in 1956 when Khrushchev addressed the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and denounced Stalin for a series of crimes. Not allowed in the hall during the speech, Chinese delegates could only provide a secondhand version of Khrushchev’s remarks and the Chinese leadership was forced to rely on Chinese translations of reports from the New York Times.

As Mao put it, “The criticism of Stalin’s mistakes is justified. We only disagree with the lack of strict limits to criticism. We believe that out of Stalin’s 10 fingers, 3 were rotten ones”. And he branded Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation initiative a form of ideological insult.

The mounting tension and competition with the Soviet Union were pushed further after Moscow’s successful launch of Sputnik and Khrushchev’s plan of catching up with the United States in the next 15 years in the outputs of important products. Mao, wanted to claim leadership of the socialist camp, publicly took of the challenge and announced that China would outstrip Britain in the same interval. This soon led to the most traumatic period of famine caused by the Great Leap Forward.

The most interesting thing to notice here is that, despite these frequent and public controversies, China and Soviet Union were still formal allies. And the United States somehow never got the nature of Communism and this was one of the biggest reasons that led to its involvement in Indochina and the later Vietnam war.

5. US-China The Road to Reconciliation

In the 1960s, there were some subtle efforts from the United States (under Kennedy and Johnson’s term) to start a dialogue with China. However, both foreign policy and public perception towards China underwent no major changes.

Besides, with Mao’s concept of continuous revolution, China was not in a position to enjoy any moment of calmness. Mao also insisted on the struggle against the imperialists, the revisionists, and the reactionaries of all countries.

Only until later when “China was nearly consumed by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and America’s political consensus was strained by the growing protest movement against the Vietnam War”, Mao and Nixon decided to move towards each other but slowly and cautiously because their countries had long been considering each other implacable enemies. Besides, while China had Soviet Union to consider, the United States also had Taiwan to think about.

For Mao, resumption of contact with the United States had become a strategic necessity when the military clashes along the Sino-Soviet border were escalating.

For Nixon, the opening to China gave way to a staged withdrawal from Indochina and helped demonstrating to the American public that the United States was still playing a dynamic role in reshaping the international order.

In 1969, the signals of a possible war between China and the Soviet Union multiplied, giving Nixon a golden opportunity to declare public US strategic interest in the survival of China. Still the situation was so complicated that Mao and Nixon took baby steps every time, sought for indirect channels of communications and intermediaries to convey each other’s intentions.

In 1971, the first American diplomatic delegation was sent to China in secrecy and the key talks happened mainly between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai.

In 1972, that President Nixon made a formal visit to Beijing shook the world and at the same time, put a strain on the ever-tenuous Sino-Vietnamese relationship. The President dealt with the one China policy by acknowledging the convictions of Chinese on either side of the Chinese dividing line.

“Taiwan has been given an opportunity to develop economically and internally. China achieved recognition of its core interest in a political connection between Taiwan and the mainland. The United States affirmed its interest in a peaceful resolution.”

Nixon’s visit to China confirmed China’s reentry into the global diplomatic game and was followed by comparable visits by the leaders of other Western democracies and Japan. Unfortunately, the Watergate crisis derailed the progress of US-China relationship and the Chinese accused the United States of something worse than treachery: ineffectualness.

6. The Third Vietnam War

This war surprisingly was not documented very detailed in Vietnamese history’s textbook, despite of the heavy casualties from both sides and its significant role in delaying the Vietnam’s development progress after 1975 (?!).

Henry Kissinger was a U.S. foreign diplomat who experienced the bitterness of the Vietnam-US war and even got a controversial Nobel Peace Award for his cease-fire negotiation in Hanoi. It seemed he reflected quite a lot about his own country’s experience before putting forward this conclusion:

“Something in the almost maniacal Vietnamese nationalism drives other societies to lose their sense of proportion and to misapprehend Vietnamese motivations and their own possibilities”

Same as the United Staes, China saw Vietnam alone as an formidable force that could realise an Indochinese Federation and bring pressure on other Southeast Asian countries. And whether or not Vietnam was just merely too ferocious in their nationalism or indeed ambitious in the dream of SEA domination, the mutual defense treaty between Hanoi and Moscow fuelled China’s determination to teach this country a lesson and to prevent any possibility of being surrounded by the Soviet-Indochina bloc.

Deng Xiaoping drew up a comprehensive prep plan before proceeding the war with Vietnam. In November 1978, he visited Southeast Asia and branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East” and spoke of the newly signed Soviet-Vietnamese treaty as a threat to world peace. During his visit to the United States, he created the impression that Beijing got the blessing from Washington thus discouraging Moscow to intervene in its actions.

Being a master in the quadripartite game of weiqi in 1979, China made the expected move and got “the sente”.

7. US-China Normalisation

Normalisation of relations moved to the top of the Sino-American agenda as Jimmy Carter took office. There were two important problems that the United States had to figure out a way to understand and more or less compromise.

One, the value system of American society could never comprehend China’s support towards the murderous Khmer Rouge governing Cambodia.

Two, the Chinese explicit and unchanging conditions for normalisation: withdrawal of all American forces from Taiwan; ending the defense treaty with Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with China exclusively with the government in Beijing.

“Normalisation meant that the American Embassy would move from Taipei to Beijing; a diplomat from Beijing would replace Taipei’s representative in Washington”

Starting from January 1, 1979, the two countries officially established diplomatic relations, marking a historic turning point in US-China relations. In the same month, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping paid an official good-will visit to the United States at the invitation of President Carter. This was the first visit by a Chinese leader to the United States after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

However, the bilateral relations have travelled an uneven path. During the past 30 years, the Sino- US relations have been advancing although there have been ups and downs in the relationship. A case in point was the Tiananmen Incident 1989 in which the notion of a Western-style democracy was cruelly rejected.

Final Note:
On the future of US-China relations as well as the role of China as an emerging superpower in the 21st century, the next recommmended read is “The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World” (I was half way through this book several months ago then dropped it for no particular reason).

Further Reference
The First Opium War – MIT Visualising Cultures
New China’s Diplomacy Over the Past 50 Years – PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Chiang Kai-Shek and the USA: Puppet and Puppeteer, but Which Was Which? – David White

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  1. Ech con chua doc xong quyen nay.
    Ban dich tieng Viet doc chang hieu gi luon, cu nhu dich tung chu tu tieng Anh qua :((

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