HENRY Kissinger, a former National Security Adviser in Washington and later Secretary of State during the Nixon Administration is not exactly a popular figure in India. Nor is China held in any high regard because of its close relations with Pakistan and its attack on India when it took a militarily unprepared country by surprise in 1962. The memory of that attack still rankles in Indian memory. Nixon hated India; Kissinger played up to his boss. But interestingly enough, Kissinger doesn’t take sides in the matter of the 1962 war and is satisfied with presenting the views of both countries. That is quite intriguing, considering Kissinger’s obvious dislike of India and its role during the East Bengal crisis when the US dispatched a warship to the Bay of Bengal. Equally intriguing is Kissinger’s somewhat detached approach to Sino-Indian relations.
In the prologue to the book Kissinger even quotes Mao Tse-tung as saying that China and India are not doomed to perpetual enmity. The book starts with a chapter on the singularity of China and the Chinese perception of itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, with the right to rule the universe bestowed on it by Heaven! Kissinger then traces the history of China down the ages, focusing on its basic philosophy, all the while explaining Chinese behaviour both in times of success and failure. In fact, this can be considered as the theme of the book.
The Chinese sense of uniqueness, according to Kissinger, asserted that China was the one true civilization, but at no time does Kissinger discuss or compare Chinese thinking with its assessment in Indian intellectual circles. As long as foreign countries recognised the Chinese Emperor’s suzerainty, China kept its peace.
The Chinese empire, according to Kissinger, was “extensive but not intrusive”. China had its ups and downs and Kissinger traces China’s fall from prominence to its distressing decline. Then came Mao. And the rise of Communism. Perhaps Edgar Snow has recorded this more sharply than Kissinger who makes no mention of the terror imposed on the Chinese people in any great and telling detail except to say that “millions died to implement the Chairman’s quest for egalitarian virtue”. Some egalitarian virtue, that! In the early days of Communist rule China needed help. And, naturally, it could only turn to the Soviet Union with which it concluded a Treaty of Friendship but at great cost. But soon China was to live in fear of a Soviet invasion. That was when Kissinger and Nixon came into the picture. Kissinger discusses the Korean War and America’s role in it. And he gives us a brief but telling glimpse of how the Chinese mind functions. China’s strategy exhibited three characteristics: meticulous analysis of long term trends, careful study of tactical options and detached exploration of operational decisions. China was to feel at ease only after the Soviet Union broke up.
And there came a time when Russians in their turn came seeking help from Beijing! It sounds incredible, but true. What Kissinger does is to give us glimpses of reactions between Chinese and Russian officials and also officials of China and the United States which are highly revealing. One wouldn’t believe it that in a talk between Khrushchev and Mao, Khrushchev told Mao that if he were in Mao’s place, he would not have let the Dalai Lama escape from Tibet to India. As he put it: “It would be better if he was in a coffin”! And to that Khrushchev added: “It’s not a matter of arrest, I am just saying that you were wrong to let him (the Dalai Lama) go. If you allow him an opportunity to flee to India, then what has Nehru to do with it? We believe that the events in Tibet are the fault of the Communist Party of China, not Nehru’s fault”.
The chaper of the Great Leap Forward is particularly fascinating. Kissinger says, “a massive purge led to the imprisonment, re-education or internal exile of thousands of intellectuals.” There is not one word of condemnation on Kissinger’s part. Then Kissinger describes what happened during the Great Leap. “Revolutionary students and teachers from Beijing descended on Confucius’ home village, vowing to put an end to the old sage’s influence once and for all, by burning books, smashing memorial tablets….” In Beijing itself Red Guards destroyed 4,922 of the Capital’s 6,843 designated “places of cultural and historic interest.
Then there are chapters on Ronald Reagan and the advent of normalcy with China, the Tiananmen Disaster, the coming into power of Deng Xiaoping, China and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and finally about the New Millennium. But in all the much-inspired writing one gets on idea how much China used what was practically slave labour and the sufferings that the Chinese peasantry went through. What he is more interested is in giving credit to the Chinese leaders from Chou En-lai onwards to Jiang for making China what it is today. China is absolved of all imperialist leanings.
Thus Kissinger quotes Jiang as saying: “I’ve said over and over again that China will never be a threat to any country.” Later on he quotes another leader, Hu Jintao as saying: “China will, as always, abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter… and work with other countries in building towards a new international political and economic order that is fair and rational. The Chinese nation loves peace and stability. China’s development, instead of hurting or threatening anyone, can only serve peace, stability and common prosperity in the world.” Are Chinese declared intentions believable? It is this same China which attacked Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”.
Kissinger never sits on judgment, but tells the story as it is. There are so many issues that he touches lightly upon. Interestingly. After befriending the US, China now seems concerned that, the US is more likely seeking to contain it. Kissinger holds that, “the future of Asia will be shaped to a significant degree by how China and America envision it.” That is sheer arrogance. But let that go. Has it ever occurred to Kissinger that China is attempting to encircle India which is exactly what it has been doing in the last couple of decades? Kissinger is so enamoured of China that he can’t put the country is a possible menace.
But one thing can be said about this book. For all its shortcomings, once one starts reading it, it becomes upputdownable! Still, one wonders to what extent Kissinger is right in his assessment of China’s character and proclamations. And that remains the million dollar question.
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