Prestowitz

Kissinger in China: Triumph or disaster?

Henry the K was at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace yesterday using the occasion of the publication of his latest book, the portentously titled On China, to take another, perhaps a final, victory lapfor his work in carrying out President Richard Nixon’s strategy of achieving a diplomatic opening to China. This negotiation that brought ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Henry the K was at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace yesterday using the occasion of the publication of his latest book, the portentously titled On China, to take another, perhaps a final, victory lapfor his work in carrying out President Richard Nixon’s strategy of achieving a diplomatic opening to China.

This negotiation that brought about the normalization of long-frozen relations between the United States and China and that led eventually to the modernization and recent prodigious rise of China has always been the centerpiece of Kissinger’s career, the main peg on which will hang the judgment of history about him. For this reason, Kissinger, ever mindful that it is not only the winners who write history but also the writers who win history or at least historical renown, has written and spoken a great deal about the event, carefully burnishing his reputation as a statesman of the first rank on a par with such as Metternich and Bismarck. Now it is certainly the case that in reputation he appears to stand head and shoulders above other U.S. secretaries of state since George Marshall and Dean Acheson, and that is certainly owing to his central role in the Opening to China which is generally regarded as having been a great success.

Ye,t sometimes I wonder. The first responsibility of a statesman, one supposes, is at least to maintain and even perhaps to enhance the relative power and influence of the state he serves. From this perspective, it is certainly possible to question what Kissinger actually accomplished.

It is true that from the moment of the Communist takeover of China in 1948 until Nixon’s meeting with Mao in 1972, China was considered by the United States to be a dangerous enemy. That feeling, of course, only reached a fever pitch after China intervened in the Korean War in 1952 and hurled advancing U.S. troops back from the Yalu River and out of most of North Korea. But, in actuality, China of that time was poverty stricken, poorly armed, and completely unable to challenge the United States in any significant way.

Indeed, ten years later when I participated in the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and visited Beijing for the first time, I was shocked at how poor the country still was. I remember walking the streets that were empty of virtually all vehicles except bicycles and wondering how we Americans could ever have thought of China as a threat.

Now, fast forward to last week’s Shangri-la Security Conference in Singapore. As I noted yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates strongly reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to maintaining its commitments and even to enhancing its military presence in Asia at the conference. But this was one of those cases where to have to explicitly make that kind of statement was itself an admission of declining influence. Gates spoke as he did because senior Asian leaders like Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew have been expressing concern that America might not be sticking around to counteract the rapidly expanding influence of — guess who — China. Indeed, they fear that because of increasing economic  weakness, the United States might not be able to stick around much longer as the prime guarantor of Asian stability.

It was the Opening that changed things in a way that has reduced America’s relative power and influence while enhancing China’s.  Or, perhaps I should say not that it was the Opening, per se, but the way the Opening was eventually structured that changed things in this way. In a sense the opening was as much or more of the United States as of China. The U.S. market was opened to China’s inexpensive, consumer-oriented exports while China’s production centers were opened to off-shored U.S. factories, technologies, and jobs.

The result has been steady rapid growth of the Chinese economy and stagnation of the U.S. economy along with a dramatic and on-going shift in the global balance of power away from the United States. Surely this was not what Kissinger intended when he set out for his first meetings in Beijing. So was the Opening a success or not? Well to paraphrase Zhou En Lai’s comment when asked how he felt about the French Revolution, "it’s just too early to tell."  

 Twitter: @clydeprestowitz

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