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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

A Review of 'On China' by Henry Kissinger

Book: On China


Author: Henry Kissinger


Main topic: Understanding Chinese history and culture to appreciate its strategic thinking, avoid tensions, and manage the US-China relationship is critical for global stability.


Written in 2011, On China is authored by former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. On China provides a historical overview of China's foreign relations, strategic thinking, and the distinct world view it formed over several centuries. Kissinger draws on his extensive diplomatic experience with China to provide insight into how the United States can manage its bilateral relationship with China in the 21st century.


Summary


The book examines Chinese history and diplomacy dating back to the 19th century Opium Wars. Kissinger argues that China sees itself as a historically great civilization that is now reclaiming its former role as a central power in Asia. The book covers major events like Chairman Mao’s rise to power, Nixon’s opening of China, and the 1989 Tiananmen protests. A core part of Kissinger's analysis focuses on the differences between Chinese and Western cultures on strategy. As part, he contrasts Chinese realism, indirectness, and willingness to play the diplomatic “long game" with Western tendencies towards idealism, direct confrontation, and urgency. The book also examines Chinese concepts like persuasion, deterrence, and saving face.


Kissinger advises integrating China into the international order while still balancing its power. He believes that understanding Chinese history and thinking is crucial to avoiding conflict between the United States and China as China's influence grows. The book serves as both a history overview and a diplomatic guide to engaging with China.


Evaluation


Kissinger’s years of diplomatic experience with China and serving in the US government has added to his insight into Chinese culture and strategic thinking and how it fits into the context of a US-led world order. His analysis of the 1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis and the 1972 Nixon visit help to build insight into US-China foreign policy history. However, the book has been criticized for not saying more about Kissinger's own controversial decisions involving China such as keeping talks with China secret from close allies like Japan and Taiwan, which undercut their efforts to diplomatically isolate China and undermined their security positions in East Asia. Kissinger could also provide more balance by engaging with critiques of Chinese policy on issues like human rights.


The book is written from his Western perspective, though Henry Kissinger does try to explain China's viewpoint. His policy advice is thoughtful but is still fairly conventional for a Western strategic thinker. That said, On China succeeds in illuminating Chinese diplomatic philosophy for Western audiences.


Kissinger’s consolidation of power and centralized policy deliberations meant that he was able to exert more unilateral influence on the United States’s China policy. His firsthand account in On China provides rare insight and is useful for foreign policy experts, business leaders, and government officials tasked with managing China ties, though general readers will also learn much about China's history and worldview.


Conclusion


On China serves as a core part of the literature on Asian Studies, International Relations, and even Political Science. For its depth of historical context and policy analysis, On China is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in understanding China's rise on the world stage in the 21st century. Kissinger provides insightful if imperfect guidance on engaging strategically with China based on his decades of diplomatic experience. Although the book approaches its subject from a Western perspective and may omit key aspects of the author’s own experiences, it should be read by every student of Chinese history and strategy to understand underlying themes and to be able to better critique them.

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