Lessons "On China" ~ No Containment, No Exclusion, and towards a Pacific Community

I’ve taken to reading Henry Kissinger’s On China to prepare to write a 10,000 word paper on the strategic relationship between the United States and China. In doing so, one is forced to summarize a 500+ word book into several thoughts that might support argumentation. What follows are ten ideas that I’d like to hold onto as I start the writing process, as well as going forward, knowing that each of these ideas is set only in wet concrete, subject to shifting interpretations that might adjust how I perceive each one of them…

*Citation should read: Henry Kissinger, On China, New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.

1. Exceptionalism.
“…both societies believe they represent unique values. American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China’s exceptionalism is cultural. China does not proselytize; it does not claim that its contemporary institutions are relevant outside China. But it is the heir of the Middle Kingdom tradition, which formally graded all other states as various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms; in other words, a kind of cultural universality.” (Pg. xvi)
2. China is a “civilization pretending to be a nation-state.” (Pg. 11, American political scientist Lucian Pye)

3. Chinese strategic culture as “wei qi.”
“A turbulent history has taught Chinese leaders that not every problem has a solution and that too great an emphasis on total mastery of specific events could upset the harmony of the universe…Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing their feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage.” (Pg. 22-23)
“This contrast is reflected in the respective intellectual games favored by each civilization. China’s most enduring game is wei qi (pronounced roughly “way chee,” and often known in the West by a variation of its Japanese name, go). Wei qi translates as “a game of surrounding pieces”; it implies a concept of strategic encirclement.”
“If chess is about the decisive battle, wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage. In chess, the player always has the capability of the adversary in front of him; all the pieces are always fully deployed. The wei qi player needs to assess not only the pieces on the board but the reinforcements the adversary is in a position to deploy. Chess teaches the Clausewitzian concepts of “center of gravity” and the “decisive point” – the game usually beginning as a struggle for the center of the board. Wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. Where the skillful chess players aims to eliminate his opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes, a talented wei qi player moves into “empty” spaces on the board, gradually mitigating the strategic potential of his opponent’s pieces. Chess produces single-mindedeness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility.” (Pg. 23-25)

4. Sun Tzu’s interconnectedness.
“Perhaps Sun Tzu’s most important insight was that in a military of strategic contest, everything is relevant and connected: weather, terrain, diplomacy, the reports of spies and double agents, supplies and logistics, the balance of forces, historic perceptions, the intangibles of surprise and morale. Each factor influences the others, giving rise to subtle shifts in momentum and relative advantage. There are no isolated events.” (Pg. 30)

5. Two methods of attacking the “barbarians.”
“Wei Yuan’s 1842 “Plans for a Maritime Defense,” in essence a study of China’s failures in the Opium War, proposed to apply the lessons of European balance-of-power diplomacy to China’s contemporary problems…Wei Yuan proposed a multipronged strategy: ‘There are two methods of attacking the barbarians, namely, to stimulate countries unfriendly to the barbarians to make an attack on them, and to learn the superior skills of the barbarians in order to control them.'” (Pg. 62)

6. The “Empty City” Stratagem
“One of the classic tales of the Chinese strategic tradition was that of Zhuge Liang’s “Empty City Stratagem” from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In it, a commander notices an approaching army far superior to his own. Since resistance guarantees destruction, and surrender would bring about loss of control over the future, the commander opts for a stratagem. He opens the gates of his city, places himself there in a posture of repose, playing a lute, and behind him shows normal life without any sign of panic or concern. The general of the invading army interprets this sangfroid as a sign of the existence of hidden reserves, stops his advance, and withdraws…Mao’s avowed indifference to the threat of nuclear war surely owed something to that tradition.” (Pg. 101)

7. The U.S. and China: the Big Question
“Can strategic trust replace a system of strategic threats?” (Pg. 514)
“…A serious joint effort involving the continuous attention of top leaders is needed to develop a sense of genuine strategic trust an cooperation…Relations between China and the United States need not – and should not – become zero-sum game.” (Pg. 523)

8. China’s Coming Labor and Demographic Challenges
“…China’s labor force is becoming older and more skilled (causing some basic manufacturing jobs to move to lower-wage countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh)…” (Pg. 524)
“China has one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations. The country’s total working-age population is expected to peak in 2015. From this point on, a shrinking number of Chinese citizens aged fifteen to sixty-four need to support an increasingly large elderly population…By 2050, one-half of China’s population is projected to be forty-five or older, with a full quarter of China’s population – roughly equivalent to the entire current population of the United States – sixty-five and older.” (Pg. 524-25)

9. “The crucial competition between the United States and China is more likely to be economic and social than military.” (Pg. 525)

10. No Containment of China; No Exclusion of America; Develop the Pacific Community
“The question ultimately comes down to what the United States and China can realistically ask of each other. An explicit American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed – in part because China is an indispensable trading partner for most of its neighbors. By the same token, a Chinese attempt to exclude America from Asian economic and security affairs will similarly meet serious resistance from almost all other Asian states, which fear the consequences of a region dominated by a single power.” (Pg. 526)
“Each is too big to be dominated by the other. Therefore neither is capable of defining terms for victory in a war or in a Cold War type of conflict.” (Pg. 527)
“An aspect of strategic tension in the current world situation resides in the Chinese fear that America is seeking to contain China – paralleled by the American concern that China is seeking to expel the United States from Asia. The concept of a Pacific Community – a region to which the United States, China, and other states all belong and in whose peaceful development all participate – could ease both fears. It would make the United States and China part of a common enterprise. Share purposes – and the elaboration of them – would replace strategic uneasiness to some extent. It would enable other major countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and Australia to participate in the construction of a system perceived as joint rather than polarized between “Chinese” and “American” blocs. Such an effort could be meaningful only if it engaged the full attention, and above all the conviction, of the leaders concerned.” (Pg. 528)

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s