POLITICIANS OR FOREIGN policy practitioners, and both roles can reside in the same person, are often judged by how the precepts and worldview they espoused hold up over time. US diplomat George Kennan’s analysis of, and prescription for dealing with the Soviet Union proved uncannily accurate. Generations of foreign policy analysts have sought to apply Keenan’s “containment” thesis to various situations, including the current US-China confrontation, with much less success. Yet, while the satisfaction of a proposition holding true for decades is granted to just a blessed few, governments are frequently called on to take decisions in real-time situations.
To be fair to Henry Kissinger, diplomat extraordinaire, who turned hundred on May 27, America’s opening to Mao’s China in the 1970s was not about short-term gain. There was, of course, domestic political capital to be earned, which never accrued to Kissinger and his boss Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal buried the administration. But the impact of Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing in 1971 reverberated across the globe. It realigned the US and China against the Soviet Union, led to China’s eventual entry into global trading and economic systems, and resulted in major powershifts in Asia with Beijing’s influence growing in leaps and bounds. Kissinger was obviously well aware of the momentous nature of his mission, though its continued effects might well have surprised him in more ways than one.
In its immediate fallout, the secret diplomacy between the Nixon administration and China hurt India’s interests. Unknown at the time, Pakistan played a role in the US-China détente. This meant the US not only tilted towards Islamabad in the December 1971 India-Pakistan war but Kissinger remained neutral to the suggestion of his Chinese interlocutors that they might consider aiding their ally. The declassified US cables from New Delhi, Islamabad, and Karachi clearly show American diplomats seeing merit in India’s case. But in the months ahead of the war, Nixon wrote the famous “to all hands” noting in a memo on policy options towards Pakistan not to squeeze its ruler General Yahya Khan. Seen with the benefit of hindsight, the assessments of US diplomats posted in India and Pakistan were bang on and based on a realistic assessment of the public sentiment and the military capacities of India and Pakistan.
It was much later, when he came to India ahead of President George W Bush’s visit in March 2006 did Kissinger see for himself how much things had changed. He now advocated a strong partnership between India and US in the background of Bush’s determination to seal the nuclear deal. He explained to his Indian hosts that the deal was indeed a historic opportunity for New Delhi to take its legitimate spot in the global nuclear order. By the time, the US war in Iraq was going badly and he had few answers to questions as to whether the Bush administration would have been better served in settling the Afghanistan war before bothering about Saddam Hussein. As a diplomat who had met successive generations of Chinese leaders starting with Mao and Zhou Enlai, Kissinger is in a unique position to interpret the Communist regime’s objectives and methods. The US-China thaw severely discomfited the Soviet Union and while this helped America’s cause, it perhaps served Mao’s purposes even more. An ambitious and ruthless man, Mao had long chafed at playing second fiddle to Soviet leaders and saw himself as the real leader of the socialist world. Among the reasons for his decision to attack India in 1962 was a deeply held animosity towards Jawaharlal Nehru for what he felt was the Indian leader’s pretentious posturing on the world stage. Could Kissinger have anticipated that breaking the Soviet-China nexus would over time create a new and more dangerous competitor for the US? Things have turned full circle with China and Russia’s allies again. Only this time, China is the senior partner.
The impact of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing in 1971 reverberated across the globe. It realigned the US and China against the Soviet Union, led to China’s eventual entry into global trading and economic systems, and resulted in major powershifts in Asia with Beijing’s influence growing in leaps and bounds. Kissinger was obviously well aware of the momentous nature of his mission, though its continued effects might well have surprised him in more ways than one
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It would be unfair to blame Kissinger alone for missing the import of China’s rise. After all, several US administrations, including the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, failed to see the implications of China’s ascendance. They have fewer excuses to offer as they were closer to events that could not have been foreseen in 1971. China’s entry into the World Trading Organization (WTO) and its access to US technology and capital allowed it to rapidly build economic and military muscle. It misused the access it gained by indulging in industrial espionage on a massive scale even as many in the West continued to delude themselves that China might, through its exposure to the rest of the world, become more democratic. A perusal of the Communist Party’s documentation and statements of its leaders makes it crystal clear that survival of the regime is a prime and inalienable objective. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union filled China’s rulers with a deep fear and they resolved never to suffer a similar fate. The Communist Party of China’s charter makes it evident that it alone will guide the path of the Chinese nation.
Much has been written about Kissinger’s deceptive conduct as a leading member of the Nixon administration and the use of disparaging language for Indira Gandhi and India. But frankly, the language used in private conversations might be considered in the context of Nixon’s personality. Nixon, however, would not be the first US leader to express his frustration over sanctimonious tones that could mark Indian diplomacy during the Cold War. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) served India’s purpose, but it would be a mistake to consider it genuinely ‘non-aligned’ or a cohesive formation. Kissinger continues to advocate the need to live with China. He says that both US and China see one another as a strategic danger and are on the path to great power confrontation. Was this completely unanticipated? In an article written in 2006, Kissinger notes that neither India nor China had as yet engaged in a security contest for pre-eminence in Asia. Even today, this is not India’s objective but China’s aggression on the Line of Actual Control has turned the relationship into a hostile one. There is a stronger confluence in Indian and US perceptions than has ever been the case—quite a change from the Nixon years.
Kissinger’s interactions with Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao place him in a club of one. His analysis of China’s actions is replete with extraordinary insights as well as blind spots. But the reason why India should pay attention to his thoughts is because of his incomparable ability to practice and analyse the balance of power politics. His assessment of India as a country that evaluates its national security interests with great precision rather than being drawn into ideological groupings is perceptive. This remains true, and in fact, the doctrine has been further sharpened with the shedding of the ideological dogmatism of the NAM and Cold War years. Kissinger has also been a superlative academic, writing and speaking in an easy-to-understand manner. A long career results in greater scrutiny but in Kissinger’s case, it should also mean paying handsome tribute to one of the foremost strategic minds in the post-World War II era.