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An excerpt of Kissinger's book: 'On China'

Drawing on forty years of intimate acquaintance with the country and its leaders, Henry Kissinger reflects on how China's past relations with the outside world
An excerpt of Kissinger's book: 'On China'
An excerpt of Kissinger's book: 'On China'

Drawing on forty years of intimate acquaintance with the country and its leaders, Henry Kissinger reflects on how China's past relations with the outside world illuminate its twenty-first century trajectory. Below is an excerpt of Kissinger's new book.

PrologueIN OCTOBER 1962, China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong summoned his top military and political commanders to meet with him in Beijing. Two thousand miles to the west, in the forbidding and sparsely populated terrain of the Himalayas, Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a standoff over the two countries’ disputed border. The dispute arose over different versions of history: India claimed the frontier demarcated during British rule, China the limits of imperial China.  India had deployed its outposts to the edge of its conception of the border; China had surrounded the Indian positions. Attempts to negotiate a territorial settlement had foundered.

Mao had decided to break the stalemate. He reached far back into the classical Chinese tradition that he was otherwise in the process of dismantling. China and India, Mao told his commanders, had previously fought “one and a half” wars. Beijing could draw operational lessons from each. The first war had occurred over 1,300 years earlier, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when China dispatched troops to support an Indian kingdom against an illegitimate and aggressive rival. After China’s intervention, the two countries had enjoyed centuries of flourishing religious and economic exchange. The lesson learned from the ancient campaign, as Mao described it, was that China and India were not doomed to perpetual enmity. They could enjoy a long period of peace again, but to do so, China had to use force to “knock” India back “to the negotiating table.” The “half war,” in Mao’s mind, had taken place seven hundred years later, when the Mongol ruler Timurlane sacked Delhi. (Mao reasoned that since Mongolia and China were then part of the same political entity, this was a “half” Sino-Indian war.) Timurlane had won a significant victory, but once in India his army had killed over 100,000 prisoners. This time, Mao enjoined his Chinese forces to be “restrained and principled.”1


No one in Mao’s audience—the Communist Party leadership of a revolutionary “New China” proclaiming its intent to remake the international order and abolish China’s own feudal past—seems to have questioned the relevance of these ancient precedents to China’s current strategic imperatives. Planning for an attack continued on the basis of the principles Mao had outlined. Weeks later the offensive proceeded much as he described: China executed a sudden, devastating blow on the Indian positions and then retreated to the previous line of control, even going so far as to return the captured Indian heavy weaponry. In no other country is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles from a millennium-old event—nor that he could confidently expect his colleagues to understand the significance of his allusions. Yet China is singular. No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.

Other societies, the United States included, have claimed universal applicability for their values and institutions. Still, none equals China in persisting—and persuading its neighbors to acquiesce—in such an elevated conception of its world role for so long, and in the face of so many historical vicissitudes. From the emergence of China as a unified state in the third century B.C. until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, China stood at the center of an East Asian international system of remarkable durability. The Chinese Emperor was conceived of (and recognized by most neighboring states) as the pinnacle of a universal political hierarchy, with all other states’ rulers theoretically serving as vassals. Chinese language, culture, and political institutions were the hallmarks of civilization, such that even regional rivals and foreign conquerors adopted them to varying degrees as a sign of their own legitimacy (often as a first step to being subsumed within China).

The traditional cosmology endured despite catastrophes and centuries- long periods of political decay. Even when China was weak or divided, its centrality remained the touchstone of regional legitimacy; aspirants, both Chinese and foreign, vied to unify or conquer it, then ruled from the Chinese capital without challenging the basic premise that it was the center of the universe. While other countries were named after ethnic groups or geographical landmarks, China called itself zhongguo—the “Middle Kingdom” or the “Central Country.”2 Any attempt to understand China’s twentieth-century diplomacy or its twenty-first-century world role must begin—even at the cost of some potential oversimplification—with a basic appreciation of the traditional context.

1.    John W. Garver, “China’s Decision for War with India in 1962,” in Alastair Iaian Johnston and Robert S. Ross, eds., New Directions in the Study of China’s Foreign Policy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 116, citing Sun Shao and Chen Zibin, Ximalaya shan de xue: Zhong Yin zhanzheng shilu [Snows of the Himalaya Mountains: The True Record of the China-India War] (Taiyuan: Bei Yue Wenyi Chubanshe, 1991), 95; Wang Hongwei, Ximalaya shan qingjie: Zhong Yin guanxi yanjiu [The Himalayas Sentiment: A Study of China-India Relations] (Beijing: Zhongguo Zangxue Chubanshe, 1998), 228–30.

2.    Huaxia and Zhonghua, other common appellations for China, have no precise English meaning, but carry similar connotations of a great and central civilization.

Excerpted from ON CHINA by Henry Kissinger. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Henry Kissinger, 2011.