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Book review: On China

Henry Kissinger's definitive account of US-China relations is fascinating, though bogged down in detail.

On China

Henry Kissinger

(Allen Lane, 2011) $60

I’ve encountered various reactions when people have seen me reading the abovementioned volume. “Henry Kissinger’s a war criminal, isn’t he?” was one. “Boring,” was another. “That looks heavy,” was among the more accurate first impressions – and at almost 600 pages, it is fairly weighty.

Kissinger, now 88, served as the US National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and he’s remained a central figure in American foreign policy in the decades since.

With On China, Kissinger has written what could be deemed the definitive account of US diplomatic relations with the once isolationist Communist state – he was of course the crucial figure in brokering Nixon’s visit in 1972 and the subsequent cooling of relations. However, unless you are deeply interested in diplomatic detail and how governments do business with one another, this book, I imagine, is quite a daunting read.

Kissinger recounts, through the lens of international relations, China’s history: from an ancient imperial empire, to a state left unstable by Western interference and civil war, to an isolationist Communist power, to a rapidly modernising economic powerhouse ready and willing to engage in international relations.

Where Kissinger excels is in his ability and authority to tell the story of China’s diplomatic history. Kissinger himself says the purpose of the book is to “explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order”. He does this admirably, though in a way that shies away from engaging too critically with the subject matter and the personalities involved.

It’s fascinating subject matter, but at times it seems to get bogged down in the detail: the transcripts of conversations, the intricate political maneuverings of each side.

This focus on how – as opposed to why – decisions are made is what makes this book a little incomplete, and less appealing to someone without extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of international relations.

One thing to keep in mind if you tackle this one: New Zealand has Kissinger to thank, in part, for the current state of its relations with China, free trade agreement and all. If it wasn’t for Kissinger’s masterful diplomatic dances with figures like Mao and Zhou Enlai, the process of China’s opening up to the West may have been many more years in the making.