Essays & Reviews

Kissinger and China

*Editor’s Note: This piece is from the CSD Archive. Originally published, 2011.


Henry Kissinger’s On China summarizes Kissinger’s four decades of diplomatic (and business) experience with Chinese leaders, coupled with his scholarly understanding of Chinese history and strategic culture. Kissinger’s primary concern is to prevent what he regards as an avoidable clash of civilizations, which clash would be tragic as well as catastrophic.

For the purposes of the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy, we note the themes of the three major works of Chinese strategy that Kissinger cites. He argues that the Chinese are shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik, but they follow a distinctly different strategic doctrine. Chinese strategic culture is highly sophisticated and historically much deeper than that of the West – “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.” But the asymmetries between the two strategic traditions, even more than incompatible geopolitical ends, creates the danger of an existential conflict that need not take place, because the United States and China can practice a creative form of “competitive coexistence” to the advantage of both.

 Simply put, the West plays chess and the Chinese play wei qi (pronounced roughly “way chee”), often known in the West by a variation of its Japanese name, go. This translates as “a game of surrounding pieces;” and implies a concept of strategic encirclement. Multiple contests take place simultaneously in different regions of the board. The balance of forces shifts incrementally with each move, as players implement strategic plans and react to each other’s initiatives. At the end of a well-played game, the board is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength. The margin of advantage is often slim, and to the untrained eye, the identity of the winner is not immediately obvious.

An example: what seemed to be a major military setback – the People’s Liberation Army’s visibly poor performance in its punitive expedition against Vietnam in 1979 – was actually (for Kissinger) the first and perhaps decisive turning point in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Vietnam bloodied the Chinese but found itself isolated as the United States quietly approved Beijing’s action, while the Soviets protested but did not offer military assistance – despite the fact that Moscow signed a treaty of alliance with Hanoi. Such Soviet pusillanimity did not go unnoticed among other Soviet clients and allies. Kissinger speculates that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan shortly thereafter in order to try to reestablish their credibility. And the rest, as they say, is history, caused by what seemed to be a poorly played card.

Chess, on the other hand, is about total victory, achieved by attrition or, more rarely, by a dramatic, skillful maneuver. The only other possible outcome is a draw, meaning the abandonment of the hope for victory by both parties. If chess is about decisive battle, wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative, not absolute advantage. He 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 “decisive point” – the game usually begins as a struggle for the center of the board. Wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. Where the skillful chess player 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-mindedness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility.

(Garrity aside: A chess player might beg to differ. Also, although one might argue for an overarching Western strategic tradition such as Victor Davis Hanson identifies, there are arguably critical differences among and within the major Western powers. Poker, or brag, as it was known earlier, might be the quintessential American game of strategy. This is not to say that Americans rely on bluffing – although that is certainly a key element of poker – but that poker involves decisions based on a combination of intuition, context and mathematics; and a sense of how to maximize the value of winning, or minimize losing, at the end of the game, rather than the value of any particular hand, even while realizing that the outcome of a single hand or small number of hands may largely determine that value.)

That reflection aside – Kissinger’s observation about the differences in Western and Chinese strategic culture, and his appreciation of the latter, is hardly new or original.  Nor presumably would Kissinger claim such originality; he cites, for instance, David Lai’s, “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi,” (U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2004).

Let me call your attention to Chris Harmon’s reflections in CSD “On Strategic Thinking: Patterns in Modern History.”

According to Kissinger, its turbulent history taught Chinese leaders that not every problem has a solution and too great an emphasis on total mastery over specific events upsets the harmony of the universe. There are too many potential enemies for the empire to ever live in total security. If relative security is China’s strategic goal, it also implies relative insecurity – the need to learn the grammar of over a dozen neighboring states with significantly different histories and aspirations. Rarely did Chinese statesmen risk the outcome of a conflict on a single, all-or-nothing clash. Elaborate multi-year maneuvers are closer to their style. Whereas the Western tradition prized the decisive clashes of forces emphasizing feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stresses subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage. China’s goal is not to subjugate barbarians but to “rule [them] with a loose rein” – to draw potentially hostile foreigners into relationships the Chinese manage. The highest aspiration is less to conquer than to deter invasion and prevent formation of barbarian coalitions. The Chinese are remarkably pragmatic about the means to achieve this strategic end – bribery, taking advantage of demographic developments, appeasement, and the use of force for psychological effect. The objective is a compliant, divided periphery, rather than one directly under Chinese control.


 Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Chinese strategic tradition emerged during periods of upheaval, when ruthless struggles between rival kingdoms decimated China’s population. Reacting to this slaughter, and seeking to emerge victorious from it, the Chinese came to place a premium on victory through psychological advantage and preached the avoidance of direct conflict. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the foundational document of China’s strategic culture, codified this tradition.

What distinguishes Sun Tzu from Western strategists is the emphasis on psychological and political elements over the purely military. The quintessential Western thinkers, Clausewitz and Jomini, treat strategy as an activity in its own right, separate from politics. Kissinger argues that even Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means implies that with war the statesman enters a new and distinct phase. Sun Tzu merges the two fields. Whereas Western strategists reflect on the means to assemble superior power at the decisive point – “to git thar fust with the most men” – Sun Tzu addresses the means of building a dominant political and psychological position, such that the outcome of the conflict becomes a foregone conclusion.

Western strategists test their maxims by victories in battles; Sun Tzu tests his by victories in which battles were unnecessary. Victory is not simply the triumph of armed forces. Instead it is the achievement of ultimate political objectives that the military clash was intended to secure. Better than challenging the enemy on the field of battle is undermining the enemy’s morale or maneuvering him into an unfavorable position from which escape is impossible. Strategy resolves itself into a psychological contest. Because attacks on an opponent’s strategy and alliances involve psychology and perception, Sun Tzu places considerable emphasis on the use of subterfuge and misinformation. A victory achieved through deception or manipulation is more humane (and certainly more economical) than a triumph by superior force.

Perhaps Sun Tzu’s most important insight is that in a military or strategic context, everything is relevant and connected, from weather and terrain to diplomacy, intelligence, and deception, and to the intangibles of surprise and morale. Each factor influences the others, giving rise to subtle shifts in momentum and strategic advantage. There are no isolated events. Hence the task of the strategist is less to analyze the particular situations than to determine its relationship to the context in which it occurs. No particular constellation is ever static; any pattern is temporary and evolving. The strategist must capture the direction of that evolution and make it serve his ends.

Sun Tzu uses the word “shi” for this quality [Garrity comment:  a rough equivalent for which might be the old Soviet “correlation of forces,” although that would still be too materialistic and quantitative a formulation for how Kissinger understands Sun Tzu].  In the military context, shi denotes the strategic trend and “potential energy” of a developing situation. The Art of War articulates a doctrine less of territorial conquest than of psychological dominance – indeed, the world can never be conquered, wise rulers can only hope to harmonize with its trends. Strategy and statecraft become a means of “combative coexistence” with opponents. The goal is to maneuver them into weakness while building up one’s own “shi,” or strategic position.


Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese historical novel from the 14th century, based on the events near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era (169-280 A.D). The story focuses on the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who sought to defend or overthrow the Dynasty, and the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Han Dynasty. The stories in the novel are as reflective of the Chinese worldview as Shakespeare’s plays are to the West, and they resonate in the words and actions of China’s statesmen, particularly in a cyclical view of history. Chinese history featured many periods of civil war, interregnum, and chaos. Yet, after each collapse, the Chinese state reconstituted itself. The famous opening of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms evokes this continuous rhythm: “The Empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus has it ever been.” 

Kissinger selects one tale from the novel that reflects the Chinese approach: the empty city strategy. The commander of the city notices an approaching army far superior to his own. Since resistance guarantees destruction, and surrender would bring about the loss of control over the future, the commander opts for strategy. He opens the gates of the city and places himself there in a posture of repose, playing a lute. Behind him the city shows its normal life, without any sign of panic or concern. The general of the invading army interprets the sangfroid as a sign of the existence of hidden reserves, stops his advance, and withdraws. Kissinger notes that Mao often used tales from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to get his point across to subordinates, particularly the objective impact of ideological and, above all, psychological factors. Mao proposed to achieve psychological equivalence to the superpowers by calculated indifference to the military capabilities and, especially, his studied indifference to the threat of nuclear war – an application, Kissinger argues, that is taken from the Romance.


Wei Yuan, Plans for Maritime Defense

Another Chinese classic was penned during another time of troubles – the mid-19th century, as the European powers began to divide the Empire up into spheres of influence and otherwise truncate Chinese sovereignty. Plans for Maritime Defense, written in 1842 by Wei Yuan, a mid-level Confucian mandarin, was a study  of China’s failure in the Opium War, and of the value of applying the lessons of Europe’s balance of power diplomacy to China’s contemporary problems. Recognizing Chinese material weakness vis-à-vis foreign powers – a premise that his contemporaries generally did not accept – Wei Yuan proposed methods by which China might gain a margin for maneuver. He proposed a multi-pronged 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 superior skills of the barbarians in order to control them. There are two methods of making peace with the barbarians, namely, to let the various trading nations conduct their trade so as to maintain peace with the barbarians, and to support the first Treaty of the Opium War so as to maintain international trade.”

In Kissinger’s view, this was a demonstration of the analytical skill of Chinese diplomacy when faced with a superior foe and potentially escalating demands. It understood that holding fast even to a humiliating treaty set a limit to further actions.

In Plans for a Maritime Defense, Wei Yuan reviewed the countries that, based on European principles of equilibrium, could put pressure on Britain. He imagined, among other things, encouraging a two-pronged Russian and Gurkha attack on Britain’s most distant and poorly defended interest, its Indian empire. Or stimulating long-running French and American animosity towards Britain, causing them to attack by sea,.

This was a highly original solution hampered by the fact that Chinese government had not the slightest idea how to implement it. It had only limited knowledge of the potential allied countries in question and no representation in any of their capitals. Wei Yuan came to understand Chinese limits. In an age of global politics, he asserted, the issue was not that “the outer barbarians cannot be used;” rather “we need personnel who are capable of making arrangements with them” and who “knew their locations [and] their interrelations of friendship or enmity.”

Having failed to stop the British advance, Wei Yuan continued, Beijing needed to weaken London’s relative position in the world and in China. He came up with another original idea: invite other barbarians into China to set up a contest between their greed and Britain’s, so that China could emerge as the balancer, in effect, over division of its own substance. In other words, China should offer concessions to all the rapacious nations rather than let Britain exact them, and benefit itself by offering to share the spoils of their country. The mechanism for achieving this objective was the Most Favored Nation principle.

Wei Yuan summed up the new strategy with the proposition that “before the peace settlement, it behooves us to use barbarians against barbarians. After the settlement, it is proper for us to learn their superior techniques in order to control them.”


Offensive Deterrence: An Example of the Dissonance of Strategic Cultures

Kissinger argues that the West often misinterprets Chinese strategic behavior that stems from this classical tradition as being irrational or hyper-aggressive. One critical example is a modern application of “competitive coexistence” – what Kissinger terms “offensive deterrence.” What, in western strategy, would be called deterrence or even preemption, in Chinese thinking, combines long-range strategic and psychological elements, especially when Chinese leaders think they are at a substantial material disadvantage, a position in which Mao found himself. For him, the western concept of deterrence was too passive. He rejected a posture in which China was obliged to wait for attack. Whenever possible, he strove for the initiative. On one level, this is similar to the western concept of preemption. But in western doctrine, preemption seeks victory and a military advantage. Mao’s approach to preemption differed in the extraordinary attention he paid to psychological elements.  His motivating force was less to inflict a decisive military first blow than to change the psychological balance, not so much to defeat the enemy as to alter his calculus of risks. The Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1954-1955, the Indian border clash of 1962, the conflict with the Soviets along the  Ussuri River in 1969-1971, and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 all had the common feature of the sudden blow followed quickly by a political phase. Having restored the psychological equation, in Chinese eyes, genuine deterrence had been achieved.

When the Chinese view of preemption to restore deterrence encounters the western concept of deterrence to prevent preemption, a vicious circle can result. Acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world.  Conversely, deterrent moves by the west may be interpreted in China as encirclement. The United States and China wrestled with this dilemma repeatedly during the Cold War, and they run the risk that it will lead to even more serious crises and conflicts in the future.

 Garrity 2021 Conclusion: Ten years after publication, the reader is invited to assess Kissinger’s judgment in light of such events as the unwinding of the global financial crisis and increased Chinese assertiveness, the shift in American foreign policy towards a great power competition framework, and Covid-19. His book appeared shortly before Graham Allison’s influential and controversial work on the Thucydides trap.

I extrapolated from his argument at the time — perhaps inaccurately, but worthy of consideration — that Kissinger concluded the rise of China towards its historic position as the Middle Kingdom, if accommodated properly to a globalized world, is more or less inevitable and, rightly understood, desirable.

One might go so far as to say that Kissinger at the time believed that American/liberal leadership had failed to construct a peaceful world order out of the collapse of Soviet-style communism and the turmoil associated with globalization. In his view, the maturity and insight of China’s deeply rooted, classic culture will be needed to maintain stability, in partnership with a West that has learned to accommodate (although not appease, Kissinger probably would insist) China’s renewed greatness.