The China Challenge
Societies and nations tend to think of themselves as eternal. They also cherish a tale of their origin. A special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning. It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than as a permanent natural phenomenon. In the tale of the Yellow Emperor, revered by many Chinese as the legendary founding ruler, China seems already to exist.
Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, special assistant to President Nixon is toasted by Chinese Premier Chou En-laii Monday night, February 21, 1972 as the Nixon party was quest at a state dinner in Peking.
The Yellow Emperor has gone down in history as a founding hero; yet in the founding myth, he is re-establishing, not creating, an empire. China predated him; it strides into the historical consciousness as an established state requiring only restoration, not creation.
In general, Chinese statesmanship exhibits a tendency to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future all interrelated. In contrast to the Western approach of treating history as a process of modernity achieving a series of absolute victories over evil and backwardness, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasized a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world could be understood but not completely mastered.
For China's classical sages, the world could never be conquered; wise rulers could hope only to harmonize with its trends. There was no New World to populate, no redemption awaiting mankind on distant shores. The promised land was China, and the Chinese were already there. The blessings of the Middle Kingdom's culture might theoretically be extended, by China's superior example, to the foreigners on the empire's periphery. But there was no glory to be found in venturing across the seas to convert "heathens" to Chinese ways; the customs of the Celestial Dynasty were plainly beyond the attainment of the far barbarians.
The most dramatic event of the Nixon presidency occurred in near obscurity. Nixon had decided that for a diplomatic mission to Beijing to succeed, it would have to take place in secrecy. A public mission would have set off a complicated internal clearance project within the U.S. government and insistent demands for consultations from around the world, including Taiwan (still recognized as the government of China). This would have mortgaged our prospects with Beijing, whose attitudes we were being sent to discover. Transparency is an essential objective, but historic opportunities for building a more peaceful international order have imperatives as well.
So my team set off to Beijing via Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi and Rawalpindi on an announced fact-finding journey on behalf of the president. My party included a broader set of American officials, as well as a core group destined for Beijing—myself, as national security adviser, three aides and two Secret Service agents. The dramatic denouement required us to go through tiring stops at each city designed to be so boringly matter-of-fact that the media would stop tracking our movements. In Rawalpindi, we disappeared for 48 hours for an ostensible rest (I had feigned illness) in a Pakistani hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas—but our real destination was Beijing. In Washington, only the president and Col. (later Gen.) Alexander Haig, my top aide, knew our actual mission.
When the American delegation arrived in Beijing on July 9, 1971, we had experienced the subtlety of Chinese communication but not the way Beijing conducted actual negotiations, still less the Chinese style of receiving visitors. American experience with Communist diplomacy was based on contacts with Soviet leaders, principally Andrei Gromyko, who had a tendency to turn diplomacy into a test of bureaucratic will; he was impeccably correct in negotiation but implacable on substance—sometimes, one sensed, straining his self-discipline.
Strain was nowhere apparent in the Chinese reception of the secret visit or during the dialogue that followed. In all the preliminary maneuvers, we had been sometimes puzzled by the erratic pauses between their messages, which we assumed had something to do with the Cultural Revolution.
Nothing now seemed to disturb the serene aplomb of our hosts, who acted as if welcoming the special emissary of the American president for the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China was the most natural occurrence.