HE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
Henry Kissinger on China. Or Not.
By BRET STEPHENS
The Wall Street Journal, MAY 21, 2011
Statesman Henry Kissinger takes a cautious view of Beijing's reaction to the Arab Spring, and U.S. relations with the world's rising power.
New York - 'What I am reflecting about now is not that I don't think I know an answer to your question," says a pensive Henry Kissinger, sitting in his spacious Park Avenue corner office adorned with signed photos of former presidents and foreign leaders. "It's that I don't know whether I choose to talk about it at this moment and in this forum. . . . And I don't mind dropping the interview and I don't mind you saying that I refused to go any further and pay the price for it."
What sort of hard-hitting question should elicit such evasiveness from the former secretary of state? When it comes to Mr. Kissinger there is never a shortage of controversial topics, from the 1970 incursion into Cambodia to the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile to the turf wars he waged with his colleagues in the Nixon and Ford administrations. But my question, which comes a few minutes into our interview, is of a milder variety: "What are the historic sources of Chinese vulnerability, and what are the current ones?"
The topic of the discussion was no accident: Mr. Kissinger's 16th book, "On China," was about to hit bookstores when we sat down to talk. He had consented to our interview—the first, he says, that he granted in connection to the book—on the condition that two-thirds of my questions be about China. I had agreed, on condition that the questions be future-leaning and go beyond the book itself. (My review of the book appeared on these pages May 12, a day after our meeting.)
Mr. Kissinger, who will turn 88 later this month and remains sprightly and intellectually as sharp as ever, seems to be in a bright mood when I enter his office. But it darkens with my first question, which concerns the treatment of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who, like Mr. Kissinger, is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
"I have not read his writings," he answers. "My impression is the Chinese are extremely sensitive to the implications of the Jasmine Revolution, and that they find themselves in a position where if demonstrations develop, they know, or think they know, that the American government might be supportive so that they are probably trying to prevent any temptation from that. That's how I interpret their general crackdown."
I press on. Does he denounce Mr. Liu's treatment? "My policy on this," he replies, "is to talk to them [Chinese leaders], but my personal view is not to denounce it publicly."
I ask a more general question: What's the right—and wrong—way of raising human rights issues with the Chinese? Mr. Kissinger addresses the subject repeatedly in his book, noting that while the U.S. cannot be silent on the matter, "experience has shown that to seek to impose them by confrontation is likely to be self-defeating—especially in a country with such a historical vision of itself as China." To me, he says that the Obama administration is "doing essentially the right thing: They are stating their general view and then they're preserving another category for their private discussions." He adds that "American statesmen can be more explicit on human rights issues than they should be on pressures or sanctions."
I ask if he can explain his point a little more fully. "I'm not sure I want, really, to engage in an extended conversation on the subject," he says. "I have intervened on specific cases, and there's no question that I prefer democratic institutions. But I have not joined public denunciations in order to preserve the possibility of maintaining influence on human rights issues."
"Maintaining influence" has, of course, been the great hallmark of Mr. Kissinger's career since leaving government service in 1977. He has done it in various ways. He is the author of bestselling memoirs and treatises on diplomacy, along with countless magazine articles and op-eds. He is a confidante to senior U.S. government officials and a "carrier of messages," often private and highly sensitive, between them and their foreign counterparts. And he is the founder of an international consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, which does work for a closely held list of corporate clients.
The multiple and potentially overlapping roles have, at times, proved problematic for Mr. Kissinger: In 2002, he stepped down as chairman of the 9/11 Commission after facing calls to disclose the names of his corporate clients. At other times they have proved helpful: In 1989, he helped mediate a dispute between Washington and Beijing over the case of Fang Lizhi, a Chinese dissident who had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy. Mr. Fang eventually made it out of China and now teaches physics at the University of Arizona.
Still, it remains an open question whether, and to what extent, Mr. Kissinger's private roles influence—or inhibit—his public pronouncements. Sensing that I have exhausted his patience with my questions on human rights, I return to the subject of the Arab Spring and its relevance to China.
"I don't think the Arab Spring is necessarily a democratic manifestation, I think it is a populist manifestation," he says. "I think the . . . challenge that China faces in the political field is the impact of the changes in its economy on its political evolution."
He then pauses for a long while. "See, I don't know whether it's useful to go much further in this interview, to tell you the truth. And if I want to express myself on human rights in China, I should . . . not do it as something in response to this sort of dialogue."
Okay. Maybe we can discuss the subject Mr. Kissinger has just raised—the impact of China's economic growth on its political evolution. I ask him if he has thoughts about the argument advanced by Carnegie Endowment scholar Minxin Pei in his widely acclaimed book, "China's Trapped Transition," which contends that an autocratic China will never fulfill the promises of genuine economic reform. Mr. Kissinger has heard of neither the author nor the book, so I summarize the argument.
Mr. Kissinger resorts to generalities. "In the next phase," he says, "[the Chinese] will have to align their political reality with what has been happening in the last 20 years under the impact of reform." I try to pursue this line of questioning by asking what he makes of evidence that Beijing has been backsliding on economic reform, using the case of Google as an example. He says, "the issue of reform, of political reform, will have to be substantially up to the next group of leaders."
Here I sense an opportunity to glean something from Mr. Kissinger's famous store of acquaintances. Has he met Xi Jinping, heir apparent to current president Hu Jintao. "I've met him, yes," he says.
"And what's your impression of him?"
"You can't form an impression of Chinese leaders on that basis," he answers, "because when they rise through their hierarchy, it serves no purpose to indicate differences or even alternative directions." He adds, however, that he thinks Mr. Xi "is a more assertive personality" than the incumbent leader, and notes that he comes from a family that was a victim of the Cultural Revolution. "This," he suggests, "produces a kind of perspective that is not necessarily the traditional Chinese perspective."
Is this new perspective more nationalistic? "Nationalism will play an important role," he says.
This prompts me to ask how the U.S. and its allies should respond to China's recent spate of aggressive moves in the South China Sea, reminiscent as it is of German behavior before World War I. Once again, Mr. Kissinger pauses for the interview-equivalent of an eternity before offering, "Not that I haven't thought about this." I observe that it's the subject of the last chapter of his book.
Another long pause. "No, it's exactly what I write about in the last chapter." He then becomes almost expansive. "I think the United States has to remain part of Asia. I think the United States has to maintain relations with a number of countries that are adequate to express this, but it has to do this . . . not on the basis of a military containment policy, [but] within the framework of a cooperative option for China. Now, is it possible to do this? That is the challenge that is before us."
Inevitably—at least from my point of view—this raises the subject of Taiwan. On the matter of arms sales to the island, Mr. Kissinger says he isn't opposed to them per se, but that "over an extended period of time it will lead to a confrontation." So what, in the long term, is Taiwan's fate? Mr. Kissinger suggests negotiations with the mainland "in which the de facto autonomy of Taiwan is preserved." On the model of Hong Kong? "Certainly beyond the Hong Kong pattern," he says.
I don't get any further.
"I really think that what you should say is that you tried to get down this road with me," he advises. "I won't do it. I've written what I have to write on the subject. Let me take my beating as a result of that, and just stop it. That's a bigger news story than anything I can possibly say in an interview. I will not now discuss a confrontational strategy with China in a formal way."
He offers this remark at about the half-hour mark of what is supposed to be a 90-minute interview. We carry on for another desultory half-hour mainly by switching the subject to the Middle East, and Mr. Kissinger demonstrates he's perfectly capable of being lucid, discursive and incisive when he wants to be. With respect to China, however, he does make two additional noteworthy comments.
The first is personal: "I am trying to protect the option of a political relationship between the United States and China," he says.
The second is more prophetic. "Is it possible," he asks, "to achieve enough of a cooperative pattern [with China] to avoid sliding through a series of mutual misconceptions, of stepping on each other's toes, into a situation where an ultimate confrontation becomes inevitable? And looking at the fact that we have not known how to end our little wars, I have no great hope that either side would know how to end such a conflict. . . . Am I optimistic that it's going to be done? No."
The remarks hint at what may be Mr. Kissinger's fundamental view of U.S.-China relations—that they are already so fragile that it could be derailed by some candid remarks by him in a simple newspaper interview. Alternatively, he may simply have in mind his own opportunities for "maintaining influence."
One thing, at least, is clear: The day after our interview, Mr. Kissinger passed along a statement he wanted included: "I deplore the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo and I urge that he be released."
Mr. Stephens writes "Global View," the Journal's foreign-affairs column. Write to email@example.com.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
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