A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China

Book Summary by Aditya Joshi, Research intern, PIC 

Indians associate the year 1971 with the decisive Indo-Pak war which led to the birth of Bangladesh, altering the geo-politics of the subcontinent. However, the landmark, secret visit of the then US National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, to People’s Republic of China (PRC) in July, 1971, was an event of far greater significance in international affairs which not only changed the course of the Cold War, but also resulted in the present-day crisis between Xi’s China and the United States, under President Biden.
This book is essentially a compilation of essays written by distinguished analysts, each examining the global implications of the US-China reset and how it impacted a select group of countries / each presenting a different geo-political and geo-economic perspective of Kissinger’s landmark visit to China.
These 19 essays have been curated in an excellent manner by two seasoned journalists, each with a deep understanding of international affairs, global diplomacy and economy. Mr. Sanjaya Baru and Mr. Rahul Sharma provide readers with a wide spectrum of information: for instance, how did the Soviet- China border dispute in the late 1960s play a catalyst in improving bilateral relations between USA & PRC? Similarly, the clandestine role of Pakistan in facilitating this historic meeting amidst the ongoing genocide in East Pakistan further generate the reader interest, indicating how South Asia as a whole also felt the impact of the US-China bonhomie.
Kissinger’s opening to China was a strategic calculation made on the chessboard of the Cold War. With rising border conflicts between USSR and China, it soon dawned upon the American establishment, that, in order to neutralize the Soviet threat, a line of contact must be established with Mao’s China. Post the 1948 Communist revolution, PRC was considered a ‘pariah’ in diplomatic circles. In spite of having fought a war with India in 1962, China, was yet to get global legitimacy and a seat at the UN. All this changed with Kissinger’s secret visit, which eventually paved the way for full diplomatic ties between both nations as explained by the US Amb. Teresita Schaffer, in the very first chapter, the historical contexts for the rapprochement.
The former Singaporean diplomat Dr. Kishore Mahbubani, terming Dr. Kissinger a ‘true realist-pragmatist,’ presents an account of USA’s waking up to the new Asian realities, its blindness to China’s hegemonic ambitions, passed down successive leaderships and its domestic weaknesses, all exploited by China to ‘hide its capabilities and bide its time’ in order to make itself the dominant player in the 21st century.
In the Indian context, the strategic affairs analyst Prof. C. Raja Mohan has given a lucid account of the changing diplomatic strategies adopted by successive PMs to counter the expansionist Chinese dragon. From the Nehruvian consensus of ‘Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai’ to the present policy in the aftermath of the Galwan face-off in 2020, India’s options are fast narrowing, due to the historical baggage of friendly Soviet ties, conflicting partnership with USA and a diplomatic stalemate with Pakistan.
Senior journalist Ms. Suhasini Haidar and political commentator Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa further add a new dimension to the book by analyzing the shifting power dynamics in Pakistan in the 1970s, India’s domestic political turmoil and the birth of Bangladesh, all in the context of the ‘diplomatic coup’ carried out by Dr. Kissinger.
This 300-page book is an important addition to the existing literature on China, as it not only gives us readers a fascinating account of the sequence of events which unfolded in those crucial months, but also the consequences of Dr. Kissinger’s visit which is currently shaping the present world order.