February 2012 will mark the 40th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon's historic Cold War visit to China. Nixon's trip produced the Shanghai Communique, a diplomatic statement in which both the U.S. and a still very red Communist China agreed to establish a political relationship based on something more than ideological antagonism and frozen or unfinished wars (North Korea and Taiwan) that could reignite.
Nixon believed that even more dramatic actions would follow the diplomatic agreement. "This was the week that changed the world," he opined, "as what we have said in that Communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead ..."
Four decades of Nixon's years ahead have passed. This week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon's national security adviser and partner in that canny strategic pirouette, met with senior Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss current bilateral political and economic issues, and reminiscence a bit about 1972.
Kissinger is 89, but he remains a shrewd diplomat. He told state-controlled Chinese Radio International (CRI is the Cold War's Radio Beijing) that though the U.S.-Chinese relationship is complex and cultural differences exacerbate suspicions, he thinks the overall relationship benefits both nations immensely.
Just two weeks ago, however, the Obama administration issued a strategic defense guidance paper that argued the U.S. should "re-balance" its military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region. China's military capabilities are growing, rapidly. The document said, "The growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions," and, "States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities."
Despite the immense changes over the last four decades, particularly in China, North Korea and Taiwan remain unresolved. To defense officials in Beijing, the new guidance sounds a lot like "prepare for war with China."
Kissinger tried to quell that fear by providing greater clarity on U.S. intentions and strategic vision. "A conflict between China and the United States would weaken both societies," he said. If a war occurred, "how would (we) know which side has won, and what would the so-called victor ask the other? You realize we can only exhaust ourselves by conflict, and that is the guiding principle of foreign policy."
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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