In 1971 National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger embarked on a secret mission. So secret that even America’s closest allies hadn’t been informed of it.
He ended his tour of Asia in Pakistan, where it was announced Kissinger was to spend a few days relaxing in the mountains. Instead he was whisked away to a military airfield, whence a Pakistani plane flew him to China.
There Kissinger spent three days negotiating with Mao’s second-in-command, Zhou Enlai. This had every characteristic of a cloak and dagger story: the cloak of secrecy shrouded the mission, and the dagger was plunged into the back of Taiwan, America’s loyal ally.
At that time the US had no diplomatic relations with China, relegating Mao’s cannibalistic regime to international wilderness. Its legitimacy wasn’t recognised; it was Taiwan that was America’s diplomatic partner. And it was Taiwan that, as the Republic of China, held a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
By contrast, America’s relations with Mao’s China had been frankly hostile until then. In the early 1950s the two countries found themselves on opposite sides in the sanguinary Korean war, producing hundreds of thousands of Chinese casualties and tens of thousands of American ones.
However, America wasn’t the only power China was at daggers drawn with. Mao and Soviet leaders didn’t see eye to eye on ideology, and none so hostile as divergent exponents of the same creed. Following the 1969 Sino-Soviet split, the two countries had a series of border clashes.
The most serious one occurred at Damansky Island on the Ussuri River, when Chinese soldiers ambushed Soviet border guards. The Soviets responded with missile barrages and managed to hold on to the island. Since then, the two communist giants had been on the brink of war, possibly a nuclear one, a situation Kissinger saw as an opportunity.
Actually, America didn’t need China to defeat the Soviet Union in any war, cold or otherwise. The US and her NATO allies had a prohibitive strategic advantage over the Soviets, and both sides knew it. However, it took moral strength and determination to press that advantage home, and those commodities were in short supply throughout the West. Hence having a billion Chinese allies threatening Russia from the east seemed like a painless alternative to taking a principled stance.
Kissinger’s task was to convince Zhou that China should ally herself with America, with each acting as the jaw of a vice crushing the Soviet strength to fight the Cold War – or for that matter a hot one of the nuclear variety that the Soviets had been threatening to unleash on China.
Zhou was amenable; he too craved normal relations with the United States. Zhou was ready to treat America as a friend, but Confucius say friends must help one another. He wanted his new American friend to recognise the People’s Republic as the only legitimate China. No problem, Zhou. Kissinger thought it was a peachy idea.
The two sides set up a summit meeting between Nixon and Mao, and in February 1972 Nixon arrived in Peking. After his conference with Mao, the rapprochement went full speed ahead. Taiwan was kicked off her seat in the Security Council, with the People’s Republic squeezing her own bulk in. She was recognised as the only legal representative of China, with Taiwan’s status becoming rather loosely defined.
The United States was now fully committed to drawing China into her orbit. But magnets were required, of the economic kind. China’s economy was a shambles following all those Cultural Revolutions and Great Leaps forward. However, if China was the Augean Stables, America, inspired by Kissinger’s realpolitik, was ready to play Hercules.
China received instant and unlimited access to Western capital and technologies. Those few technologies that the West preferred to keep for itself were stolen by China’s industrial espionage. Nobody minded too much – the Soviet Union was being neutralised.
Within a few decades China managed to blend those Western gifts with her own industrious, cheap, semi-enslaved labour force to become the West’s manufacturing base. That turned China into an economic giant and, more to the point, a military one.
Some of the internal reins got loosened, and China began to mass-produce not only assorted trinkets but also billionaires. The traditional thinking – if it merits such a lofty term – was that, once a communist country got a taste of Western consumerism and free enterprise, it would stop being communist, first de facto, then de jure.
That belief is another aspect of what I call totalitarian economism, a false theory bringing together such supposed antipodes as Marxists and libertarians. The two groups have joined forces to create a fake picture of a life mostly driven by economic concerns.
They simply have to shorten the distance between humans and animals. The latter, after all, also have their lives circumscribed by a pursuit of food and shelter. What totalitarian economists created was a more sophisticated human version of the same thing: foie gras instead of bananas or cud, Lake Como villas instead of lairs and dens.
Since the so-called Left and Right are in agreement, differing only in the type of materialism they favour, who’s going to argue? No one. The forged picture of life has been certified as original, and never mind the facts. Ideology has spoken.
Yet facts refuse to go away. For example, if you look at the two on-going wars, in the Ukraine and Gaza, the two aggressors, Russia and Hamas, knew beforehand that their actions would hurt their economic interests no end. Yet they went ahead because they aren’t simians but humans. Evil humans, but humans nonetheless.
And human beings, while still preferring to live in comfort, are mostly driven by non-material concerns. These could be honour, wounded pride, ideology, religion, love, hate, nationalism, internationalism – all those things, good or bad, that ought to remind our totalitarian economists that man does not live by bread alone.
China has vindicated my iconoclasm by building up a mammoth economy, but without changing her communist, which is to say evil, spots. The periphery of the system has changed, but the core remains the same. China is still a communist country bent on world domination – and she now has the means to make attempts towards that end.
At some point, Americans began to get an inkling of this, but the economic benefits they derived from the giant pool of cheap yet qualified Chinese labour put blinkers on their eyes. However, the sinister shadow China’s bulk was casting on the world, and specifically on American interests, has forced some of the blinkers to be pushed aside.
Three consecutive American presidents have been fighting back, if half-heartedly. Joe Biden has publicly declared China to be the main global challenge (that’s the modern for ‘threat’) and introduced a packet of sanctions. But that’s like trying to push toothpaste back into the tube, if you’ll pardon the cliché.
And the paste was originally squeezed out by Henry Kissinger, the feted maestro of realpolitik. China is now waiting for the propitious moment to claim the prize she was implicitly promised: Taiwan. That’s creating another flashpoint, eminently capable of flaring up into a global war, and the first nuclear bomb falling down should have Kissinger’s name on it.
Now imagine that the US policy towards China in the early 1970s was set by a less Machiavellian politician, a firm believer in first principles. Such a politician would never have made it easy for China to build up her economic and military brawn. Rather than playing footsies with the communists, he would have declared that he considered their ideology evil and saw his task in containing it.
China, while still remaining a formidable threat because of her sheer mass, would never have developed on her own the economic and technological wherewithal to challenge the West in earnest. The world would today be a safer place, and America’s position in the world much stronger.
Henry Kissinger had many admirable qualities, and quite a few not so admirable ones. That’s why what he himself saw as his greatest coup many others have got to see as a catastrophic and irreversible error. History has taught another lesson, but most pupils were playing truant as usual.