China’s offer in effect is cooperation on climate and trade matters in exchange for recognition of Beijing’s overlordship of the Himalayan massif, the South China Sea and both sides of the Taiwan straits…writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the US, left office prematurely after winning a second term. There was considerable heartburn within the White House during much of his 1969-75 stay there because it was Henry A. Kissinger, rather than his boss, who was appearing on magazine covers. Kissinger was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to prolong the Vietnam War uselessly for four more years rather than end it by 1971 on the same terms as were enforced by Hanoi in 1975.
Another contributory factor securing him the prize may have been the carpet bombing recommended by Kissinger of not just Vietnam but Laos and Cambodia as well. The deaths of millions in the latter country have been laid at the door of Pol Pot, who was backed by the PRC. The reality is that much of the carnage was caused by bombing. Kissinger followed the example of Winston Spencer Churchill in himself writing the history of his years in power. In both cases, these were presented as a triumph of genius over the shoddy thinking of others, when in fact Churchill and Kissinger erred more often than not.
Kissinger spent a considerable amount of time chatting up journalists and historians, and it was therefore no surprise that the credit for the opening out to the PRC was given to him rather than to Nixon, whose idea it actually was. A similar situation took place in India later, when it was Finance Minister Manmohan Singh who was given almost all the credit for economic reform rather than the actual architect, the unassuming, Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao. The somewhat less spectacular performance of Manmohan Singh the “reformer” in his far more consequential post of Prime Minister during 2004-2014 indicates the manner in which, like a good civil servant, the gentle and intellectually gifted but unassertive economist adjusted his performance to the wishes of the boss.
Sonia Gandhi was a world apart from Narasimha Rao, and it showed in the quality of rule during 1992-96 as compared to the UPA period. Returning to Kissinger, it is a wonder that a statue of the man has not been erected in any Chinese city, for he gave away the store to Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou, so charmed was he by the titans who led the PRC during its initial decades. Concession after concession was offered by the US and generously pocketed by the secretly surprised CCP negotiating team, who of course constantly complained that the giveaways were too little, always too little even when they were excessive.
There had been no need for Kissinger to have been so generous, including in his throwing Taiwan under the bus, besides seeking to instigate war between his new ally, the PRC, and India. Mao and Zhou had for years understood that there was no option but to move against the USSR, and needed very little prodding or concessions to continue do so. In much the same way as they had used the period of struggle against Japanese occupation to build up the PLA, the CCP leadership used the concessions offered by Washington (and soon by the allies of that superpower) to begin the process of making then backward China into a superpower itself, a task which their successors achieved a little over a decade ago.
By the time General Secretary Xi Jinping took charge of the CCP and CMC and through the party and its military the PRC, the country he now led was well on the way to becoming the predominant power on the planet. Small wonder that Xi discarded the camouflage of several of the CCP objectives favoured by his predecessors and adopted an unmistakable transparency about the direction in which the country was moving. From the early period of his rule, the General Secretary placed the PLA at the centre of PRC diplomacy , using the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the facilitator of the PLA’s moves and where needed, as a lubricant smoothening the path to them. Mao ensured that the regime that he installed in 1949 developed the characteristics of permanency, and it is the intention of Xi to ensure that the ascent of Beijing to the top of the table, displacing Washington, takes place during his tenure. As this may take longer than the two terms allocated by convention to PRC leaders since Jiang Zemin, that convention was put aside.
Xi Jinping has surrounded himself with a competent team of advisors, the “best and the brightest” that this country of 1.3 billion people with its ancient civilisation has to offer. They know that for at least five or six years more, they need to prevent stoppage of the concessions they are getting from entities in the US or linked to that country in alliances. Mao and Zhou offered Nixon and the smitten Henry Kissinger the offer of collaboration in bringing down the Soviet Union, a task that they were anyway committed to. In return for the faux favour, they demanded substantive concessions, which Henry Kissinger was only too willing to recommend to his boss be given. As in the case of Shimla in 1972, one side walked away with the goodies, while the other side was left holding the bill for the bag of concessions that it had handed over.
Now Xi Jinping, through the able Yang Jiechi, has offered a similar bargain to President Biden and Vice President Harris. Both Xi and Yang appear certain that there are enough friends of the Beijing nomenklatura (a charter member of which served in the Trump cabinet) in Washington, New York and San Francisco to ensure acceptance of their offer of cooperation on climate and trade matters in exchange for recognition of Beijing’s overlordship of the Himalayan massif, the South China Sea and both sides of the Taiwan straits. Of course, all that is asked for is acceptance in practice of such overlordship. The US would be at liberty to profess opposition to such moves by the PRC, as long as the opposition was verbal or comprised of media pyrotechnics without effect on the ground situation.
The reality is that there is no option for the CCP leadership but to push ahead with both climate mitigation as well as trade simplification, as both are in the PRC interest. Getting any concession from Washington (much less the Kissingerian ones explicitly asked for by Yang Jiechi) would be a bonus to the plans of the CCP General Secretary. Is there a Henry Kissinger within the Biden administration who will once again play Santa Claus in the manner that Nixon’s emissary did in the past? That would depend on whether Biden and Harris understand the nature of the one-sided bargain that is being dangled before them, or get taken in and make concessions that are wholly unnecessary to secure China’s compliance on trade and climate.