The Characteristics of Chinese Statecraft and Diplomacy: Views from Jacques and Kissinger, Essay Example

Introduction: For Kissinger, China’s ‘singularity’ lies with its status as a highly original, accomplished civilization, with a much-feted ancient history and tremendous geographical and demographic size. China, Kissinger observes, has long had the luxury of a Sinocentric world order, and its ‘singularity’ has underpinned very distinctive approaches to statecraft and to foreign diplomacy. Taking a somewhat similar view, Jacques argues that China’s differences and their historical underpinnings are shaping, and will continue to shape, a very different modernity in China. For China, modernization does not mean ‘Westernization’. The observations of both authors go a long way towards explaining much of the behavior of the People’s Republic of China since 1949, including the long hand of traditional Chinese approaches in the PRC’s statecraft and diplomacy, though I find Jacques’s ideas generally more compelling.

Part A). For Kissinger, China’s ‘singularity’ is its very long history as a highly original, accomplished, and advanced civilization, one which, until very recently, was not obligated to treat with foreign societies that could pose much of a cultural or political challenge to it. Even such powerful foreign conquerors as the Mongols in the 13th century and the Manchus in the 17th century were readily absorbed by China. Moreover, China’s achievements facilitated the creation of a great deal of wealth: in fact, until the Industrial Revolution, China was richer by far than any Western country. This combination of a very large population, a very large geographical reach, and a very distinctive and accomplished civilization made China the logical center of a Sinocentric world order in East and Southeast Asia, with nations such as Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma absorbing Chinese culture to varying extents and often paying tribute.[1]

The extraordinary singularity of China’s success, in Kissinger’s view, cannot be fully understood without adequate treatment of the ideology that underpinned the entire sociopolitical and cultural order: Confucianism. Based on the teachings of Kong Fu-zi (Latinized to ‘Confucius’), Confucianism emphasizes social harmony: “the principles of compassionate rule, the performance of correct rituals, and the inculcation of filial piety.”[2] Confucius advocated restraint, justice, and obedience to properly-constituted authority. In this deeply hierarchical Weltanschauung, the Emperor is paramount: he stands as both the universal Emperor of Humanity, the rightful overlord of the world order, and the Son of Heaven, responsible for serving as the intermediary between Heaven and Earth. So long as the Emperor discharged his duties with all due rectitude,  all would be well and the Great Harmony would be upheld. If he erred from virtue, chaos would result, and his dynasty would lose the Mandate of Heaven.[3]

Kissinger also notes that China entered the modern era with a longstanding tradition of a well-developed and powerful state structure: a competitively-recruited imperial bureaucracy, one that faced no internal rivals for power. The contrast here is with Europe, which entered the modern era as a welter of different political systems and church-state conflict. This in turn contributed to China’s particular approach to foreign policy: where Europe in the early modern period developed a system of balance-of-power diplomacy based on the mutual recognition of state sovereignty, China could take for granted its own dominant position in its geopolitical arena. With near neighbors such as Korea, China maintained a tributary state system: in return for their deference, China granted them trading rights and other benefits. To manage the mounted tribes of the steppe frontier, however, China employed very different systems of ‘barbarian management’ were based on a cunning realpolitik, one that sought to exploit the barbarians’ appetite for Chinese goods to keep them politically divided and therefore weak.[4]

Jacques’s treatment of the China ‘difference’ evinces many points of similarity to Kissinger’s views. Jacques’s first point is that China is not a nation-state so much as a civilization-state, an observation Kissinger also makes: Jacques’s point here is that even though China has adopted the form of a modern nation-state, it has done so only very recently, in the face of a great deal of pressure from the West in the 19th century. In essence, China remains indelibly Chinese in terms of its institutions, culture, and conceptions of itself as a unique and superior civilization. From this follows Jacques’s second point, one that again draws a great deal from Kissinger, that as China regains strength and begins to assert itself more and more confidently in the world, it will increasingly resurrect the forms and principles of the tributary-state system that it used for thousands of years with smaller nations on its borders, i.e. Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. In his third point, Jacques enters territory not explicitly covered by Kissinger, observing that the Chinese have a distinctive attitude towards race: they view all Han Chinese as members of a single race, even though the reality is that they are of disparate and heterogeneous origins, and the non-Han Chinese as closely allied and similar peoples.[5]

Jacques also emphasizes the continental scale of the Chinese state, contending that its sheer size, both in geographical and demographic terms, has enormous ramifications for how it will continue to modernize. Consequently, unlike more typical nation-states, China can, for example, experiment with different systems of governance in different parts of its immense sweep. This again touches on some of Kissinger’s points, though it adds considerable depth of explanatory power. Jacques’s fifth point is in perfect accord with Kissinger: the power of the state, ruled by the Emperor and administered by an imperial scholar-bureaucracy recruited through a system of examinations which depended on an education in the Confucian classics. Jacques argues that despite the disintegration of the old imperial order in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and decades of Communist rule, remarkably little has changed: the state still administers the country without any sign of popular accountability or democracy, so cherished by the West, and the state’s legitimacy is rooted in its competency and its ability to deliver economic growth and improved living standards to the Chinese people. Again, Jacques touches on some key themes in Kissinger, but expands them and adds explanatory depth.[6]

Jacques’s fifth point is that China’s modernization is very rapid, and can be expected to remain so. While this modernization is nowhere near as complete as that of the East Asian ‘tigers’ (i.e. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) owing again to the country’s vast size, it has still been extraordinarily rapid, albeit uneven. This has resulted in vast areas of the countryside remaining extraordinarily rural and agrarian, even as many other sectors of Chinese society are extremely urbanized. The significance of this is to continue the historical feedback loop of the transition from rural countryside to modern urbanization, meaning that China’s modernization project will continue to be very different from Western-style modernization, as well as the modernization projects of the ‘tigers’.[7]

Point seven is that all this has taken place under a Communist party, although given the flexibility of China’s Communist party and the nature of its achievements, Communism in the Chinese context must be understood in a much more heterodox and flexible fashion than in the Soviet and Eastern Bloc context. Despite Western predictions, the Chinese Communist Party refused to follow its Soviet and Warsaw Pact counterparts into oblivion. The eighth and final point returns to the ground explored by point six, namely that China will continue to combine the features of a developed country with those of a developing country, meaning that its modernity will continue to be influenced by backwardness.[8] Given the added explanatory depth of Jacques’s points, as seen, all in all I find his the more comprehensive and persuasive analysis.

Part B). For all his concerted and determined assaults on his country’s heritage, Mao foreign policy betrayed a deep indebtedness to traditional Chinese conceptions of foreign policy. Although the Korean War was in no small measure the result of the clever machinations of Marshal Kim Il-Sung, who shrewdly pitted Mao against Stalin, Mao was nonetheless able to use Chinese intervention as a means of establishing his new regime’s military abilities, and its symbolic political capital as a “center of Asian revolution.”[9] After the war, Mao devised and implemented a brilliant strategy of power politics designed to play off the Soviet Union and the United States against each other, while challenging both at the same time. Kissinger finds no precedent for this, and it certainly seems to support his view of China’s ‘singularity’—the more since, to my eye, it is reminiscent of the ways in which the 19th-century Qing Dynasty sought to pit the Western powers against each other in the aftermath of its defeat at the hands of Britain in two Opium Wars. China was the least well-armed of the three powers, particularly because it was the only one without nuclear weapons, but Mao’s gambit was that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States would want the other to defeat the People’s Republic of China.[10]

Kissinger contends that Mao was able to advance China’s interests at the expense of both powers by exploiting their respective fears of each other: the Soviet Union would not push too hard against the People’s Republic of China for fear of damaging it and leaving it vulnerable to the Soviet Union’s arch-nemesis the United States, and vice-versa. This strategy, of course, is from Sun Tzu: it is the ‘Empty Citadel’ stratagem, the idea that an actor can display apparent weakness in a way that will be mistaken by their rival(s) as a sign of hidden strength, thereby enabling them to gain the victory with the minimum of actual bloodshed and damage.[11]

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis was, on the surface, a dispute over some inconsequential islands over which the Kuomintang had retained control during the retreat from mainland China. However, both for Mao and for Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, the dispute was framed in terms of the traditional Chinese essentialist conception of Chinese-ness: for Mao and the People’s Republic of China, the status of breakaway Taiwan was unacceptable because it was properly a part of China, and its people properly Chinese. Compromise on this point was unacceptable. The Kuomintang government, conversely, maintained the same position with respect to the whole of mainland China governed by the People’s Republic, making the declaration of an independent Taiwanese state essentially unthinkable, because to do so would be to abandon the Kuomintang government’s claims to represent the legitimate and properly-constituted government of China. Here, I think Kissinger has some good points, but I think he might overstate his case: since the concept of shared nationhood is scarcely uniquely Chinese, Mao’s desire to eliminate the best forward positions remaining to the Kuomintang seems to me a rather straightforward political-strategic calculation. Kissinger holds that Mao viewed the Taiwan Strait Crisis in terms of encirclement: since the Kuomintang had accepted considerable American aid, Taiwan and the islands of the Strait represented a strategic challenge to China that simply could not be ignored. He connects this to the Chinese wei qi strategic rules, which emphasize not being encircled.[12] Again, however, my own perspective on this is that while Mao’s strategic approach may have been traditionally Chinese in a meaningful sense, I think Kissinger may overstate its uniqueness or ‘singularity’. For example, the 1948-1949 Soviet blockade of West Berlin, another major international crisis of the Cold War, evinces some parallels to the First Taiwan Strait Crisis: in both cases, a Communist regime moved against a politically strategic position of a Western-allied regime. Both positions were of limited strategic importance, but this may have only made them more tempting targets for demonstrations which the Soviets and Chinese, respectively, correctly calculated would have limited security risks.

Kissinger also claims that the momentous Sino-Soviet Split reveals the long hand of traditional Chinese approaches with respect to its foreign policy behavior. Driven by memories of the czars’ territorial exactions in the 19th century and Stalin’s opportunistic dealings with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang at the expense of the Chinese Communist Party during the Second World War, Beijing had ample reason to mistrust Moscow. But the problems went much deeper: drawing on traditional Sinocentric conceptions, Mao took umbrage at Soviet claims of paramount status in the Communist world, and diverged from the Kremlin ideologically. On the one hand, there are inescapable parallels between the Sino-Soviet Split and the Tito-Stalin Split of 1948, notably the fact that both Tito and Mao were not particularly beholden to Stalin for their respective positions. On the other, I think Kissinger demonstrates that Mao had a particularly Chinese conception of foreign policy and China’s rightful place in the world, one that goes a long way towards explaining his behavior. Mao drew on a very self-conscious Chinese identity, one that envisioned China as a particularly ancient, accomplished, and superior civilization. Chinese foreign policy proceeded from assumptions of Chinese cultural superiority and Sinocentrism in a geopolitical sense as well. I agree with Kissinger that this mentality continued to guide Beijing under Mao, underpinning the assumption that China would soon resume its rightful place as the greatest nation in the world, just as it always had.[13]




Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

Kissinger, Henry. On China. New York: Penguin Group, 2012.

[1] Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 17-20.

[2] Kissinger, On China, 21.

[3] Kissinger, On China, 21-23.

[4] Kissinger, On China, 24-27.

[5] Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 417-421.

[6] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 422-425.

[7] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 425-426.

[8] Jacques, When China Rules the World, 426-427.

[9] Kissinger, On China, 112.

[10] Kissinger, On China, 114.

[11] Kissinger, On China, 114.

[12] Kissinger, On China, 117-119.

[13] Kissinger, On China, 121-124.