Chinese Wisdom

Posted on May 3, 2015

Chinese Wisdom
Farrukh Pitafi

Henry Kissinger, as an author, has the uncanny gift of relating mundane stories of international history in a delightful and absorbing manner, otherwise thought the domain of fiction writers. He can transport you through the inane realities of international disorder and chaos to a world where it all makes sense. His Diplomacy (1994) remains one of my all-time favourite books. It is an inspiring work. Back in my university days, one gentleman took out time to copy it in his own handwriting in the futile hope of committing it all to memory. His recent works are no less absorbing.

Dr Kissinger wrote a beautiful book with a self-explanatory title called On China (2011). It is a celebration of China’s uniqueness. Only those with the insight and first-hand experience like Kissinger could claim to understand even a fraction of Chinese wisdom. He skillfully brings out the fact that China possesses the world’s oldest unbroken cultural tradition. And how China has always considered itself the Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguo, essentially implying that it is the centre of the universe and an introvert. How ancient history still plays an important role in the minds of its people and policymakers. Then he imbues the narrative with anecdotes from his own encounters with Chinese leaders. So empathetic is his approach that he struggles considerably to contextualize, if not rationalise, some of the darker chapters of Chinese history, like the Tiananmen Square episode. His preferred way is that of engaging China.

In sharp contrast, Robert Blackwill, a former ambassador to India and ironically enough, the Henry Kissinger Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), has teamed up with Ashley J Tellis, an Indian lobbyist within American ranks and a graduate of the University of Bombay, to recommend a policy of containment. In their report “Revising US Grand Strategy Towards China”, co-authored for the CFR, they present China as the most significant competitor to the US in the decades to come. They go on to claim that the US attempts to integrate China into the international order has resulted in threats to its primacy in Asia and eventually in the world. Now it is not difficult to recognise a spin when you see one and you can understand where this is all headed. I have followed Mr Tellis’s career and works closely since he leaked the summary of a confidential US department of defence war game report “Asia 2025” to an Indian newspaper back in late 1990. He had taken part in the report’s preparation in which Pakistan’s Balkanisation is projected as a possible scenario along with close cooperation between India and the US, which is meant to contain China. So you can understand that India, which sees itself as a counterweight to China, must be worried about a possible thaw between Beijing and Washington.

The fact of the matter is that many players benefit from a renewed estrangement between China and the US, but they both do not. It is not difficult to understand the misgivings on both sides. But they are easily overcome when you see the potential of cooperation and mutual benefit. As countries trapped in the mental straitjacket of the Cold War balance of power struggle to revive the old order, China is quickly rewriting the ground rules. Its wisdom does not emanate from the ancient works of Confucius or Sun Tzu, from the game of Weiqi (board game of encirclement) or game theory itself. It does from its ability, readiness and even desire to evolve, as well as its patience. From ancient texts to Mao’s philosophy, the country has refused to let one ideology define it. It continues to mutate and learn. It is the country which patiently waited for a long time to get Hong Kong and Macau back.

Today China is investing immensely in building synergies with regional countries, including India, and by doing so it is discarding the outdated balance of power paradigm. China’s ability to evolve is second only to the US itself. Back in the 1970s, it accepted the US as a tutor on capitalism and has slowly but steadily been opening up. Attempts to contain it will only deliver it at the doorstep of reactionary remnants of the Cold War. If it manages to open up, it will offer the world’s largest capitalist market with a workforce disciplined by the socialist model. Is it too simplistic to assume that the new world order hinges not upon balance of power but on mutual interdependence and collective security?