At the age of 101, the patriarch of American diplomacy, Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), has died. In the modern history of American-Chinese relations, the name of one of the most influential diplomats of his time stands apart, since it was, he who stood at the “epicenter” of the relationship between Washington and Beijing for the last 50 years (since the 1970s). Getting to know his point of view, his attitude towards the Celestial Empire helps to look at these relationships from a different perspective, completely different from the “views” of the modern administration from the banks of the Potomac in late 2010-early 2020.
It should be noted that the prospect of strategic tension in the current US-China relationship is rooted in the Chinese fear that America is seeking to contain China, and parallel to this is the American fear that China is seeking to drive the United States out of Asia. Such mutual alienation of two modern world antagonists puts the rest of the world in the position of “spectators”, warily watching their confrontation.
Henry Kissinger is the author of a wonderful book about the Middle Kingdom – “On China ” / “About China ” (2011/2014), where he talks in a fascinating way about the modern history of China and initiates us into the intricacies of Chinese diplomacy, which amazingly combines ancient traditions and communist rhetoric. In the book, drawing on his rich experience of communicating with Chinese leaders – Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, Kissinger reflects on the impact each of them had on the fate of modern China, and also makes his own forecasts about the global balance of political forces in the twentieth century.
Sophisticated Heavyweight world diplomacy, noted that after the Second World War, the United States had no high-level contacts with China for more than 20 years and this state of affairs should have been changed, since American “citizens deserved a respite from the nightmares of the Vietnam War and the string of ominous events of the Cold War “Henry Kissinger managed to visit China more than 50 times in total (the last time in 2023). During this time, he”came to love the Chinese people for their resilience, their sophistication, their sense of family and the culture they represent.” And as he writes, he “as one of the highest officials, as an envoy of his leadership and simply as an ordinary citizen was very lucky in the opportunity to combine both his love for China and his official work. Then I repeatedly talked with Chinese leaders. Naturally, I proceeded from the American approach to problems, which is distinguished by great pragmatism, and the principles of a gradual solution to them” (G. Kissinger. About China / translation from English by I. Verchenko . Moscow: AST, 2014. P. 11).
More than fifty years ago, Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in 1971 and his negotiations with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai essentially opened the way to the normalization of relations between the PRC and the United States. However, today we see a different picture, when the modern American-Chinese confrontation is reminiscent of the Cold War that once existed between the USA and the USSR. While noting the objectivity of some contradictions, Kissinger nevertheless speaks out for expanding cooperation between Washington and Beijing and raises the question of “whether they will be able to sufficiently form a common faith in the future, which will allow them to avoid mutual conflict.” Until the very last day of his life, these thoughts, in fact, did not leave him. So, during his last, private visit to China in the summer of 2023, he tried to understand the thinking of the Chinese leadership in order to convey his impressions and instructions to the American authorities upon his return on how to further conduct relations between the White House and Zhongnanhai, quickly resolving this US-Chinese gambit.
Unfortunately, his appeal to another US presidential candidate from The Democratic Party’s message to Joe Biden in November 2020 that “a coalition targeting a specific country is unwise” fell on deaf ears. Such a coalition led by the United States and its European satellites has become a reality today, which brings to mind the “Orwellian world”, where Oceania is in a state of permanent war with Eurasia and Eastasia. Although modern political geography is very different from the “ Orwellian world”, these glimpses of the “Orwellian world” should make humanity think about it before it is too late.
In his speech at the New Economy Forum (New Economy Forum) in November 2019 in Beijing, Henry Kissinger once again warned the world about the danger of the American-Chinese confrontation, which, in his opinion, is much more dangerous than the Soviet-American Cold War, because the parties in it did not depend on each other economically, and the First World War, in which much less destructive weapons were used. Taking a position “above the fray,” Kissinger called for maintaining global balance, veiledly pointing out to Beijing the imbalance in trade relations, and to Washington the need to take into account the interests of China in this balance, as its integral part, which cannot be excluded from it.
In addition to all this, Kissinger noted: in order to understand China, one must first understand Chinese culture, since it is impossible to treat China objectively without a deep understanding of Chinese culture. Perhaps this is precisely the reason for the recent emergence of serious problems in American-Chinese relations.
In his book “On China,” Henry Kissinger quotes a famous expression from the book “The Art of War” (孫子兵法) by Sun Tzu (孫子): “The best thing is to subdue your enemies without engaging in battle” (in the book: “ A successful commander waits before by rushing headlong into the fray” / p. 45). At the same time, he is convinced that China and the United States will never fall into the “Thucydides trap”, i.e. to a state where a political situation in which the reason for war is the fear of an existing powerful power of the increasing power of a rival. A resurgent China and a steadfast United States may well achieve a win-win situation.
In 2016, during a meeting with former Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉国), Henry Kissinger repeated his opinion that the “Thucydides Trap” between China and the United States does not exist. Both countries are partners, not enemies. In November 2019 in Beijing, Kissinger also did not change his position on this issue. He noted that although the two countries have many differences, none of these differences can serve as the beginning of a military conflict.
According to Henry Kissinger, the United States could not contain the rise of China – and did not intend to do so, even if it had the opportunity. If until 2017, American-Chinese relations were of a partnership nature, then the rapid transformation of the Celestial Empire into a country almost independent of cooperation led to “fear” among the inhabitants of the house on the Washington lawn.
As Henry Kissinger notes, the events of 2019-2021. and especially in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, friction between Washington and Beijing has increased dramatically. At the same time, in his opinion, the Biden administration realized that the US-China confrontation is not beneficial for either of its participants or for the whole world. However, Joe Biden’s government has a serious domestic political problem, since public opinion in the United States perceives China as an enemy, and that is why the new American administration will not be easy to find a way out of the confrontation.
This situation has largely arisen due to the fact that the former and current administration of the White House, like the previous ones, formed a negative image of the Celestial Empire in the minds of its citizens, portraying China, like a number of eastern countries, as an “enemy” encroaching on power and “democratic values” an American nation, a country offering its model of globalization to the whole world, etc.
of the American expert Ian Bremmer are very interesting (Ian Bremmer) founder and president of the Eurasia Center Group , which he voiced in his report “ The End of the American Order” (“Completing the American Order”) at the Great Summit ZERO in Tokyo on November 18, 2019. Thus, the report talks about China and the Chinese challenge to undermined American hegemony. “China has made a decision. Beijing is building a separate system of Chinese technology—its own standards, infrastructure and supply chains—to compete with the West. Make no mistake: this is the most important geopolitical decision made in the last three decades. This is also the greatest threat to globalization.” However, this is a threat, first of all, to the American model of globalization, since the Chinese model of globalization 2.0 within the framework of the Belt and Road brings obvious benefits to everyone who directly or indirectly supports it.
According to some American experts, the Chinese challenge, unlike the Soviet one, lies in self-sufficiency. That’s why he’s dangerous. In conditions of global uncertainty, the threat is that China and the United States become too involved in a trade and technological confrontation with each other. And the associated loss of their ability, distracted from internecine confrontation, to influence such “destructive” trends as European populism, Russian “revanchism” and chaos in the Middle East.
Therefore, Henry Kissinger’s point of view is that despite all the disagreements between China and the United States, it is important not to let their development run uncontrollably, threatening a global conflict. That is, make them manageable. Such “formation of a world center of truly shared political responsibility” (Z. Brzezinski) imposes an obligation on Washington and Beijing to the entire world community for its future.
As for one of the main problems of American-Chinese relations—Taiwan—Henry Kissinger noted that there is no point in trying to resolve the island’s dual status. According to the politician, over the past 50 years, a special order has emerged in which both the United States (supporting the “one China policy”) and the PRC recognize the dual position of Taiwan. A war for Taiwan would be a tragedy both for all Chinese living in the Asia-Pacific region and for other peoples in the region.
In his interview with Neue Zürcher Zeitung in May 2021, Henry Kissinger again noted that in a hypothetical conflict between the United States and China there will be no winners and it will end in the exhaustion of both sides, like the First World War. At the same time, according to Kissinger, it will not be easy for Joe Biden to mend the tense US-Chinese relations, since public opinion in the US perceives China as a permanent enemy. Hopefully, the last meeting between American and Chinese leaders in San Francisco in November 2023 will bear fruit, allowing these relations to return to normal.
Henry Kissinger sincerely believed that “Relations between China and the United States cannot – and should not – become a zero-sum game” (Kissinger G. About China / translated from English by I. Verchenko. Moscow: AST, 2014. P. 557) . “The United States has a responsibility to maintain its competitiveness and its role in the world. They are obliged to do this primarily for the sake of their traditional beliefs, and not because of rivalry with China. Strengthening competitiveness is more of an American idea, and there is no need to ask China to solve it for us. China, pursuing its own vision of national destiny, will continue to develop its economy and continue to pursue a wide range of interests in Asia and beyond. Such a perspective would not require confrontation…” (p. 560). “Each country is too big to be dominated by the other. That is why none of them is able to determine the conditions of their victory in the event of war or in a conflict like the Cold War (p. 561).
As we see, the former US Secretary of State, the “symbol” of Chinese-American rapprochement in the 70s of the twentieth century. right up to the day of his death, he sought to correct even the minor shortcomings of his American “colleagues,” continuing to work to improve American-Chinese relations and doing everything possible and impossible to reduce the degree of political confrontation between the two countries. This is the enduring value of the outstanding diplomat and politician Henry Kissinger, a man who was valued and respected in China as a friend.
Erkin Baydarov for the China Studies Centre.
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