Kissinger in China

Henry Kissinger, now a 100-year-old freelance diplomat, attempts to calm U.S.-China tensions

It is remarkable for a man to live to be a hundred. Dr. Henry Kiss­inger, who celebrated his 100th birthday last May 27, is only the second major fig­ure in the U.S. foreign policy establish­ment to live that long.

George Kennan, the author of the “Long Telegram” from Moscow, the vi­sionary behind the Cold War containment strategy, and a policy planner even more influential in his heyday than Kissinger was under presidents Nixon and Ford, died in March 2005 at the age of 101. Kennan was a gloomier, more reserved figure than Kissinger, still an assertive extrovert, but a distinctly pessimistic view of the future is common to both men.

In February 1997, Kennan warned that the Clinton administration’s move to ex­pand NATO to the borders of Russia was a terrible mistake, “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” We now know that Kennan was right about the risks.

Kissinger is more focused on China, which is unsurprising for the man who, in 1971, made his famous secret trip to Beijing which paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic week-long visit in 1972. It was only the first of over one hundred visits to China which Kissinger has made over the past half-century. In his interviews and public addresses since the beginning of this year, he has intimated that, in his view, Ukraine is almost a sideshow, which can and should be concluded through ne­gotiations: Russia keeps Crimea, perhaps holds the Donbas, and Ukraine is accept­ed into NATO, resulting in a lasting “bal­ance of frustration” between them.

Far more serious, in Kissinger’s view, is the Chinese-American rivalry. It may lead to war in an era similar to that which pre­ceded the Great War of 1914-1918, with­out clearly defined rules to resolve rival­ries between the great powers. The veteran statesman was worried enough about the trajectory of U.S.-Chinese relations to em­bark on a four-day private visit to Beijing on July 17, a fascinating feat for a man his age. His visit surprised the public, but it had been several weeks in the making. He was awarded red-carpet treatment, with state television showing President Xi Jinping smiling as he told Kissinger, “I’m very glad to see you, sir.”

Kissinger and Xi met at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a more intimate location than the Great Hall of the People, where most high-ranking foreign visitors are re­ceived and the venue where Kissinger first met Chinese officials during his secret vis­it in 1971. “We will never forget our old friends, and will not forget your histori­cal contributions to develop U.S.-China relations and friendship between the two peoples,” Xi told his visitor. Kissinger met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and defense minister Li Shangfu. Both called for re­spect, cooperation, and “peaceful co-ex­istence” between the great powers. Wang praised Kissinger as the man who has made “historic contributions to breaking the ice in China-U.S. relations, and played an ir­replaceable role in enhancing understand­ing between the two countries.”

It is important to remember that the political climate in Washington has turned sharply against China and its leaders over the last decade. One clear area of bipar­tisan consensus in Washington, besides Ukraine, has been the treatment of China as a rival—an adversary, even—rather than a partner. As Politico noted, the Biden ad­ministration has, if anything, accelerated the retreat from engagement and the turn toward strategic competition.

For his part, Kissinger stressed that he was “a friend of China,” that “neither the United States nor China can afford to treat the other as an adversary,” and that their relations are “central to the peace in the world and to the progress of our society.” Chinese media have cast the visit in a pos­itive light, but it is unclear what impact it may have on the relations between Beijing and Washington. During Kissinger’s vis­it, a State Department spokesman stated that he was in China “under his own voli­tion,” not acting on behalf of the U.S. gov­ernment, which was predictable enough.

In a recent interview, the veteran states­man was highly critical of the Trump and Biden administrations’ China policy, re­marking that the current U.S. govern­ment’s attempt at a dialogue “usually be­gins with a statement of Chinese iniquities” and that discussions are “stymied.” That much was demonstrated by the succes­sive visits to Beijing of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and President Biden’s climate en­voy John Kerry.

Secretary Blinken’s visit did not go well. His talks with Xi Jinping were described as “candid”—a diplomatic euphemism for acrimonious—and Blinken acknowledged later that there were issues on which the two countries disagreed profoundly and even vehemently. China rejected a pro­posal to set up communication between the Chinese and American militaries. Unsurprising, given that China’s defense minister, Li Shangfu, remains sanctioned by the U.S. over Beijing’s 2017 weapons purchase of fighter aircraft from Russia. General Li repeatedly has declined to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin until and unless those sanctions are terminated.

The State Department said in a sub­sequent statement that in Blinken’s meet­ings in Beijing, he had raised China’s “un­fair and nonmarket economic practices,” human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Most of the is­sues on Blinken’s inventory of grievanc­es Beijing regards as strictly internal, and the list itself sounds almost like an echo of Kissinger’s warning against the list of “Chinese iniquities” with which various U.S. officials try to approach the talks with their Chinese counterparts.

Blinken has not honed his diplomatic skills since his disastrous first meeting with Chinese officials as Secretary of State in Anchorage in March 2021. Addressing the media just before meeting Yang Jiechi, the leading architect of China’s foreign policy, Blinken declared the U.S. would “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, [and] economic coercion of our allies.” This un­paralleled display of haughty contempt for diplomatic norms prompted an irate re­sponse from Yang, who warned that the U.S. does “not have the qualification … to speak to China from a position of strength.”

Now, following Blinken’s visit to China, President Joe Biden referred in a public ad­dress to President Xi as a “dictator,” prompt­ing an angry response from Beijing. Biden defended his comments, saying his words wouldn’t negatively impact U.S.-China re­lations and that his blunt statements on China are “just not something I’m going to change very much.” That was enough to annul whatever progress—however min­imal—had been made by Blinken in fos­tering dialogue.

At the end of her visit on July 9, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen admitted that “the U.S. and China have significant disagree­ments” that must be communicated clear­ly and directly. “We believe that the world is big enough for both of our countries to thrive,” she added. The trip did not result in any significant agreement, let alone a breakthrough, over many contentious is­sues burdening bilateral relations. They in­clude the U.S. leading the call on its allies—especially in Europe—to “de-risk” from the Chinese economy, to which Beijing ob­jects. As The Wall Street Journal report­ed, the Chinese are now engaged in some major “de-risking” of their own as Chinese money flees the West.

Yellen’s claim about “an important dis­tinction between decoupling, on the one hand, and on the other hand, diversifying critical supply chains or taking targeted na­tional security actions” left the hosts visi­bly underwhelmed. After her visit, Beijing issued a statement demanding “practical action” on U.S. sanctions against China.

In reality, Yellen’s “targeted actions” are outright punitive measures unilater­ally imposed by the U.S. government on hundreds of Chinese individuals and en­tities. The U.S. has also banned exports to China, among other items, of semiconduc­tor materials, advanced electronic comput­er-aided design software, and network safe­ty. Bans and sanctions have been imposed for many reasons: as punishment for al­leged human rights abuses, espionage ac­tivities, and allegedly supporting Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine.

Beijing has taken several countermea­sures against Yellen’s “targeted national security actions,” most recently impos­ing controls on its exports of gallium and germanium. As China’s former top eco­nomic diplomat in London has noted, despite their pervasive export control re­gimes and sweeping restrictions on China, Washington and some of its allies were an­gry at this move: “The Biden administra­tion went as far as saying it ‘firmly opposes’ Beijing’s decision,” thus displaying charac­teristic double standards.

John Kerry’s visit, the least important of the three, did not go well either. Last week, during two days of talks that partly coin­cided with Dr. Kissinger’s visit, Chinese leaders rebuffed a bid by Kerry, Biden’s cli­mate envoy, to persuade them to commit to tougher climate action. His official pro­gram ended on July 19 with no new agree­ments. Xi Jinping pointedly insisted in a nationally televised speech just two days earlier that China would pursue its goals to phase out carbon dioxide pollution at its own pace and in its own way.

For now, there will be no improved re­lations between the U.S. and China, pri­marily because the Biden administration adheres to its myth of a “rules-based in­ternational order.” Outside the “collective West,” that phrase denotes unrestrained U.S. global hegemony. It is an “order” in which the U.S. government imposes the “rules”—such as unilateral sanctions—as its leaders deem fit. The targets must grin and bear it and accept at face value the rule-maker’s assurances that the world is big enough for all of us to thrive.

Dr. Henry Kissinger’s fears and misgiv­ings about the future of U.S.-Chinese rela­tions are justified. They may prove as pro­phetic, 10 or 20 years from now, as George Kennan’s warnings against NATO’s enlarge­ment were a generation ago.

(This article is from the September 2023 print edition of Chronicles Magazine.)

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