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News, March 2023
At 100, Henry Kissinger still seen as influential ‘old friend’ in China despite ‘complicated’ legacy in US
The new centenarian, famous for his groundbreaking secret trip to China in 1971, is now worried about a confrontation between superpowers Observers say the statesman’s continued popularity in Beijing underscores importance attached to ties with Washington in spite of geopolitical rivalry
Additional reporting by Robert Delaney
SCMP, 27 May, 2023
Henry Kissinger remains fixated on China more than 50 years after his secret, groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1971.
Unlike half a century ago, when he triangulated Beijing against Moscow with the reopening of direct diplomacy, tilting the Cold War balance of power, the former US secretary of state is now worried about a superpower war with Beijing.
Kissinger, who turns 100 on Saturday, has repeatedly warned of “catastrophic consequences” of a military confrontation between the two giants, which he has said are in “the foothills of a cold war”.
While many say his influence has dwindled in Washington, this is not the case in China.
“When Kissinger talks about the world situation and China, which he still does regularly, we should definitely listen to him with veneration and attention,” said a Chinese diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Xie Feng, China’s new ambassador to Washington, visited Kissinger in Kent, Connecticut on Friday to offer Beijing’s congratulations for his 100th birthday. The two sides had an “in-depth exchange of views on China-US relations and international and regional issues of common concern”, the Chinese embassy said.
According to observers, the fact that Kissinger has remained more popular and influential in China than at home underscores the importance Beijing has attached to maintaining ties with the US, despite their ideological and geopolitical rivalry.
They often point to the veteran statesman’s extraordinary ability to cultivate close ties with five generations of top Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.
During his last China visit in November 2019, soon before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed Kissinger’s “historical contribution” to bilateral ties and his “profound historical insights and deep understanding of traditional Chinese culture”.
Kissinger praised Xi and expounded on his favourite topic: how to avoid an unintended conflict between great powers. He also boasted that he had visited China nearly 100 times over the last 50 years.
Chinese vice-premier Li Lanqing (left) plays table tennis with Henry Kissinger in Beijing in 2001. Photo: AP
Few Americans had played a more prominent role in US-China relations than Kissinger, said Wang Huiyao, the founder and president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a government-linked think tank in Beijing.
Calling him “the greatest diplomat of the 20th century”, Wang, a former Chinese government official, said that from Beijing’s perspective, Kissinger’s biggest contribution was the trailblazing role he played in brokering the historic rapprochement with China.
Wang said Kissinger would be remembered fondly for his vision, his profound understanding of China and extraordinary ability to make peace, as well as for helping to open China to the world and promoting bilateral cooperation, which helped bring about China’s rise as the world’s second largest economy.
Paraphrasing Deng during his first state visit to the United States in 1979, Wang noted that countries that had sought good ties with the US had developed.
Wang said despite criticism of Kissinger’s 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for a short-lived Vietnam peace agreement, his peacemaking efforts between China and the US were a turning point in the Cold War and merited the award.
According to Wang, Kissinger played a “unique and indispensable” role in China’s handling of US affairs, with Chinese leaders and top diplomats viewing him as an intermediary with the White House and seeking his counsel regularly, especially in times of crisis.
“China values Kissinger as a reliable old friend because of his indelible contribution to introducing Washington’s decades-old engagement policy. We hope he will continue to exert influence on US-China ties,” he said.
Deng Xiaoping (left) shares a toast with Henry Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1974. Photo: AP
In December 2016 – just a day after president-elect Donald Trump’s unprecedented phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which threatened to upend the fragile balance in the Taiwan Strait – Xi sought Kissinger’s advice during a meeting in Beijing.
In his 2011 book On China, Kissinger recounted how he advised Deng on how to manage a diplomatic crisis following the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. He was invited to Beijing in a private capacity in November of that year.
Zhiqun Zhu, an international relations professor at Bucknell University, said Kissinger, as a “hardcore realist”, tended to downplay ideology, values and human rights in foreign affairs and had been an advocate for stronger relations with China.
At a 2021 event in New York, the US statesman warned against pushing China too hard on human rights – particularly Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
“We should not use the human rights issue as a deliberate issue to undermine the existing structures, because if we do that, we will be in a permanent confrontation,” Kissinger said.
Zhu said while Kissinger’s legacy was more complicated and controversial in the US, where some have accused him of being a war criminal, he had been widely revered in China among Chinese officials, think tanks and scholars.
“Generations of Chinese leaders have believed that Kissinger’s role was unparalleled in the process of US-China normalisation. So he has been considered an ‘old friend’ by generations of Chinese leaders and remains popular in China,” Zhu said.
However, Zhu noted Kissinger’s views on China had shifted in recent years, coinciding with growing bipartisan antipathy towards Beijing in the US.
“As the Soviet Union disintegrated and as Russian power continues to decline, the global centre has shifted from Europe to the Asia-Pacific, where China has emerged as the challenger to US dominance,” he said.
“So increasingly Kissinger – like many other realists – views China as a threat to US interests. Still, he harbours a more benign view of US-China relations and does not favour a confrontational approach towards China.”
When ping-pong helped put China-US diplomacy on the table before Nixon’s visit 50 years ago
George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said one of the reasons for Kissinger’s sustained popularity among Chinese leaders was his image as being “friendlier, more accommodating and less bellicose” than many US officials.
In an interview with CBS that aired earlier this month, Kissinger spoke positively of China’s new-found role in mediating international conflicts such as the Ukraine war.
“Now that China has entered the negotiation, it will come to a head, I think, by the end of the year,” Kissinger said. “We will be talking about negotiating processes and even actual negotiations.”
Kissinger called for direct dialogue between Xi and US President Joe Biden in an interview with The Economist last month.
“[If] the two presidents meet, rather than list all their grievances, which they know … hopefully the American president, from my point of view, would say: ‘Mr President, the two greatest dangers to peace right now, are us two. In the sense that we have the capacity to destroy humanity. I think we should agree between ourselves to try to avoid such a situation’,” he said.
Magnus noted that while Kissinger was preoccupied with America’s place in the world and winning a great power competition, he was also clearly worried about the growing likelihood of a superpower confrontation.
“After all, as he says in The Economist interview, the US and China are uniquely equipped to both wage and prevent war. And the latter demands their urgent and relentless attention, is what I read in the piece,” he said.
Kissinger’s moderate pro-engagement views and occasional deference towards Chinese rulers are also easy targets for criticism among China hawks.
While Kissinger said the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown was “too brutal”, he nonetheless praised Deng, who was widely blamed for the incident, as a “great reformer”.
James Mann, author of About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, criticised Kissinger for his depiction of Chinese leaders as “wise and farsighted”.
China has remained the core of Kissinger’s legacy, according to Mann, who was critical of his other accomplishments, including the detente with the Soviet Union and the peace deal with the communists in Vietnam – both of which were short-lived.
Mann, who is also a member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said that while Kissinger continued to hold “intermittent influence” in the quarter century after the opening to China, he had “no influence” and “not much relevance” today.
According to Mann, many Americans have been disappointed that Beijing’s growing prosperity did not lead to a more open, less repressive China.
“Back then, the threat of Soviet military power brought the two countries together. Today, China is supporting Russia as it wages war in Europe,” he said.
Kissinger also admitted he had faced challenges in dealing with the Trump and Biden administrations. In an interview last year with the New York Post, he expressed frustration that he had not been invited to meet Biden, although he claimed to have had access to every president from Nixon to Trump.
US special envoy Henry Kissinger (right) meets Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing in July 1971. Photo: Handout
Carla Hills, a former US trade representative and housing secretary, defended Kissinger’s achievements.
“I think he’s quite influential, and particularly in China. I think sitting down and talking the way Kissinger talks is enormously useful, and I don’t think that we can go around saying we only want to deal with democratic governments,” she said.
“And we get along with Vietnam, which is communist. So it isn’t whether or not they’re a democracy. The question is whether they follow the rules – that is the point. And that’s something that Henry strongly believed in, and when you talk about diplomacy, he is the king of it.”
Dennis Wilder, a research fellow at the Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, said Kissinger still held a unique and important place in US-China relations.
“Chinese officials and academics have considered him an ‘old friend’ of China … With this residue of trust, the Chinese side is comfortable talking candidly with Kissinger and hoping that he will be able to get their thoughts through to the successive US administration,” he said.
But in the US, opinions of Kissinger varied greatly depending on who you ask, Wilder noted.
“Many hardliners on China believe that the Nixon opening to China was a mistake because it has made Chinese communism strong by allowing it into world markets. Those who believe in stabilising US-China relations are much more inclined to listen to Kissinger’s recommendations,” he said.
Pang Zhongying, a professor of international affairs at Sichuan University, noted that the public might never know the full scope of Kissinger’s impact on history.
“We know only a small part of him, and a great deal of his life’s work, including his dealings with China, are among the most well-guarded secrets,” he said.
“Kissinger’s longevity is a miracle in itself, and as an old-fashioned realist, he remains pragmatic and hopeful. Despite his flawed legacy and many controversies, Kissinger is still among the most respected and influential foreign policy thinkers in the world.”
***Kissinger warns China and US against escalating to all-out AI conflict 30 Apr 2021
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