/ 25 July 2023

Kissinger in China: Hope for positivity in Sino-US relations

Henry Kissinger
former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. (Photo by Daniel Vogl/picture alliance via Getty Images)

For obvious reasons, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s recent visit to China has grabbed global media attention. The visit, which coincided with high-profile engagements between the two countries, has offered hope for a positive shift in the relationship between the two countries. 

As US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have made official trips to China in the last few days, expectations for productive dialogue and potential breakthroughs have been heightened. During his visit, Kissinger, considered to be one of the main architects of Sino-US diplomatic ties, met President Xi Jinping as well as Defense Minister Li Shangfu and top Chinese diplomat Wang Li. 

In all his interactions with the Chinese leaders, Kissinger kept on emphasising the significance of a strong relationship between the US and China for global peace, stability and the welfare of humanity. He also highlighted that both nations possess the capacity to shape the course of world affairs. In their meeting in Beijing, Xi stressed the importance of “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win co-operation” as fundamental principles guiding the intricate relationship between China and the US. 

Xi expressed Beijing’s willingness to collaborate with Washington in finding a path to co-existence based on these principles. His call for co-operation, built on principles of respect and mutual benefit, reflects a pragmatic approach towards nurturing a more constructive bond between the two global powers.

The Chinese president harked back to a pivotal decision made over five decades ago by chairman Mao Zedong, premier Zhou Enlai, US president Richard Nixon and Kissinger himself. This decision to normalise China-US ties was not only courageous but also transformative, reshaping the world order in unforeseen ways. This historic resolve, initiated at the Villa No. 5 of Diaoyutai State Guesthouse 52 years ago, marked the beginning of a normalisation process that would shape the course of bilateral relations. 

Xi, who met Kissinger in the same villa this time as a nostalgic celebration of the historic meeting, warmly acknowledged his role as an old and cherished friend of the Chinese people, lauding his contribution to fostering the growth of China-US ties and nurturing the bond of friendship between their peoples. 

“The Chinese people value friendship, and they never forget their old friend, nor your historic contributions to promoting the growth of China-US relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples,” Xi told Kissinger during the meeting.

Kissinger’s latest visit to China, despite his advanced age, stands as a testament to the immense complexity and challenges that surround the task of alleviating tension in the ever-convoluted China-US relationship. With a remarkable acuity that belies his age, Kissinger continues to urge Washington to resist impulsive adversarial stances and instead opt for thoughtful dialogue — a course he deems essential for global peace. Nevertheless, there are sombre concerns about whether the Biden administration will heed the advice of this revered centenarian. 

Throughout Kissinger’s illustrious career, he has left an indelible mark on fostering robust China-US relations, an achievement that resounds even now. Guided by a pragmatic approach that transcended ideological divides, Kissinger deftly steered the intricate dynamics between the two nations. His unwavering commitment to engaging with China based on reality and mutual respect, underpinned by an emphasis on equality, laid the bedrock for diplomatic connections between the two countries. 

In an era marked by rapid global transformation and shifting power dynamics, his wisdom remains a beacon of reason, reminding us of the profound significance of diplomacy and the need for a measured, forward-looking approach to international relations. As history unfolds, the Biden administration must draw on the lessons of Kissinger’s legacy, embracing dialogue and co-operation.

In this epoch of unprecedented seismic shifts in the international arena, China and the US find themselves at a momentous crossroads, beckoning both countries to make critical choices about their shared trajectory. With the world witnessing changes not seen in a century, the imperative for co-operation between these two big powers has never been more pronounced. This juncture demands a nuanced appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

Co-operation and constructive dialogue between China and the US can serve as a potent catalyst, steering the international community toward a more stable and prosperous future. Both nations hold significant influence and bear the responsibility of contributing positively to global affairs. 

The shared course of action chosen by China and the US will shape the dynamics of international relations and impact the well-being of people worldwide. By heeding the call for collaboration and charting a course of mutual respect, these two global powers can collectively overcome obstacles and foster a world where prosperity and progress thrive hand in hand.

The intricacies of diplomacy between them demand a deft touch, navigating a delicate web of historical rivalries and present-day power plays. 

China remains steadfast in its pursuit of fostering responsible and harmonious bilateral relations. It is with great concern, however, that we observe Washington’s approach, heavily influenced by a mindset of competition and confrontation. Regrettably, this approach demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the past achievements that have laid the foundation for mutual understanding and collaboration. 

China is sincerely seeking a path of co-operation and mutual respect, drawing strength from its rich history of cultural exchange and economic partnership. In 1971, Kissinger’s secret visit to China forged an indelible chapter in the normalisation of Sino-US relations. At this juncture, the relationship is in a challenging phase, potentially reaching its lowest ebb in history. To ameliorate bilateral ties, the US must call on Kissinger’s diplomatic acumen, employing sagacity akin to his to rekindle the flame of amity between China and the US.

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs, based in Karachi, Pakistan.