Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a centenarian and one of the oldest active statesmen in the world at age 100, recently visited Beijing and met with China’s leader Xi Jinping. Kissinger played a crucial role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China following Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country in 1972. This visit marked a significant geopolitical shift, leading to China’s integration into the global economy. As a result, Beijing holds a positive view of Kissinger and considers him an “old friend.”
Kissinger’s legacy laid the foundation for an open, stable, and cooperative relationship between the US and China that lasted for over four decades. However, with the changing dynamics between the two countries, this era has come to an end. Some voices in Washington now advocate for dismantling this legacy, viewing engagement with China as a mistake that has empowered a hostile power. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” sought to reset the US-China relationship during the Trump administration.
Since then, US-China relations have deteriorated, particularly in the areas of military, diplomacy, and technology. The Biden administration has taken a more aggressive stance towards China compared to its predecessor. While officials emphasize the need for dialogue and “guardrails” in the relationship, the strategic intentions remain unchanged, and no concessions are made in pursuing diplomacy.
Against this backdrop, Kissinger’s visit to Beijing holds significant political meaning. China is keen on maintaining a positive relationship with the US and views Kissinger as a symbol of the kind of diplomatic ties it wishes to have with Washington. Despite being displeased with US actions, China continues to seek engagement, stability, cooperation, and openness in the relationship. Kissinger, who initiated this relationship, now believes that the US and China must find a path to coexistence to avoid conflict.
In its efforts to engage with the US, China has adopted a pragmatic approach. Instead of directly engaging with US politicians, who often respond with mudslinging and paranoia, China focuses on targeting individuals it believes can promote stability in the relationship. These individuals are invited on highly publicized visits to China, serving as symbols of China’s openness and willingness to do business. Businessmen and public figures like Tim Cook, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all recently visited China and conveyed a message that ties with the US do not have to remain strained. Additionally, these individuals act as back channels, leveraging their influence and networks to shape public opinion and lobby for positive relations with China. Kissinger, despite his age, is highly respected within the foreign policy community.
China is cautious about disrupting the status quo, even amid geopolitical competition with the US. Beijing recognizes that it may not be able to change the disposition of the US political class. Instead, it seeks to contain and minimize US influence through diplomatic means rather than confrontation. It understands that empowering Washington’s hawks would be a strategic mistake. China aims to slow down the “decoupling” process and prevent the US from gaining political capital to rally other countries, both in Europe and Asia, behind its agenda. Beijing adopts a long-term perspective and sees Kissinger’s visit as a way to promote hope and reconciliation, offering an idealistic vision of US-China ties. While it acknowledges that the clock cannot be turned back, stability remains a key aspiration.
In conclusion, Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing carries significant political implications. China values his role in establishing US-China relations and sees him as a representative of the kind of relationship it desires with the US. Kissinger’s visit reflects Beijing’s commitment to engagement, stability, cooperation, and openness in its relationship with Washington. It also highlights China’s pragmatic strategy of engaging influential individuals as back channels to shape public opinion and advocate for positive relations with China. Despite the geopolitical competition, China aims to contain US influence through diplomacy rather than confrontation and avoid empowering the hawkish voices in Washington. Kissinger’s visit conveys a message of hope and reconciliation, emphasizing the idealistic vision China has for US-China ties, even as stability becomes the primary goal.