Kissinger’s Recent Visit to China: An Opening to China 2.0.

How does Kissinger's history with Beijing signal a new age of US-China relations on the horizon?

Published: Jul 30, 2023  |  

 Political and defense analyst


On 19 July 2023, a momentous event captured the attention of the global community: Former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, embarked on a significant visit to China. This visit comes at a critical juncture in US-China relations, with the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. These tense relations between the two superpowers disrupt the constructive dynamics and exacerbate the risk of global polarization and confrontation. 

As a seasoned diplomat and a key architect of the historic US-China rapprochement in the 1970s, Mr. Kissinger not only altered the historical trajectory of the two countries, but also changed the course of global development. His visit to China carries immense significance and is seen as an attempt to reduce tensions between the US and China, reminiscent of his pioneering policy of “détente”. It is evidence that the recent initiative—considering his historical contributions to promoting the development of US-China relations—could be termed an “opening to China 2.0”.

Historical background of US-China relations

Henry Kissinger served as the US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. He was appointed as National Security Advisor in 1969 by then-President Richard Nixon during the peak of the Cold War. 

The world was sharply divided into opposing ideologies, with the US championing capitalism and democracy, while the USSR championed communism. Under the Truman Doctrine—Washington’s policy of “containment” towards the USSR’s allies—the US sought to prevent the spread of communism worldwide, even employing military force when deemed necessary. 

The island of Taiwan was administered by the Imperial Qing dynasty, but its control passed to the Japanese in 1895.  After Japan’s defeat in World War ll, the Island came under the governance of China’s Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang. However, in 1949, the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong forced Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, to flee to Taiwan where he governed the island until his death in 1975.  China has consistently claimed Taiwan as an integral part of its territory. 

However, after the Sino-Soviet split, which began in the early 1960s, the US saw the potential for China to become an ally. Nixon entrusted Kissinger with the mission to establish channels for diplomatic engagement.  After a thorough diplomatic maneuver by Kissinger, in 1972 Nixon was able to visit China, and that eventually led to the normalization of relations. The United States lifted restrictions on China, removed two destroyers from the Taiwan Strait, and ceased any support for Taiwan’s Independence, adhering to the One-China policy. 

Before this breakthrough, China had been diplomatically isolated from most of the world. Since then, Kissinger has maintained engagement with the Chinese leadership and has continued to advocate for constructive dialogue between the two superpowers.

Present US-China relations 

The world is currently witnessing increasing tensions in various realms including trade disputes, technological competition, tariff impositions, and geopolitical maneuvering.  During the Trump Presidency, the US pursued a more aggressive foreign policy toward China.  The ties between the two countries had further spiraled downwards following then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. This led to Beijing cutting contacts with US military communications. 

Beijing has cited Washington’s  “unilateral sanctions” as an obstacle to resuming military-to-military dialogues. Additionally, the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict exposed the widening gap between US-China relations, where China is backing Russia staunchly. 

Relations were further deteriorated by the balloon incident at the beginning of this year.

Kissinger’s visit and Beijing’s strategy

China is facing a bipartisan tough stance from both Republicans and Democrats in the US, and a presidential election is approaching where candidates are likely to be more critical of China. In this context, Beijing is trying to influence and persuade US policy elites to reduce their strategic suppression of China.  

Chairman Xi Jinping’s meeting with Kissinger reflects a long-term strategic move, valuing people-to-people relations, which are more important for China than official ones in its interaction with the US It is evident that Beijing refused to let Mr. Li Shangfu meet his counterpart Lloyd Austin, but made an exception for Mr. Kissinger. 

While Xi Jinping met with American entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates, the US Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen did not get face time with the Chairman. Several American business leaders, including Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Jamie Dimon, have been granted high-level meetings with Chinese officials, these protocols are usually designed for foreign senior officials. 

These visits by the business leaders offer China an opportunity to send a message domestically about foreign confidence in the economy. So the message is very clear that Beijing is open to meeting with the pro-China people who all are willing to speak out for China.

China’s political landscape

Beijing’s overtly warm reception of Mr. Kissinger, clearly signals its desire for friendlier engagement and less belligerence from the US. China seeks a lift on restrictions on technology, adherence to the principles established in the Shanghai Communiqué, and an understanding of the extreme significance of the One-China policy from the US, in order to stop what Beijing perceives as a containment strategy centered on building security ties and partners around Asia. 

China welcomes the engagement in fair strategic competition of quantum computing, Artificial Intelligence, and semiconductors.  Through communication and dialogue, they can reach an immediate consensus on some security issues in certain areas. For example, they could build on a mechanism, like the Asia-Pacific Consultations initiated in 2011, led by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US State Department.

Though Mr. Kissinger has a controversial reputation in other parts of Asia for his role in systematic famine in Bangladesh and the Vietnam War.  He remains highly regarded in China for aiding the country’s re-engagement with the world. It is evident that any armed conflict between the US and China would not bring any meaningful result, but catastrophic consequences for the world. Therefore, Mr. Kissinger’s visit could be seen as a gesture of goodwill from China and a possible implication of the “opening to China 2.0” policy.

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