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Foreign Policy

Kissinger’s Recent Visit to China

Jul 22, 2023
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Xi Jinping-henry kissinger-202307.jpg

On July 20, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Xi praised the 100-year-old veteran U.S. diplomat, who made a surprise visit this week and has been to China more than 100 times since helping to establish formal ties in the 1970s.

On July 20, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Xi referred to him as an old friend and praised his historical contributions to promoting the development of China-U.S. relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples.

Kissinger expressed his view that the relationship between the United States and China is crucial for the peace and prosperity of both countries and for the world. He expressed his willingness to continue making efforts to enhance mutual understanding between the people of the two countries.

The visit by Kissinger holds immense historical significance. Looking back in history, his visit to China 52 years ago initiated the normalization of China-U.S. relations, not only altering the historical trajectory of the two countries’ relationship but also changing the course of global development. At present, China-U.S. relations are at another critical juncture. With the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, the U.S. government has adopted a strategic competition approach toward China, aiming to “out-compete” it as a strategic objective. This disrupts the constructive dynamics between China and the U.S. and exacerbates the risk of global polarization and confrontation.

Kissinger’s importance lies in his more visionary and rational voice. Since the beginning of this year, voices assessing the country’s policies toward China have gradually emerged within the United States. Some argue that defining the China-U.S. relationship solely through strategic competition does not serve America’s interests. In April, Maurice Greenberg, vice chairman of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, published an open letter addressed to the leaders of both countries. The letter, which was co-signed by 22 former senior U.S. officials and prominent business figures, called for dialogue, managing differences and restoring stability in China-U.S. relations. Kissinger also emphasized the importance of adhering to the principles established in the Shanghai Communique and understanding the extreme significance of the one-China principle for China.

Currently, neither side has an optimistic outlook on the bilateral relationship. However, both hope to avoid conflict and prevent the world from dividing into two antagonistic camps or systems. As Kissinger put it, the tension between China and the U.S. is at a precarious point, and the trajectory of their relationship must be altered. In the short to medium term, there are still some opportunities for China-U.S. relations, especially after visits to China by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Climate Envoy John Kerry. In the next phase, there are still many things both countries can do to ensure the continuation of positive momentum.

From a strategic perspective, both countries still need to explore whether they can establish a framework or guiding principles to steer their future relationship. During last year’s summit in Bali, the two sides reached a consensus on this matter. However, the positive momentum was interrupted by the balloon incident at the beginning of this year. Some may argue that such a strategic framework is too ambitious, but given the complexity of the bilateral relationship between China and the U.S., without sound guiding principles — and especially without the political wisdom and diplomatic courage displayed by figures like Kissinger in the past —any minor disturbance in future relations could be blown out of proportion by the U.S., leading to even greater destructive consequences.

On specific issues, there are areas where China and the U.S. can explore. American decision-makers should draw from the experiences of the past 52 years.

First is the technology issue. On one hand, the Biden administration’s “small yard, high fence” policy in the technology sector has gradually evolved into a “medium yard, high fence” or even a “large yard, high fence” strategy. Moreover, the administration continues to develop new policies aimed at suppressing China’s technological advancement. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is attempting to foster technology alliances targeting China, intending to use the combined strength of these alliances to curb China’s technological development.

China does not fear benign competition with the U.S., but if the technology competition initiated by the U.S. lacks boundaries and rules, it will seriously damage mutual trust between the two countries and drag the world into a technological new cold war. To address this issue, both sides should consider establishing a dialogue mechanism in the technology sector and inviting relevant departments from both countries to engage in exchanges.

Second is the fentanyl issue. The U.S. has been closely monitoring this problem since the Obama administration, and it involves technical aspects, as well as the issue of laboratories in China that the U.S. has sanctioned. Currently, the U.S. demands not only control of fentanyl exports but also addresses issues related to fentanyl precursors and supply chains, including enhancing law enforcement efforts targeting countries like Mexico.

The core of the problem lies in the fact that the U.S. cannot expect China to cooperate with its demands while simultaneously imposing sanctions on Chinese laboratories. To make progress on this issue, the U.S. should take a sincere first step. Further, the U.S. needs to strengthen its own efforts in managing addictive drugs domestically. Both countries can also consider engaging in discussions on this broader issue.

Third is the issue of cultural and academic exchanges. Recently, some American scholars expressed complaints about the difficulty of visiting China, as there are few direct flights available and ticket prices are extremely high. This situation was unimaginable before the outbreak of the pandemic. Therefore, expanding the number of direct flights between the two countries is of great urgency. Additionally, there are many areas where China and the U.S. can ease the issuance of scholar and student visas and promote mutual academic visits. This could include efforts to enable more American students to study in China during the upcoming fall semester and sending more Chinese scholars and student groups to visit the United States. Such exchanges would foster greater mutual understanding and awareness between both sides.

Fourth, while reaching immediate consensus on some security issues in certain areas may be challenging for China and the U.S., communication and dialogue remain necessary. Apart from high-level meetings, both parties could consider promoting dialogues at different levels. For example, they could build on mechanisms like the Asia-Pacific Consultations initiated in 2011, led by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department. By engaging in more frequent and comprehensive dialogues, they can strengthen the communication network between the two countries. This will provide positive encouragement for the U.S. to develop a more rational and constructive approach to its policies toward China.

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