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Can Kissinger’s historic visit to Beijing end US-China impasse?

Kissinger's visit to China comes as Beijing expects more visitors bringing in tributes

Can Kissinger’s historic visit to Beijing end US-China impasse?
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

When Henry Kissinger, the eminence grise in American diplomacy, visited Beijing on 20 July  2023, the reddest of red carpets was unfurled for him. President Xi met him and publicly referred to him as ‘our friend’. Jinping noted that Kissinger’s 100th visit to China in his 100th year is quite remarkable, saying, “These two 100s give this visit special significance.”

This is not surprising, as it was Kissinger’s top-secret visit to Peking (now known as Beijing) in July 1971 that paved the way for the rapprochement between the United States, the reigning superpower, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had emerged victorious in 1949 under Mao Zedong’s historic leadership in a long-drawn-out civil war where Washington supported the losing side of Chiang Kai-shek. Richard Nixon’s idea to bring in the PRC was to act as a counterweight to the Soviet Union during the raging Cold War.

Interestingly, it is seldom mentioned by international relations scholars that as far back as October 1949, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had advised President Harry Truman to extend recognition to the PRC, advice that was promptly rejected. Later, after the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Nehru repeated his advice, again in vain. Had Truman accepted Nehru’s advice, the course of history might have been different. The Korean War might have ended without the grim toll of 2 to 3 million human lives, including 36,500 US military personnel. Even the course of the Cold War might have been altered.

Nixon’s game-changing move in 1971 allowed the paramount ruler Deng Xiaoping to successfully ‘open’ the Chinese economy in 1978. Later, thanks to improving relations with Washington, the PRC joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and became a superpower in exports. Many scholars and probably all governments in the West and elsewhere succumbed to herd thinking and rather naively assumed that once the economy was opened, political ‘opening’ was ineluctable. They underestimated the capability of the Chinese Communist Party leadership to pick and choose what to take from the menu the West offered.

It is essential to understand the context of Kissinger’s latest visit. The United States has determined that China is its present rival and a future threat. The 2018 US Strategic Review clearly stated that the PRC “today poses numerous challenges to United States national interests.” The disenchantment with the PRC started at the tail end of the Barack Obama presidency, worsened during the Donald Trump presidency, and Joe Biden has signally failed to reverse the trend; in fact, it has gotten worse.

Beijing was expecting and hoping for improved relations when Biden took office, but the toxic variety of his public diplomacy got in the way. On 18 and 19 March 2021, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Yang Jiechi (Member of the Polit Bureau) and Wang Yi (Foreign Minister). A few days before the talks opened, Washington imposed sanctions on Huawei and a few other Chinese companies. Blinken started by accusing China of “threatening the rule-based order that maintains global stability,” and China retorted by accusing the United States of “condescension and hypocrisy”. Contrary to normal diplomatic practice, Blinken made his remarks on camera in the presence of the media. In short, the two sides traded accusations in public, and naturally, the talks failed.

Blinken was supposed to visit Beijing in February 2023, but he canceled it after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over sensitive nuclear missile sites in the western state of Montana. Later, Blinken realized the mistake of canceling the visit. In June 2023, China’s Minister of Defence General Li Shangfu refused to meet his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on 2-4 June 2023. It is difficult to understand why Washington was expecting General Li to meet Austin as he has been under US sanctions since 2018 for having bought arms from the Russian company Rosoboron in 2017. Washington should have lifted the sanctions first.

Recently there were three high-level visits from the US to China: Blinken in June 2023, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on 10 July, and Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry on 18 July. Only Blinken got a meeting with Xi Jinping. ‘The Middle Kingdom’ is in no hurry to remove the impasse and insists on Washington to make concrete offers.

Although the State Department clarified that it had nothing to do with Kissinger’s visit, it might have hoped for some forward movement by China. Obviously, the recent visit of Kissinger is not expected to be as historically productive as the first one. The current impasse in relations between Washington and Beijing is unlikely to be resolved by this visit, as Beijing expects more visitors bringing in tributes. By calling Xi an ‘autocrat’ in public, Biden has again resorted to public diplomacy of the harmful variety.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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