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End of An Era

Chinese officials and scholars bid farewell to Henry Kissinger and the bygone era of stable relations between China and the US that the famous strategist helped to build and sustain

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Feb.1

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger receives an award during a ceremony at the Pentagon honoring his diplomatic career, May 9, 2016, Washington, DC (Photo by VCG)

Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who played a pivotal role in shaping US foreign policy during the Cold War, died on November 29, 2023 at the age of 100. Leaving behind a complex and controversial diplomatic legacy, including negotiating the US’s exit from the costly Vietnam War, masterminding the notorious coup in Chile, and reaching a detente with the Soviet Union, Kissinger’s passing was met with polarized reactions from both within the US and the rest of world.  

But in China, Kissinger was widely revered for the historic role he played in normalizing ties between the US and China in the 1970s, when he served as secretary of state and national security advisor in the administrations of presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Just before his passing, he was expected to continue to play an important role in stabilizing the world’s most important bilateral relationship.  

Historical Role 
Embarking on a secret trip to China in 1971, Kissinger held unprecedented talks with Chinese leaders including Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, and paved the way for Nixon’s groundbreaking visit in 1972.  

Bound by their shared perceived security threat from the Soviet Union, the two countries eventually reached a historical rapprochement, establishing the formal diplomatic relationship in 1979 that helped to fuel China’s reform and opening-up policy and set the foundation for the bilateral relationship over the next four decades.  

After leaving public office in 1977, Kissinger maintained close relationships with subsequent Chinese leaders and reportedly visited China more than 100 times. His most recent trip to China was in July 2023, when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was quoted as saying that the Chinese people “never forget our old friends, nor your historic contributions to promoting the growth of China-US relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples.” 

It is no surprise that Kissinger’s passing was received with a tidal wave of tributes from current and former officials, academics, and ordinary people. In a message of condolence sent to US President Joe Biden, Xi said that Kissinger’s historic contributions to the normalization of China-US relations has not only benefited the two countries but also changed the whole world.  

Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also sent messages of condolence to Kissinger’s family and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. While mourning Kissinger at the US Embassy in Beijing on December 5, Wang said that “time has proven and will continue to prove that the political decision made by Dr. Kissinger and the Chinese leaders at that time is in line with the fundamental interests of the two peoples, the trend of the times, and the international community’s expectations.”  

There is no doubt that Wang’s comments were made in reference to the deteriorating bilateral relationship between China and the US over the past few years. Given this, the passing of Kissinger is also thought to mark the end of an era in which the bilateral relationship was mostly cordial and far more stable and predictable.  

Realpolitik Approach 
For many Chinese scholars, what set Kissinger apart from other strategists and politicians both in his time and in later periods, is his realpolitik approach to foreign policy that allowed him to look beyond ideological differences at the height of the Cold War to engineer the rapprochement between China and the US.  

“Kissinger was an exemplar of a political realist, who emphasized the importance of national interests and power, and stressed the need to look beyond ideology to seek the desired balance of powers,” Zhu Feng, a senior fellow with the Center for International Security and Strategy with Tsinghua University and director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, told NewsChina.  

“Having visited China many times, he possessed a considerable understanding of the Communist Party of China, and harbored no significant biases against China,” Zhu said. “In more recent years, he repeatedly emphasized the need to manage China-US relations to prevent the bilateral relationship from descending into conflicts or even an all-out war,” he added.  

Kissinger’s pragmatism was typically reflected in his handling of the Taiwan question during his negotiations with China on a joint statement after Nixon’s visit. The Taiwan question was the sticking point in the negotiation.  

In the end, the two sides accepted Kissinger’s proposal. The English version of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué– one of three communiqués that serve as the political foundation of the China-US relationship – states that The US “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.” Speaking with NewsChina, former Chinese diplomat Lian Zhengbao quoted Zhou Enlai at the time as saying, “We couldn’t have come up with something like this even if we had racked our brains.”  

The statement allows both China and the US to find a mutually acceptable expression on the Taiwan question. While not entirely satisfactory to either side, it enabled the two sides to break the ice and move toward normalization, Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, told China News Service (CNS).  

As the China-US relationship deteriorated to its nadir following former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan in August 2022, Kissinger warned publicly that the deterioration of the Cross-Strait and China-US relationships could lead to catastrophic conflict. 

In a June interview with Bloomberg, Kissinger said that “on the current trajectory of relations, I think some military conflict is probable,” and that “the current trajectory of relations must be altered.”  

“On one hand, having lived through the trauma and damage caused by World War II and experienced the enormous risks of nuclear war in the Cold War, Kissinger highly valued the preciousness of peace, stability and order on a global scale,” Xin Qiang told CNS, “On the other hand, he was involved in the entire process of establishing diplomatic relations between China and the US, and was well aware of the sensitivity and danger of the Taiwan question. Therefore, he genuinely hoped the US would not continue to dilute and hollow out the ‘One-China’ principle, challenging China’s strategic red lines.”  

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits the US Embassy in China to mourn the passing of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, December 5, 2023 (Photo by Xinhua)

Post-Cold War
Compared to the Cold War period, Kissinger had far less influence on American policymakers in recent years. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US increasingly adopted what many describe as a liberal internationalist approach in its foreign policy, focusing on exporting its ideologies. The Biden administration, for example, explicitly claimed to take a “value-based” approach to foreign policy.  

According to Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies with the Renmin University of China, a major cause of the decline of realist thinking among American politicians and strategists is that they lack historical depth compared to their Cold War-era predecessors. 

“During the Cold War, the US had a group of exceptionally talented strategists. George Kennan, who advocated for a containment policy against the Soviet Union, and Henry Kissinger, who opened the door to reconciliation between China and the US, are notable examples. Tadeusz Brzeziński, who played a role in formalizing diplomatic relations with China under the administration of US president Carter, was also commendable,” Jin said in an interview with guancha.cn.  

“What they share in common is that they all experienced World War II and witnessed life-or-death situations. In comparison, foreign policymakers in the US of the post-Cold War period grew up in an era of peace,” Jin added.  

Jin said that American strategists “may be graduates of prestigious schools like Harvard and Yale, but lack historical depth in their thinking as they have navigated their lives quite easily with rather simple life experiences.” “Therefore, they may be intelligent individuals, but lack great wisdom,” Jin said.  

Wang Yizhou, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, attributed the waning influence of Kissinger to the change in political atmosphere around the globe. “Kissinger is not the friendship ambassador imagined by many Chinese,” Wang said, “Rather, he viewed the US’s need to advance its ties with China to weaken and confront the Soviet Union from a perspective of his country’s national interest.”  

“The essence of Kissinger’s diplomatic legacy lies in that he took diplomacy as a more complex and more powerful tool than the sheer use of power, and for Kissinger, diplomacy is a skill, even an art,” Wang said in an interview with Hong Kong-based ifeng.com on December 2.  

By comparison, Wang said that in today’s world, rising populism and global economic stagnation has made it increasingly attractive for policymakers to resort to direct use of power and bullying rather than intricate diplomacy. “Diplomacy has increasingly been reduced to a simplistic tool, even to the extent of it being a dowry-like settlement or a bonded servant,” Wang added.  

Wang’s sentiment is shared by Zhu Zhiqun, a political science professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. “Kissinger was a symbol of a bygone era when the US and China were willing to meet each other halfway to pursue common interests,” Zhu said in an article published on thinkchina.sg on December 2.  

“Despite the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship, Kissinger was the most significant and consistent voice on managing the complex and challenging relationship through engagement,” Zhu said. “Today, Kissinger’s views on China are not well received by many in Washington, who favor zero-sum competition with China and countering its growing power and influence,” Zhu added.  

Warning that the China-US relationship is experiencing “the most difficult time since his first trip to China in 1971,” Zhu called on both countries to “heed Kissinger’s warnings about the danger of a new cold war between two nuclear powers” and “carry on his belief that cooperation is the only way to move the US-China relationship forward and upward.”  

According to a statement by China’s Foreign Ministry, in a call with Blinken on December 6, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Kissinger’s diplomatic legacy is worth being carried forward and developed by future generations. The legacy he referred to includes Kissinger’s advocacy for the two countries’ mutual respect, progress and fulfillment of their due international responsibilities. Wang particularly noted Kissinger’s repeated calls for the US to fully understand the importance of the Taiwan question to China.  

Both sides agreed to deliver the positive understanding reached by the presidents of the two countries in mid-November in San Francisco, confirmed by statements from China’s Foreign Ministry and the US Department of State. 

Henry Kissinger meets with Chinese ping-pong players outside the White House, April 18, 1972 (Photo by Xinhua)