Henry Kissinger's China visit in 2023: Questions and de ja vu

Henry Kissinger’s China visit in 2023: Questions and de ja vu

Foreign Affairs
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Fifty-two years ago Henry Kissinger made his maiden China trip in stealth mode as secretary of state in former president Richard Nixon’s administration. The visit was followed by a series of dialogues between him and then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, resulting in the foundation of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Kissinger’s China visit has been recognised as a watershed moment in history.

Kissinger is now back in Beijing. This is his 100th visit to China and he has also turned 100 recently! Moreover, Kissinger’s China visit in 2023 wasn’t a secret, unlike his maiden visit in 1971, when he came hiding in a Pakistani plane.

However, geopolitical experts wonder over what made the 100-year-old Kissinger fly for 14 hours to visit China and various theories are emerging on this unusual event.

This analysis will focus on the most crucial factors impacting Sino-US relations at present, which could have played a role in Kissinger’s China visit in 2023. Moreover, a de ja vu noticed during this tour also needs the reader’s attention.

Inside Kissinger’s China visit in 2023

During Kissinger’s China visit, he met President Xi Jinping. They discussed the prospects of bettering the US-China ties, which have reached a nadir after five decades due to Washington DC’s growing hostility towards Beijing.

Xi noted that Kissinger’s 100th visit to China in his 100th year is quite remarkable. “These two 100s give this visit special significance”, Xi mentioned. The Chinese president also spoke of the need to deepen Sino-US ties and that Beijing always remembers its friends and well-wishers.

“We never forget our old friends, nor your historic contributions to promoting the growth of China-US relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples”, Xi said. Highlighting the current scenario, Xi added, “China and the United States have once again come to a crossroads, which requires another decision by the two sides about where to go from here.”

Although the Chinese portrayed Kissinger’s China visit in 2023 as an effort to mend Sino-US bilateral ties, apparently the real reason seems something different. Kissinger wouldn’t have to take a 14-hour-long flight to merely strengthen the ties, or to de-escalate tensions, which was an attempt taken by his current successor Antony Blinken during his recent trip to Beijing. Kissinger’s agenda appears more shallower than what is visible.

Firstly, although the US is encircling China, with the help of its regional allies like Australia, India, Japan, Philippines, etc, along with support from the UK with an ultimate aim to balkanise China, the possibility of a new war within a few months appears bleak.

The US can’t jump into a new war at present when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is entangled in Ukraine. US President Joe Biden doesn’t have the money to fight a major war against China and depends on the regional allies, especially the QUAD members like Australia, India and Japan, none of whom would take the burden of fighting the war without economic aid from the US.

Hence, despite regular skirmishes, rhetoric-mongering and muscle-flexing, the US will avoid dragging China into any real war with itself. However, if there are skirmishes with other allies of the US, like India, Washington DC will throw its weight in favour of that country and may support it with money and weapons.

Thus, as none of these countries is ready to take the burden of a war with China, it’s unlikely that Kissinger anticipated a major conflict breaking out in the region. Therefore, he didn’t visit Beijing and meet Xi to stop an imminent war.

Secondly, China has been far more economically superior than it was in 2008. Now, along with Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, and other Asian-African and Latin American powers, China has been advocating for the de-dollarisation of global trade, to protect the sovereignty of each country. 

The Chinese objective of attaining de-dollarisation of global trade and development of multi-polar world order can’t happen if the US continues to remain in a hegemonic position. This has helped manifold, as the former US neo-colonies have changed their allegiances and different countries of the Global South have expressed their desires to strive for a multipolar world.

Thus, unlike the 2008 subprime crisis, when China bailed out the US, Beijing won’t do anything to help the sinking American ship at present. Rather than bailing it out, China may take steps to further isolate the US from the global economy, especially by advocating for de-dollarisation. 

For the US, which is trying hard to retain its global hegemony, it’s important to mitigate the risk posed by the faltering economy, which can collapse very soon. In an ideal peaceful situation, China could have acted otherwise and pulled the US out of the crisis. For such a scenario, it’s imperative to have renewed ties between the two countries and a series of confidence-building measures.

Kissinger’s China visit aims at taking that step ahead and cement the ties between the two sides, like in 1971. However, Kissinger’s efforts are not his personal endeavour but an attempt by the US’s deep state to ensure there are safety valves in place to thwart an imminent collapse of the American economy.

China has put three pre-conditions for a stable partnership with the US. These include mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. “China is ready, on this basis, to explore with the United States the right way for the two countries to get along and take their relations steadily forward, which will be good for both sides and deliver benefits to the world”, Xi mentioned during his meeting with Kissinger, citing the three pre-conditions.

It’s unlikely that the policy hawks of the US will adhere to any such solution, even amid an unprecedented economic crisis and soaring poverty at home. The US is also unlikely to retreat from its military engagements against China in Asia and the “Indo-Pacific” war theatre, which will never allow rebuilding of mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries.

A de ja vu of 1971

The Russia question

When Kissinger made his maiden trip to China in July 1971, what topped his agenda was not merely officially recognising the People’s Republic of China, instead of Taiwan—known as the Republic of China at that time—which the US considered the real “China” then, but to stop the Soviet Union from mending its ties with China following the 1956 Sino-Soviet split over disagreements on the world communist movement’s strategy and principles.

There are reports that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev attempted to restore ties between the two states after the end of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in China in 1969. The Soviets were trying to normalise relations with Mao Zedong, the founder of new China, and it rang an eerie alarm in Washington DC. 

In his secret note to Nixon, Kissinger wrote: “Talks between the Soviet Union and Communist China begin in Peking on October 20. We do not believe that these will result in a fundamental change in the Sino-Soviet relationship. The roots of the ideological dispute will remain, together with a certain level of tension. Although the Sino-Soviet discussions have apparently not gone well thus far, we cannot exclude the possibility of at least a partial rapprochement between the Soviets and the Chinese, which might take the form of some restoration of normalcy in state-to-state relations.”

“Our moves may introduce an additional complicating factor into the Soviet leadership’s assessment of our intentions towards China— and towards the USSR, as well. Such an effect would also serve our long-term interest of forestalling an eventual more fundamental rapprochement between the USSR and China”, Kissinger had added.

Nixon plunged into the fray to stop the Soviets and wean away China. This policy was reportedly favoured by former premier Zhou, whose relationships with Mao and his heir-apparent Lin Biao soured at that point. Mao and Lin reportedly preferred an independent foreign policy and maintenance of equal distance from both superpowers.

If the Soviets played a major role in Kissinger’s China visit in 1971, the Russians did so in 2023. The US has declared its goal of destroying the Russian state and it has launched an all-out indirect war against Moscow using Ukraine as its puppet. The battlefield of Ukraine is where the US-led NATO is fighting a proxy war with Russia using the Ukrainian regime as a pawn.

China’s growing closeness with Russia, the deepening of the ties between these two countries, and the cordial relationship that they share have worried the US. For Washington DC, China’s separation from Russia is crucial for its geopolitical interests.

Kissinger’s China visit in 2023 focused on this agenda of creating fissures between these two crucial powers that pose a major threat to the US hegemony in the world. While China has been navigating through the murky geopolitical water carefully, Russia has openly challenged the West and thwarted its aggression in Ukraine.

Although China has claimed that it stands for peace between Russia and Ukraine, it has maintained close ties with Russia and has been increasing its bilateral trade with Moscow, defying the West’s sanctions. To weaken Russia, the US and the West need to cajole China, which is unlikely to budge. 

In this scenario, Kissinger’s China visit was an attempt to find a middle way to balance the factors and help the US’s cause in Ukraine. Although the Chinese have not made any official statement on Kissinger’s propositions on China’s ties with Russia, it’s highly unlikely that China will trade its sovereignty in return for mere words by a non-state factor like Kissinger.

A missing minister

In 1971, following Kissinger’s China visit, Mao’s heir-apparent Lin went missing in September. Months later, after Kissinger’s repeated visits and Nixon’s official trip, China alleged that Lin attempted a coup to oust Mao and usurp the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), failing which he tried to flee from China and was killed in a plane crash in Mongolia. 

The “Lin Biao incident” became an embarrassment for China and the CPC for long, and is now a concealed chapter in the history of the country. However, with Kissinger’s China visit in 2023, another top leader of the CPC has gone missing, utmost surreptitiously, raising eyebrows globally.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was appointed to the position this year, after his stint as a diplomat in the US, has been missing since June 23rd. There has been no news about him in the Chinese press and the foreign ministry’s briefings have skirted the questions regarding his whereabouts from the final transcriptions.

Although Qin is still shown as the minister on the ministry’s website, there have been no comments or statements from him after a congratulatory message to the Jakarta Forum on ASEAN-China relations on June 22nd. The Chinese foreign minister’s absence from the public has raised questions regarding his possible purge.

Qin was often found highly critical of the West, especially the US, and its neocolonial expansionism. A strong supporter of Xi’s reforms and modernisation, he has, on the one hand, highlighted the importance of stronger Sino-US ties, and, on the other, about the US’s hypocrisy and warmongering. 

During Kissinger’s China visit in October 1971, following the “Lin Biao incident”, he had complained to Zhou that he was welcomed with posters that said, “People of the World, Unite! Overthrow the American Imperialists and their Running Dogs!” Zhou downplayed it, calling them “empty phrases”.

Unlike Lin, an ardent Maoist, Qin, a career diplomat, didn’t use any strong words against the US, but highlighted that the zero-sum game in the Sino-US relationship is dangerous for both. It’s unlikely, therefore, that a resurgent China will purge a career diplomat foreign minister to appease the West. However, his absence, even amid the visit by Kissinger, and China’s silence on the issue evokes old memories.

What did Kissinger’s China visit achieve?

It’s too early to assess the outcome of Kissinger’s China visit. However, what’s apparent is that the old hawk, now wearing a dove’s attire, still remains a hawk even after 52 years. Kissinger didn’t visit China merely to repair ties, but to influence Xi’s foreign policy, which has emphasised on independent development of China and its national rejuvenation.

For the US, the rise of China as the second-largest economy in the world, its growing military and technological prowess and its increasing diplomatic clout act as major threats. The US is also worried about a China-Russia alliance that’s driving the campaign for a multipolar, balanced world order, with shared prosperity as a goal.

Although Kissinger’s China visit was an attempt to redo the 1971 exercise, the changed global circumstances, China’s astonishing economic success and the crisis-ridden US’s failures to manage its economy have ensured that such endeavours won’t be able to create rifts between the Chinese and the Russians or thwart the global momentum for a multipolar world order.

An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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