Henry Kissinger, the eminence grise of American diplomacy and international relations studies, is now a hundred years old. He is still mentally and physically active and is obviously taking a great deal of interest in the challenge to the American led international order from China. He visited China last week, ostensibly, as a private citizen. The Chinese leadership went out of its way to welcome him—President Xi Jinping, who has not met visiting American cabinet rank officials, received him warmly. Kissinger also had conversations with China’s influential Foreign Minister Wang Yi as well as Defence Minister Li Shangfu who is under American sanctions.
Kissinger has a special place in Chinese thinking for his contribution to the opening of America’s relations with Communist China after a hiatus of over three decades. After the Communists under Mao Zedong ousted the Kuomintang government from mainland China in 1949 forcing it to retreat to Taiwan, America continued to recognize Taiwan which also continued to occupy the United Nations seat. It was the duo of President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who served first as his National Security Advisor and later as his Secretary of State that fundamentally changed America’s China policy. Xi Jinping recognized Kissinger’s role in the transformation of America-China relations when, according to the media, he told him during their meeting last week “We will never forget our old friends, and will never forget your historical contributions to develop US-China relations and friendship between the two peoples”.
In both his avatars—as a scholar of international relations and a practitioner of diplomacy—Kissinger has been a believer in the maintenance of balance of power between the major states even if one of them has undoubted pre-eminence. He has been deeply influenced by the way peace was preserved in Europe through a balance of power; if and when that balance was upset the inevitable result was war, sometimes long lasting and catastrophic for the continent. Clearly, he now feels that America and China need to arrive at a modus vivendi which would lead to the establishment of a new power balance. He may not have foreseen the rise of China when Nixon and he went to open ties with Communist China but he is realistic to acknowledge the need to China’s great rise for the formation of a new stable international order. The problem is that China’s seems unwilling to accept the principles of world order and is also unwilling to compromise with states it perceives as standing in its way to achieve its objectives. This makes reconciliation of interests to frame a new world order difficult. It also makes it challenging to achieve mutual accommodation of interests of the major powers. This is illustrated in Chinese approaches towards India after 2020.
It is doubtful if India figures high in Kissinger’s current consideration of the international order. Indeed, just as he is feted in China for his contribution to America-China ties he is reviled in India for his role in the shaping of America’s policies towards South Asia in 1971. Nixon was completely antipathetic towards Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Kissinger, instead of tempering his approaches, egged him on. The Nixon tapes reveal the abusive language the two used against Indira Gandhi whenever they discussed the situation which led to the creation of Bangladesh. Kissinger may have later tried to make amends but the memory of his role in 1971 will not be easily forgotten even though Indira Gandhi along with her principal advisors out-smarted the Nixon-Kissinger duo to ensure that Indian objectives in the eastern part of the Indian sub-continent were achieved.
American spokespersons have asserted that Kissinger has undertaken the China visit on his own. This connotes that the Biden administration has not asked him to sound out the Chinese leadership on any subject leave alone act as a back channel. This may be so but it is quite possible that he would have sought and received briefings on important issues where Chinese and American interest currently converge—admittedly few—and diverge. Indications on US policies and positions are likely to have made known to him too. Such briefings and meetings are not extraordinary. With his return Kissinger is likely to brief Biden administration officials and select members of the country’s strategic and political class on a discreet basis about his impressions on the inclinations of the Chinese leadership on issues which are significant to American interests. Again, this would not be extraordinary. It is also possible that in course of time some of Kissinger’s views and if he has made any recommendations may find their way to the public domain.
There is little doubt that Biden administration officials will pay close attention to what Kissinger conveys even if they have differences with him on the policies to be adopted towards China. In recent months America has been indicating a dual approach: great firmness in meeting the Chinese strategic challenge both by hardening its own defences and also by building partnerships. QUAD, of which India is a member, is an example of such a partnership. At the same time America and China know that there are economic, commercial and environmental issues on which a minimum of cooperation is needed to ensure that the global system does not completely breakdown. This is despite all the talk of moving supply chains to locations outside China.
Finally, it is simply not possible to imagine that Kissinger and the Chinese leadership had not discussed the Ukraine war. The question is if any fresh ideas emerged on how America and China can reconcile their differences on an issue on which they are currently far apart.