Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS
Last week, Henry Kissinger warned that US-China tensions threaten to engulf the entire world and could lead to Armageddon-like clash between the world’s two military and technology giants. Surprisingly, some Chinese are interpreting the warning as threat to intimidate China in order to “accept and obey” the US-led world hegemonic order.
In January 2015, the peace group CODEPINK dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of 91-year old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate hearing. Twelve months later, at the February Democratic Debate Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were seen engaged in a heated duel attacking and defending the acclaimed diplomat. The late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger warned editors, TV news channel producers and presidential candidates to stop soliciting Kissinger’s “worthless and dangerous” opinions. The never ending outburst of enmity on the part of CODEPINK, Sanders and Hitchens was due to Kissinger’s brutal role in the killing of thousands of civilians, gang rape of hundreds of female detainees, and allegedly slaughtering of over one million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos among countless similar crimes against humanity since the early 1970s.
As documented in “Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record,” as some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told the ruthless Augusto Pinochet: “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” But Sanders-Clinton “spirited exchange” five years ago, as mentioned above, was not confined in Sanders’ words to Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history” of the United States. Sanders’ rare outburst also included Clinton defending her foreign policy mentor – Kissinger – on China. “[Kissinger’s] opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Hilary Clinton emphatically pointed out.
Sanders responded disdainfully and berated Clinton for admiring Kissinger. “Kissinger first scared Americans about communist China and then opened up trade so US corporations could dump American workers and hire exploited and repressed Chinese,” Sanders had retorted. However, no one in Beijing either knows or seems interested in all the so-called negative traits attributed to the veteran diplomat who is generally known as arguably the most “influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” Instead, according to Peter Lee, editor of the online China Matters and a veteran Asia Times columnist, the CPC leadership value Kissinger as the “symbol, custodian and advocate” of a US-China relationship that is special.
Professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, described the re-opening of relations with China as Kissinger’s greatest achievement. In a review of Kissinger’s massive book On China, Friedberg wrote: “Kissinger’s six hundred pages on China are an attempt to apply the principles of foreign policy realism to the most pressing strategic challenge of our day.” (Emphasis given) However, the approach, taken alone, was far from inadequate in anticipating the behavior of an increasingly powerful China on the one hand, and for prescribing an appropriate American strategy to deal with a rising China, Friedberg went on to add.
Since Mao, all successive top Chinese leaders have met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing, some even more than once. China’s current President Xi Jinping is no exception. In fact, given the deep esteem with which reform era CPC leadership has been embracing Henry Kissinger, the general wisdom in Beijing is President Xi has horned his diplomatic skills by learning well his (Kissinger’s) oft-quoted aphorism “you don’t go into negotiations unless your chances of success are 85 percent.” Kissinger had first met with Xi in 2007, when Xi, as the party secretary in Shanghai, had received the most frequent foreign visitor to China on a visit to the city. When asked for his assessment of the party’s new general secretary within days of the 18th party congress in November 2012 by the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger had said “Xi Jinping is a strong leader capable of rising up to any challenge.”
In the past little over four decades of Kissinger-CPC bonhomie, the first decade thanks to Cold War passed off rather smoothly and uneventfully. The second decade ushered in with perhaps the first most serious test for both Kissinger as well as for the US-China relations since the unfreezing of the bilateral ties by Nixon-Kissinger pair in the early 1970s. In June 1989, the CPC rulers used brutal force to crush peaceful student demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square and launched nationwide crackdown on suspected dissidents. Though criticized by the US political elite for “Kowtowing to Beijing” for defending the CPC authorities by saying “a crackdown was inevitable,” Kissinger did influence the Bush administration in imposing comparatively mild sanctions while deflecting congressional pressure for tougher action.
In third and fourth decades respectively, unlike during the first two stages, ideology gradually regained initiative over geopolitics in influencing the bilateral relationship. There are mainly two factors for this. First, from 1979 to the end of the last century, China was relatively weaker than the United States both economically and in military technology. Following China’s rapid economic growth beginning late 1990s and at the turn of the twenty-first century, a section in the US political elite became apprehensive of China’s assertive and highly competitive stance. These concerns soon gave birth to the “China threat theory” which Beijing unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “China’s peaceful rise.”
The second factor has much to do with the world financial crisis in 2008 which resulted in the beginning of decline of the US economy on the one hand, and the unfolding of the seemingly evident intent of the CPC leadership to “eventually displace the US” and “re-establishing their own country as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.” In other words, with Cold War and the Soviet Union both long gone, and China threatening to soon replace America as the world’s number one economy, the communist rulers in Beijing were under no illusion that the ideologically hostile US was gearing up to plot “color revolution” to replace the CPC with democratically elected leaders in the People’s Republic.
The chilling of US-China bilateral relations during the first year of Obama presidency itself, with China replacing Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and further hardening of the US stance towards China, and finally the US “pivot to Asia” strategy introduced by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton – all these were perceived by Beijing as the US “creating political framework for a confrontation with China in order to maintain the global hegemony of American dominance.” Even Kissinger was very much aware of the changing stance in Beijing, as is reflected from what he wrote in On China: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy.”
Interestingly, although the most frequent US visitor to China has continued to visit China ever more frequently during the past decade, given the changing nature of polity in both the US and in China it is not incorrect to say the Kissinger magic has been gradually fading away. Last Friday, when the “old friend of China” warned both Beijing and Washington in a speech at McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum in France that their escalating tensions are leading the world towards Armageddon-like clash, the opinionating Chinese social media reacted with caution. “Kissinger used the so-called end of the world argument to threaten and intimidate China in order to accept and obey the hegemonic order by the United States.
Another commentary in Chinese pointed out, ever since Trump launched “all out political war” against China, Kissinger has been in subtle and cunning way warning China to “cooperate” with Washington. The signed article entitled “Kissinger Continues to Scare the Chinese People” stated: “For the past two, three years, Kissinger has been repeatedly saying, China must continue to compromise and obey the US hegemony and US-led global order. Otherwise, China will face the danger of World War I-like situation.”
To sum up, an angry guancha.cn – one of China’s most widely read online Chinese language news platform – reader posted in the chat room: Kissinger is no longer qualified to advise China or the world. Instead, the world will be a peaceful if America first puts its own house in order!
This is edited version of an earlier article published under the same title in moderndiplomacy on 5 May, 2021.