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Are China and the US edging toward ‘Henry Kissinger’s war’?

Henry Kissinger was present at the creation of contemporary U.S.- China relations and assiduously nurtured them through eight U.S. administrations and five Chinese rulers over half a century. But now he is concerned that the fruition of his long-entrenched engagement policies could lead to a Sino-U.S. war with “catastrophic” global consequences. Yet, during a Wilson Center interview in September 2018, Kissinger acknowledged no inherent flaw in the approach that strengthened China’s communist regime and weakened the West.  

 “[A]t the beginning, we made a number of deals, which, in purely economic terms, seemed to be balanced in favor of China … because we thought growth in Chinese strength compensated for that imbalance in the Soviet Union. We felt we had an obligation, for the preservation of peace and stability, not to make the transformation of China such a goal that it would stop everything else,” Kissinger said in that interview.

But he and President Nixon also made a consequential security “deal”: The U.S. would show good faith by withdrawing the 7th Fleet from the Taiwan Strait and begin removing forces from Taiwan, in exchange for China allowing Nixon’s historic visit.

Kissinger now argues that mounting China tensions are due not to shortsighted policies but to unpredictable extrinsic factors such as sophisticated new technologies, and an unsophisticated foreign policy approach during the Trump administration that the Biden team essentially has continued. 

Consistent with his ultra-realist rationale, he eschews the role of ideology or personality — except on the American side — relying instead on the mechanistic geostrategic model of rising-power-versus-established-power dynamics.  

The fact that China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party with its special worldview seems of no interest to Kissinger: “I don’t consider China a communist state, no. I know that sounds paradoxical, but it’s my view.” 

America might as well be confronted by a modern version of the Ming Empire, rather than by a protege and former junior partner of Joseph Stalin’s America-hating Soviet Union, now reconstituted as a “no-limits strategic partner” of Vladimir Putin’s America-hating revanchist Russia. 

Even applying the realpolitik model, however, Kissinger accepts Beijing’s denial of any intention to replace the United States as global hegemon, seeking only its rightful place at the international table. He told Chatham House in March 2021, “My analysis of Chinese purposes is not that China is determined to achieve world domination, whatever that means.”

The noted historian and strategic thinker seems not to hear in China’s claim the echoes of Adolf Hitler’s assurances in the 1930s.

Strategic insouciance shows in his oft-repeated description of Washington’s and Beijing’s approaches to negotiations as “pragmatism” versus “process”: “The Americans have a list of things that they want to fix in the immediate future; the Chinese have an objective towards which they want to work. So we both can learn from each other.” 

The statement appears oblivious to China’s objective since the communists took power. Starting with Mao Zedong’s Wars of National Liberation, through its co-invasion of South Korea in 1950 and combat involvement in South Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, Beijing has been committed to defeating American interests and values at every opportunity and in every strategic venue — economic, military, technological and geopolitical. 

Western experts, following Kissinger’s lead, are quick to invoke China’s “century of humiliation” but fail to recall more recent Chinese history. A seasoned intelligence official, for example, told a large Pentagon meeting in the 2000s that Chinese forces had never fought against Americans.

For five decades, Kissinger held important access and influence with Republican and Democratic administrations and was able to preserve the unbalanced framework of the U.S.-China relations he negotiated with Mao and Zhou Enlai, and reinforced with each of their successors.

That changed with the arrival of President Trump’s team of clear-eyed realists determined to arrest and reverse the decline of U.S. power vis-à-vis both Russia and China. For the first time, Kissinger’s representations of benign Chinese intentions fell on deaf ears. He lamented at the Wilson Center in September 2018, “I wish I had been invited, on some occasion, to tell President Trump … about my strategic views of that relationship.”

Our problem, he said, “is not to find allies around the world with which to confront China. … This particular approach of beginning a new administration with finding an additional ally against a country with which we should have a cooperative relationship is simply not correct. … Neither China nor America need allies to fight each other.”

In May 2021, Kissinger compared the China policies of the Trump and Biden administrations: “The language still has an adversarial character but I think the circumstances are better now, [not] as if the isolation of China was the principal objective of American foreign policy.”

Last November, he told CNN, “Everyone wants to be a China hawk” — though not Kissinger himself. After President Biden again said America would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, Kissinger told the recent World Economic Forum, “The United States should not by subterfuge or by a gradual process develop something of a ‘two-China’ solution, but that China will continue to exercise the patience that has been exercised up until now.” These words evoked his 2007 warning to Taiwan at the Asia Society: “China will not wait forever.”

Kissinger also urges a downgrading of the issue of the Taiwan issue in favor of the larger U.S.-China agenda: “A direct confrontation should be avoided and Taiwan cannot be the core of the negotiations because it is between China and the United States.” Yet, he repeatedly has recounted that, in 1972, Beijing would discuss nothing else until the Taiwan question was resolved to its satisfaction.

He opposes a human rights focus as not only a distraction but — incredibly — an unwelcome threat to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party: “We should not use the human rights issue as a deliberate issue to undermine the existing structures, because if we do that, we will be in a permanent confrontation,” he said in May 2021.

But we have long been in a permanent confrontation with Communist China, always on the defensive. Given the consummate failure of Kissinger’s engagement policies and the need to avoid all-out kinetic war, going on the offensive to achieve peaceful regime change in China is the only escape from the world’s dangerous dilemma. An overt and covert information campaign directed at the people of China, with whom America has no quarrel, urgently needs to begin. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Chinese Communist Party Henry Kissinger Henry Kissinger Nixon goes to China US-China relations

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