Last year, US-China trade exceeded US$600 billion; more than 300,000 Chinese students studied in the US; and Chinese cross-border investment directly supported a combined 1.7 million US jobs. In a new era of Sino-US relations – signified by global initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement but also disputes in other areas – former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reflects on his experience and puts the bilateral relationship in perspective in a webcast for the 10th annual CHINA Town Hall organized by the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR)

By Kenny Lau

Henry Kissinger

The year was 1971, and it was a secret US mission to re-engage China after nearly a quarter of a century of detachment following the end of the second world war. “The United States and China had not had diplomatic relations for 25 years; there had been an embargo from the US side for buying any Chinese goods; and we had been involved in the Korean War [as their enemy],” former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described in a recent webcast for the 10th annual CHINA Town Hall moderated by President of the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR) Stephen Orlins.

“There had been constant tensions between the US and China,” recalls Kissinger who served as a special envoy on behalf of President Richard Nixon on an unannounced trip to meet with Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971. It was a time when US diplomats could only meet with their Chinese counterparts in Warsaw where a total of 126 meetings took place, but each of these meetings would end in less than an hour. “In fact, it took us three years to figure approaches to China that both sides could trust and was technically feasible.”

The purpose was to re-establish diplomatic relations with China because “you can’t do all the things you ought to do to have a peaceful world or to get the participation of an important nation when China is excluded from the international system,” he reasons. “I had a 48-hour window for the mission, and it was under great time pressure. I did not know what I was going to find; the Chinese did not know what I was going to say. Zhou and I conducted all the negotiations, and it ended with an invitation from the Chinese government for President Nixon to visit China.”

The Soviet Union was also an important factor at the time: from the US perspective, “it had acted as an adversary, and we wanted to show the world that we had other options and that we were trying to broaden international contact,” Kissinger explains. “It was important for China because Soviet Union had moved over 40 divisions [of troops] to the Chinese border. The Chinese in 1969 had reasons to fear or expect a full-scale attack, and border incidents had already started. Both of us had a Soviet reason for opening discussions.”

History in the making

Throughout his career spanning decades, Kissinger has met with more Chinese political leaders than any other US diplomat, including all five generations of Chinese leadership. China was more concerned with ideology than with economics under Mao Zedong; doors opened under Deng Xiaoping; China was “brought into the international economic system” under Jiang Zemin, but “took a pause from big activities internationally” under Hu Jintao; reform more aligned to the ideology of the Mao period transpired under Xi Jinpin.

“Every Chinese leader I’ve met, in a way, is more conceptual than most American leaders. They think in a conceptual way of policy as a process rather than as a program,” he notes. “A reason is that Americans believe a stable world is normal; when the world is instable, there is a problem; when there is a problem, you solve it and go onto something else. Chinese leaders think a problem is an admission ticket to another problem. There are significant differences in that sense.”

The historic meeting in 1971 between Kissinger and Premier Zhou was without script or camera. “When I first went to China, I knew very little about the country,” Kissinger says. “We would start in the afternoon and meet for five to six hours, and Zhou did not seem bothered by any other business. We had long periods of discussion; we both came to the conclusion that we should be honest with each other about our directions and purposes.”

The most important lesson from the period in retrospect was that “we have to understand China has a different history and a different culture from the US,” he reflects. “We have lived securely while China has always had enemy all around it. It is important for the people of both sides to get to know each other. It is extremely important for the political leaders of both sides to understand the way of thinking of the other.”

What followed was a series of events which had a critical role in thawing Sino-US relations: an invitation from the Chinese government for the US Table Tennis Team to appear in a “friendly” tournament in 1971 (famously known as Ping Pong Diplomacy); another for President Nixon to visit China in 1972; and NCUSCR co-hosting the Chinese Table Tennis Team NCUSCR in what was the first US visit by a delegation from the People’s Republic of China.

“We have to understand that, prior to this, there had been no contact, no visitors from China to America, and no visitors from America to China,” Kissinger says of the historic significance of the events. “The Chinese suddenly invited the US Ping Pong Team for a tournament. It was unexpected for us and for the team. It was a symbol of having established people-to-people contact between the US and China, and it was one of the breakthroughs of that period.”

To the credit of President Nixon, Kissinger believes the fact that “we did not speak so much about differences but spoke of our objectives and of ways to see whether these objectives could be harmonized” was critically important in forming a constructive dialogue. “At these leadership meetings, we began percolating down to people and how people could have experiences and understand the way of thinking in each other’s country. That was a crucial element.”

Pivot to Asia

The US relationship with the Philippines, a US treaty ally, has recently become precarious with an announcement ending joint military exercises in the Southeast Asian country. The question, however, is a matter of who gains the most from these exercises, Kissinger stresses. “The Philippines have an alliance with the US not as a favor to the US but because they think, for their own security reasons, they are safer by having a relationship with the US.”

“If they have a different view, it is their privilege. It is what countries do,” he says. “I don’t consider a visit by the Philippines president to China as abrogating the US alliance. And if the Philippines want a closer relationship with China, that’s not something to which the US should object. If it goes further and affects other aspects of the alliance, then we’ll have to deal with it when it arises.”

And “in the handling of issue in the South China Sea, both the US and China are making military moves,” he adds. “But when we put TV cameras on military warships when they cruise around the sea, we are sending a challenge that I think we should avoid. The Chinese, at the same time, have to consider our sensitivity.” China has also remained fairly tense with Japan, and South Korea will almost certainly be provoked to react if North Korea builds up a nuclear force and acts as a threat to the regional security. “Given the geographical proximity of North Korea and China, any weapon we put into South Korea to help our allies can have implication for China,” Kissinger points out. “Likewise, if missiles could be removed from North Korea, countermeasures in South Korea would have a different character and could be subject to negotiation.”

The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, would increase the level of tension and lead to a military arms race, he cautions. “We certainly should not bring it about by destroying the existing arrangement we have [with our allies] and telling these countries that they’ll have to depend on their own technology, especially they have the technology from which they could move into nuclear weapons with relative ease.”

“It would lead to an outcome we should be very eager to avoid,” he adds. “It is a statement that should not have been made because it is not helpful to the situation.”

Cross-strait relations are an unsettled issue that only the future can decide. That is, whether interaction developed between both sides of the Taiwan Strait will grow stronger and stronger, Kissinger believes. “When President Nixon was in China, we accepted the principal that there is only one China and that we weren’t supporting a Two-China solution. The Chinese accepted the principal that this would take time to evolve.”

Trade and public sentiments

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) comprising 12 countries in a multilateral free trade agreement pending Congressional approval is an important piece of legislation because the US should be part of an organization of non-military relationships with Asia, Kissinger believes. “The US should be part of this structure through a partnership to prevent a split between Asia and the US.”

“China is not yet a party of TPP, but it should be. I am convinced we are at a stage where China is rising and where the US is evolving a new kind of policy,” he says. “If the relationship were taken as one of constant adversary, then it would lead to a crisis sooner or later. So, I favor any reasonable relations that would strengthen ties across the Pacific and create, if possible, an organic relationship between the US and China.”

“If America were to become a protectionist country – which I don’t think will happen, but assuming it does and other countries follow in a trade war pattern – then the benefits of global trade will disappear,” he adds. “The standard of living everywhere will be affected. That would be an unfortunate outcome.”

In a year full of campaign rhetoric leading up to the US elections in November, China has been a target of persistent bombardment of vocal attacks; while they may be discarded simply as rhetorical statements, they may also pose a risk of doing damage to the Sino-US relationship. “The Chinese understand that is political campaign on one level; but they would also question the notion that these statements get made because there must be an audience for them,” Kissinger says.

“If there is a very big audience for anti-Chinese statements, regardless of what the US administration tells them, they may not be able to control it,” he further says. “Irresponsible statements about China can’t always be ignored as being campaign rhetoric, and we have to develop a national ability to bring up published statements in line with our national [interest and priorities].”

What’s certain, however, is the consistency of US foreign policy towards China since 1971. “Every US administration has supported the statement that relations between our two countries are key to peace and progress in the world. There hasn’t been a big difference between Democratic and Republican administrations in the pursuit of that objective,” Kissinger says. “I am optimistic that, after the election, US policy and major goals will be pursued.”