After 50 years of talking, has the conversation between the US and China changed?

The two superpowers are still learning the value of dialogue, and the cost of its absence

Fifty years ago this month Henry Kissinger, the then US national security adviser, made a trip to China for three days of meetings with Zhou Enlai, the premier. This paved the way for then president Richard Nixon’s historic and celebrated official visit the following year, which set in motion the normalisation of relations between America and the People’s Republic.

For a long time this was seen as a great triumph, and ensured that whatever Nixon’s domestic troubles, this diplomatic coup still lent him, and Dr Kissinger, the aura of a great statesman on the world stage. Last Friday in Beijing, China’s Vice President, Wang Qishan, honoured Dr Kissinger at a special event to commemorate the talks.

In recent years, though, a new narrative has grown that Nixon and Dr Kissinger’s strategy essentially failed in the long run. As the then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo put it in a speech – at the Nixon Presidential Library, no less – last year: “As time went on, American policymakers increasingly presumed that as China became more prosperous, it would open up, it would become freer at home, and indeed present less of a threat abroad, it’d be friendlier… But the kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the kind of change inside of China that president Nixon had hoped to induce… Today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else.”

“We cannot repeat the mistakes of these past years,” said Mr Pompeo, a Republican, who made it clear that he had no time for “dialogue for dialogue’s sake”. The choice is presented as stark: either continue with the old policy of engagement, which China hawks think has failed, or be confrontational and seek to change the country.

In this worldview, European politicians such as Armin Laschet, the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and a leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, are cast almost as appeasers for insisting on the importance of dialogue with both Russia and China. In fact, I think Mr Laschet is exactly right. As he correctly pointed out in a recent interview: “Even in the coldest of cold wars there was always economic exchange and a dialogue between civil societies… Diplomacy needs as many words as it can find.”

So dialogue, of whatever kind, is essential. But Mr Pompeo’s framing is wrong on a second count, too. For the whole idea that the sole aim of the US opening up to China was that it would inevitably end up similar to a western liberal democracy is false.

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Dialogue, of whatever kind, is essential

To begin with, one of the main goals was very of its time – to tilt the global balance of power and military might against the Soviet Union. Secondly, Dr Kissinger was always realistic about what changes might accompany economic growth. He has said that “our hope was that the values of the two sides would come closer together”. But in a famous 1968 essay, “Central Issues of American Foreign Policy”, Dr Kissinger wrote: “The dominant American view about political structure has been that it will follow, more or less automatically, upon economic progress, and that it will take the form of constitutional democracy. Both assumptions are subject to serious question."

Further, he went on to point out that in many countries “the system of government which brought about industrialisation, whether popular or authoritarian, has tended to be confirmed rather than radically changed by this achievement". That is arguably just what has happened as China has grown wealthy.

There are many other ways in which Dr Kissinger’s approach, both then and now, would be a much better guide to how to proceed than the sabre-rattling, denunciatory style of the new cold warriors.

Take the former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill’s description of Dr Kissinger’s talks with Zhou: “They were high level, they were intense, they were private, they were mutually respectful, they accepted each other’s value of governance, and they were dedicated to problem solving. That’s not a bad formula for today.”

I agree. But then I do not accept Mr Pompeo’s definition of what it means for engagement and dialogue between China and the US-led West to be successful. He seems to desire total capitulation on the part of Beijing. Dr Kissinger puts it differently. “Our problem is not to find allies around the world with which to confront China,” he said at the Wilson Centre in Washington in 2018. “What we need is concepts by which we can work together to set limits to conflicts… The issue is not victory, here. The issue is continuity, and world order, and world justice, and to see whether our two countries can find a way of talking about it to each other.”

In 2020, at the Council on Foreign Relations, he outlined another eminently sensible goal: “I think the outcome of our relationship should be a concept of transpacific destiny in which we all participate.”

This is what Kissinger-style engagement can help bring about, and at a time of high tensions and warnings of military conflict it should be evident that dialogue is never just “for dialogue’s sake”, as Mr Pompeo cynically said. It is the path that leads away from war and all the devastation that would accompany it. The point is so obvious that it should barely need making, and is universally applicable. As an Irish friend said to me recently, in reference to the bombs and sectarian violence during the decades of the Troubles: "We know on this island what happens when people don't talk to each other."

Dr Kissinger worries what might happen if western countries stop talking properly to China. They are shouting loudly enough as it is, with US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific overseer Kurt Campbell stating in May that "I think we all acknowledge that the period that was broadly described as 'engagement' has come to an end".

This is foolish. Dialogue and engagement are not weaknesses but are vital for a harmonious future. Never mind the revisionists. Henry Kissinger was right in 1971 – and he’s still right today.

Published: July 14th 2021, 8:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National