In the contemporary landscape, the United States and China grapple with portraying their escalating relationship as what it resembles: an unfolding cold war. Diplomatic relations between these global powers have significantly deteriorated in recent months, marked by retaliatory trade restrictions in the tech sector and heightened tensions surrounding the Taiwan Strait.
Top-level communication between Li Shangfu and his U.S. defense counterpart remains conspicuously absent amid security apprehensions. Against this backdrop, Kissinger’s visit comes precisely 52 years after his covert trip in July 1971 to Beijing —a strategic maneuver that paved the way for then-U.S. President Richard Nixon to establish diplomatic ties with Mao Zedong’s China. After over half a century, the 100-year-old diplomat continues to be widely revered in China, with his contributions to U.S.-China relations prominently acknowledged as one of his “career highlights.” China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, has also lauded Kissinger for his “historic contributions to the ice-breaking development in China-US relations.”
China’s President Xi Jinping met veteran U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger in Beijing on July 19, referring to him as an “old friend” as they discussed the current strained state of US-China relations. This meeting comes after various prominent U.S. government officials and diplomats, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Former U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger’s visit to China, is seen as a potential opportunity to improve US-China relations. Though acting privately, Kissinger’s experience and diplomatic wisdom could pave the way for more frank discussions with Chinese officials. According to the veteran U.S. diplomat, “The relationship between our two countries is a matter of world peace and the progress of human society.”
As Kissinger reaches the remarkable milestone of turning 100, he consistently warns about the “catastrophic consequences” that could arise from a military confrontation between the two giants. Kissinger stated, “Neither the United States nor China can afford to treat the other as an adversary. If the two countries go to war, it will not lead to any meaningful results for the two peoples”. He perceives the current state of affairs as being in the early stages of a cold war, highlighting the need for caution and diplomatic prudence.
Despite the “Old-friend Diplomacy”, the Biden administration’s stance on China’s economic issues indicates a dim outlook for improved ties.
The CHIPS Act of 2022 exemplifies this: a $39 billion fund incentivizing U.S. tech firms to build semiconductor companies domestically while barring them from constructing high-tech facilities in China for a decade after accepting federal funding.
While keeping relations manageable with China, the U.S. is strengthening economic ties with Asian nations under the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The QUAD Group (U.S., Japan, Australia, India) also works on supply chain revisions. U.S. companies like Apple have expanded their operations in Vietnam, India, and other countries. While ostensibly aimed at denying advanced computing and artificial intelligence capabilities to the Chinese military and surveillance apparatus, this move inadvertently affects various sectors, including Chinese agriculturalists, medical researchers, supply chain managers, educators, and transportation and communications specialists. This move reflects a clear manifestation of a cold war mentality, as the U.S. endeavors to hinder China’s economic and technological progress under the pretext of security apprehensions.
Furthermore, Janet Yellen’s visits to China, India, and Vietnam underscore the importance of diversifying supply chains while maintaining trade relations with China. Despite efforts to reduce tensions, the complex geopolitical landscape and President Xi Jinping’s leadership style make significant improvements in the US-China relationship unlikely. Recent events, such as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 and the diplomatic row over a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S., have further strained relations, causing delays in high-level exchanges between the countries.
Amid a growing realization of the need for a nuanced approach, the Biden administration has consistently stressed its intent to compete with China while firmly steering clear of direct conflict.
Concurrently, faced with economic challenges, China diligently seeks to prevent further deterioration in its relations with the West, actively enticing Western investors. Esteemed officials, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang, have been ardently courting these investors. Both Chinese and U.S. authorities have reiterated the paramountcy of cooperation on global issues, notably climate change.
However, while Beijing may desire friendlier engagement, the fundamental drivers of US-China relations are unlikely to shift significantly. The two countries continue to grapple with issues like Taiwan, military actions, and economic disputes, making the path to improved ties complex and challenging. Currently, prospects for immediate improvement in US-China relations are dim, and the focus is on bolstering defenses in the military, technological, and economic arenas.
While resuming dialogues offers hope for improved ties, the prevailing shift in the U.S. political climate, seeing China as a rival, raises doubts about the Xi-Kissinger meeting’s impact on Sino-American relations. Despite the warm reception in Beijing, the core drivers lie in their national interests, guiding the future. Therefore, striking a delicate balance between competition and cooperation will be vital as the two superpowers navigate this complex landscape in the years ahead.
The Author is associated with The China-Pakistan Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and is a graduate student of International Relations from the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include the International Politics of China, the Politics of South Asia, and Non-Traditional Security threats. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . She Tweets @thesaherrajput