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International relations

Kissinger's spell on China policy fades 50 years after visit

Beijing's rise, helped by US engagement, has driven pivot to rivalry

The 1971 meeting between then-U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger, left, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai put the two countries on a path to rapprochement.   © UPI/Kyodo

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- In an event marking the 50th anniversary of his trip paving the way for the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a case for the engagement policy that Washington had championed for decades.

"Conflict between the United States and China will divide the whole world," he said in a virtual meeting with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan on Thursday U.S. time. "And attempts to line up nations on one side or the other will create divisions in the world and temptations and pressures that will become increasingly difficult to solve."

But U.S. President Joe Biden sent a very different message on the same day, signaling that the decades-old policy no longer holds sway.

The U.S. needs to "focus on shoring up America's core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future," the president said in a news conference.

In place of engagement, competition has become the maxim that defines the bilateral relationship. Washington has come to view Beijing as its biggest economic and military threat, a changed dynamic that has been blamed partly on the engagement policy. 

The engagement approach is rooted in the idea that supporting China economically and integrating it into the international order would encourage political change, nudging the country toward democracy.

This policy got its start with Kissinger's fateful 1971 trip as national security adviser, taken without even the knowledge of U.S. ally Japan. Kissinger spoke with Premier Zhou Enlai for three days, clearing the way for U.S. President Richard Nixon to travel there the following February.

The visit marked a historic turning point toward the official normalization of bilateral relations in 1979.

Kissinger's influence was evident in the subsequent U.S. decision to cut off official ties with Taipei.

After a summit in June this year, G-7 leaders issued a statement urging a "peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues," referring to growing tensions between Beijing and Taipei. This idea of peaceful resolution stems from the premise that "there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China," upheld in a 1972 U.S.-China communique. 

All American administrations have since maintained this One China policy, under which Washington recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the "sole legal government of China," but does not explicitly acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.

China touts the engagement that began with Kissinger's visit as a model for the two powers to follow today.

In Thursday's meeting, Wang said America's China strategy should avoid turning into a vicious cycle of misjudgment and misguidance, and urged the U.S. not to treat Beijing as an imaginary enemy. He also called on Washington to abide by the three joint communiques issued between 1972 and 1982, which include a U.S. pledge to reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin also praised Kissinger's trip, saying the watershed visit "marked the beginning of a new historical chapter of the improvement and development of China-U. S. relations and has profound positive implications on both countries and the world."

The decision to seek rapprochement with China while it was on the outs with the Soviet Union was driven by Kissinger's hard-eyed realpolitik. Kissinger sought a speedy exit from the Vietnam War quagmire and a stronger position in the Cold War. He also sought to achieve equilibrium among the major world powers regardless of ideological or political differences.

Subsequent U.S. administrations continued down the path Kissinger had paved, even after Beijing's Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters in 1989.

After the Cold War ended and left the U.S. as the sole global superpower, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush encouraged Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization to support the country's development as the world's factory. The American businesses that jumped into the fast-growing market benefited from the resulting prosperity.

But China's rise came to shake the foundations of U.S. dominance.

The country's nominal gross domestic product is expected to overtake that of the U.S. as early as 2028, by some estimates, and the two countries are on par militarily in Asia. Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between $225 billion and $600 billion per year, according to a report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The National Security Strategy released in late 2017 by then-U. S. President Donald Trump's administration established a harder line toward rivals such as China. It criticized past policies based on the assumption that engagement would "turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners," asserting that "for the most part, this premise turned out to be false."

American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the U.S. has no choice but to change its approach.

"I think we all acknowledge that the period that was broadly described as 'engagement' has come to an end," Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, said in May. "The dominant paradigm is going to be competition."

The Biden administration's pivot in this direction has become evident, moving to reduce economic involvement with China by reworking supply chains and beefing up defenses against technology leaks. Washington is scrambling to outdo China in its economic recovery and fight against the coronavirus to gain a leg up in what it characterizes as a battle between democracy and autocracy.

China's economic rise has led to job losses for white working-class Americans, contributing to the widening social divisions in the U.S. Whether Biden can mend these rifts will depend in part on whether Washington breaks Kissinger's half-century-long spell on China policy.

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