Has the “fox of American diplomacy” transformed into a dove of peace?


Henry Kissinger, who was once viewed as an adversary by China, was a “sensible enemy”. He understood the fate of his opponent and approached them with unrivaled political realism and pragmatism. Such a viewpoint calls for a political player to understand the international shifts and the balance of emerging forces, thereby moving away from outdated political approaches.

Consequently, it is perhaps fitting that the Chinese government refers to Kissinger as a “friend of China”, a diplomatic term that undeniably mirrors Beijing’s respect for this adversary. This is due to Kissinger’s recognition of China’s worth, his acknowledgment of the changing balance of international power, and his understanding of its shift in favor of Beijing.

Kissinger’s numerous visits to Beijing – over a hundred in total, demonstrate the significance he attributes to the country. The fact that the seasoned American diplomat, now over a century old, has made so many visits certainly speaks volumes.

Since leaving his official duties, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kissinger has provided business advisory services in China, yielding significant benefits. This bears witness to the effectiveness of Beijing’s sanctions against members of the U.S. administration, many of whom hold considerable economic interests in China.

Kissinger is not merely a former diplomat or political thinker whose views are respected by numerous leaders, academics, and public affairs professionals. He has, in fact, become a thought stream with his own followers, listeners, and individuals who have adopted his viewpoints. Notably, his wisdom and understanding have only grown with age, and his experience, as a former Secretary of State and US National Security Adviser under the Nixon and Ford administrations, has afforded him a nuanced understanding and shrewdness recognized by his adversaries before his allies.

During his tenure as the US Secretary of State, Kissinger made a significant impact, notably promoting rapprochement between Washington and Beijing and achieving a ceasefire in Vietnam in 1973 – a major goal of the US at the time. Kissinger adeptly dealt with China by adopting a policy of appeasement, which included a promise to transfer the United Nations’ seat from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. This was in exchange for Beijing’s distancing itself from the Soviet Union and ensuring non-support for Vietnam.

Today, Kissinger is a unique figure, possessing the ability to articulate his ideas and convince others, based on his logical argumentation, often persuading his listeners to consider both sides of an argument.

Personal Initiative or Informal Diplomacy

Interpreting Kissinger’s recent visit to China as a “personal act from an ordinary American citizen” is simplistic and lacks depth and objectivity. Surprisingly, this interpretation was offered by State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, a description that likely failed to convince many.

Meanwhile, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stated: “Administration officials look forward to hearing from Kissinger upon his return to understand what he heard, learned, and observed.”

A more suitable perspective on this visit would be to see it as an act of informal diplomacy undertaken by Washington towards Beijing. This comes in the wake of unsuccessful attempts to restore official communication channels between the two countries. These channels were closed by Beijing following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.

Following Kissinger’s talks in China, the White House affirmed that the former top diplomat Henry Kissinger had garnered a larger audience in Beijing than some current American officials, expressing their regret at this circumstance.

Visiting is an opportunity for Beijing

Beijing, for its part, saw Kissinger’s visit as an opportunity to deliver her political messages, to the American people first, and then to the American administration and the whole world.

Kissinger had a much larger reception than current American officials when they visited Beijing, and he held a series of important meetings that culminated in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It was certainly not just before Beijing set up a program for Kissinger’s series of meetings with Chinese officials that begins with a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shang Fu, a figure on the U.S. sanctions list since 2017, over Washington’s accusation of buying weapons from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s largest arms exporter.

Beijing had refused to hold a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, conditional on such a meeting lifting U.S. sanctions on Secretary Fu.

This movement by Beijing has White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby saying: “It’s unfortunate that a private citizen can meet with the secretary of defense and make contact and the United States can’t.”

Kirby added: “This is something we want to resolve. That is why we continue to try to reopen military lines of communication with Beijing, because when they are not open, and we are going through a time like this when tensions are high, poor estimates are also high, then the stakes will rise and dramatically, “he said.

Perhaps the most important messages were during a reception by China’s chief foreign relations officer, Wang Yi, of Henry Kissinger in Beijing, in which Yi sent strong messages: “China’s development has an internal dynamic and absolute historical logic, trying to change China is impossible, and encircling and containing China is impossible.”

Wang added that the United States should draw a clear line regarding “separatist activities seeking Taiwan’s independence,” if it really hopes to stabilize the Taiwan Strait region.

Wang Yi is the most prominent diplomatic figure in modern Chinese history, having served as Chinese foreign minister since 2013, for ten years. Then at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party he became responsible for foreign relations.

Which means that every word Wang made has been carefully crafted, that Beijing is embracing his speech and vision, and that Chinese militancy has become the title of the next phase, unless Washington changes the way it deals with China.

Perhaps Wang’s most prominent and powerful message is that “Sino-American relations need Kissinger’s diplomatic wisdom, Nixon’s political courage.” In the sense that the current US administration lacks wisdom and courage.

Wang’s talk that “China’s evolution is subject to historical logic” is an indication that China has never been a burden to anyone, that the Chinese people have not waited for help from anyone, and all China has reached is thanks to the vision of its leadership, and the work of its people.

Wang stressed that the U.S. side should implement the important commitments made by U.S. President Joe Biden that it does not seek or enter a new cold war with China. and that the United States cease its pursuit of regime change in China. Washington also stopped supporting so-called “Taiwan independence,” and adhering to the one-China policy agreed upon by the two countries, for which Kissinger was a godfather at the time.

The Chinese side has always followed the three principles put forward by President Xi Jinping: mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutual benefit and profit for both sides.

Kissinger’s visit to China culminated in a meeting with Chinese President Xi on Thursday, where Kissinger received a standing ovation and called him “an old friend of Beijing.”

President Xi saw the world undergo massive transformations unprecedented for a century, and the international landscape undergoing major transformations. “China and America have once again reached a crossroads, which requires another decision from the two countries about where to go,” Xi said. “Looking ahead, China and America can help each other succeed and thrive, and the way to achieve this is to follow the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation,” he added.

      “China is prepared on this basis to search with the U.S. side for the right path for the two countries, to agree and move forward with their relations steadily, which will be beneficial to both sides and bring benefits to the world,” the Chinese president said.

The Chinese president expressed hope that Henry Kissinger and other U.S. insiders could continue to play a constructive role in getting Sino-U.S. relations back on track.

Beijing Sees Visit as Opportunity

For its part, Beijing perceived Kissinger’s visit as a chance to convey its political messages, primarily to the American public, then the American administration, and ultimately, the world at large. Kissinger was given a warmer reception than most current American officials when they visited Beijing, holding a series of significant meetings, the pinnacle of which was his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Certainly, Beijing carefully planned Kissinger’s schedule of meetings with Chinese officials, starting with a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shang Fu, a person on the U.S. sanctions list since 2017, due to Washington’s accusations of purchasing weapons from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s leading arms exporter.

Beijing had declined to hold a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart unless U.S. sanctions on Secretary Fu were lifted. This move led White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby to remark, “It’s unfortunate that a private citizen can meet with the secretary of defense and establish contact when the United States cannot.” Kirby continued, “We want to resolve this. That’s why we persist in trying to reopen military lines of communication with Beijing. When these lines are closed and we’re in a period of high tension, poor assessments become highly likely, thereby escalating the stakes.”

Perhaps the most impactful messages were exchanged during a reception hosted by China’s top foreign relations official, Wang Yi, for Henry Kissinger in Beijing. During the reception, Yi declared, “China’s development has an internal momentum and historical inevitability, attempts to change or contain China are impossible.” He added that if the United States truly wishes to stabilize the Taiwan Strait region, it must draw a clear line on “separatist activities seeking Taiwan’s independence.”

Wang Yi, a notable figure in modern Chinese diplomacy, has been the Chinese foreign minister since 2013 and became responsible for foreign relations at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Each statement made by Wang has been meticulously considered, reflecting Beijing’s endorsement of his viewpoint and indicating that Chinese militancy may define the upcoming phase unless Washington alters its approach towards China.

Perhaps Wang’s most noteworthy assertion was that “Sino-American relations require Kissinger’s diplomatic wisdom and Nixon’s political courage,” implying a deficiency of wisdom and courage in the current U.S. administration. Wang’s statement that “China’s evolution adheres to historical logic” emphasizes China’s self-reliance and the accomplishments that have been made due to the foresight of its leadership and the dedication of its people.

Wang urged the U.S. to adhere to the key commitments made by President Joe Biden, namely, not to seek or instigate a new cold war with China, to cease efforts for regime change in China, and to halt support for “Taiwan independence,” adhering instead to the one-China policy agreed upon by both countries, for which Kissinger played a pivotal role.

The Chinese side has consistently adhered to the three principles proposed by President Xi Jinping: mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutual benefit. Kissinger’s visit to China culminated in a meeting with Chinese President Xi, during which Kissinger was given a standing ovation and referred to as “an old friend of Beijing.”

President Xi recognized that the world is undergoing significant transformations, the likes of which have not been seen for a century, and that the international landscape is experiencing major shifts. He stated, “China and the United States have once again arrived at a crossroads, necessitating another decision regarding the path forward.” He added that both nations can support each other’s success and growth by adhering to the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.

The Chinese president expressed his willingness to work with the U.S. to establish a suitable path for bilateral relations, a decision which he believes will benefit both nations and the world. He also voiced his hope that Henry Kissinger and other U.S. insiders will continue to play a constructive role in returning Sino-U.S. relations to a favorable track.

Kissinger’s Vision for Relationship with China

Kissinger has long perceived China as a substantial challenge, advocating for diplomacy if confrontation is unavoidable. Since the 1970s, he has argued against confrontation with China, citing its historical significance, cultural richness, and demographic strength as reasons to avoid direct conflict.

Of note is the fact that both China and the United States today are considerably different from their respective states in the 1970s. Consequently, the dictate-based policy and cold war mentality that the current U.S. administration employs with China are futile, and they certainly lack rationale and depend on miscalculation.

Kissinger believes it is impossible to contain China and proposes that both nations should formulate a cooperative framework given the scale of destruction that would ensue from a confrontation. He underscores that neither country can accurately predict the magnitude of the disaster that would result from their conflict, especially given their reliance on AI technology, which would govern the course and severity of the clash.

Consequently, “the relationship between the United States and China is crucial for the peace and prosperity of both countries and the world.” He contends that under the present circumstances, it is essential to preserve the principles established by the “Shanghai Statement,” understand the paramount importance China places on the “one China” principle, and steer the relationship in a positive direction.

Kissinger perceives Biden’s policy towards Beijing as not dissimilar to Trump’s, and believes the issue lies with the American public’s desire for war with China, which in turn influences the president’s actions to satisfy the electorate.

Kissinger expressed a progressive stance on Chinese mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which he deemed a “new and significant game,” leading to a “multipolar Middle East,” and suggesting that America is no longer an indispensable force in the Middle East.

He expressed concern that the success of the mediation could reinforce Beijing’s role as a peace broker in the Middle East, encouraging it to mediate in other world regions. Kissinger’s pragmatic vision extends beyond just the administration’s dealings with Beijing; he was opposed to the war in Ukraine, viewing any consideration of Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO as a grave error.

After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, he cautioned against defeating Russia, considering its power, historical significance, and cultural and political weight. Kissinger maintains that while starting a war is easy, ending it is significantly more challenging, a sentiment that applies aptly to the “special process” in Ukraine led by Moscow.

In conclusion:

Years of life have done nothing to diminish the cunning and assertiveness of this stalwart of American diplomacy. Yet his foresight, practical realism, vast experience complementing his academic background in political science, and dedication to his homeland’s interests have guided him to advocate for peace.

Despite the changes and nuances in Kissinger’s character, and even his Nobel Peace Prize, the world’s perception of him as a malevolent figure, often likened to a Nazi or ‘Machiavellian’ character, remains unaltered. Perhaps it’s apt to say that ‘Machiavellian’ could be a term used to describe him in this era.

Shaher Al Shaher
Shaher Al Shaher
Associate Professor School of International Studies Sun Yat-Sen University/ China Professor at the Faculty of Political Science - University of Damascus (previously)


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