Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

How Kissinger’s Secret Trip to China Transformed the Cold War

How Kissinger’s Secret Trip to China Transformed the Cold War

Tuesday, 20 July, 2021 - 04:15
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

This month marked the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, a centennial that President Xi Jinping celebrated by promising that China’s enemies will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.” It also marks the 50th anniversary of a more hopeful moment in Sino-American relations: Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971.

The meetings between Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, and Premier Zhou Enlai ended a generation of hostility and set the stage for a historic strategic partnership. Today, as China and the US careen toward confrontation, it is tempting to view the opening to Beijing as the beginning of nearly 50 years of errant engagement of a fundamentally hostile power. But it is worth remembering that the opening began as a smart, hard-headed policy that helped win the Cold War and transformed China’s relationship with the world.

The US-China rapprochement was both counterintuitive and a long time coming. China had been the world’s ultimate rogue state in the 1950s and 1960s — far more radical than its Communist ally, the Soviet Union. Chairman Mao Zedong’s policies led to the deaths of tens of millions of his own people in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Beijing fought two undeclared wars against the US, in Korea and Vietnam; it promoted insurgency and revolution in the developing world.

Yet US officials had long realized that the strategic geometry of the Cold War would be altered momentously if China could be pulled away from the Soviet Union. And they doubted that the two Communist giants could coexist forever. During the 1950s, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration had used unorthodox measures to hasten that split — putting extreme economic and military pressure on Beijing in hopes that Mao would then make excessive demands for support from Moscow.

By the late 1960s, that relationship had fractured, due more to ideological and geopolitical strains than US policy. China and the USSR were on the brink of war. Mao, totally isolated after the madness of the Cultural Revolution, decided that he must use the “far barbarians” (the Americans) to keep the “near barbarians” (the Soviets) at bay.

The result, as I recount in my new book, “The Twilight Struggle,” was a subtle diplomatic dance that led to Kissinger’s trip to Beijing, followed by Nixon’s visit the next year, followed by the rise of a tacit alliance that transformed the Cold War. The Soviet Union now had to contain two powerful rivals that were working to counter it; it had to worry about a two-front war against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and China.

The new partnership also facilitated the economic reforms that would move China toward capitalist prosperity after Mao’s death, thereby driving an ideological dagger into the heart of Moscow’s stagnating socialist model.

Beijing, for its part, broke its international isolation, gaining access to global institutions and the world economy. It started to receive valuable intelligence, technology and military goods from the US, as well as aid, trade and investment from close American allies such as Japan. In many ways, the opening forged by Kissinger created the global conditions for China’s rise.

Fifty years later, this may seem like a terrible mistake — that the US created a geopolitical monster while naively assuming that monster would mellow. Yet Kissinger and Nixon were initially quite realistic.

The Chinese, Kissinger wrote, were “tough ideologues who totally disagree with us on where the world is going.” The administration understood that re-establishing ties required some nasty moral compromises — such as abandoning Taiwan, one of America’s most loyal allies, and toasting Mao. The ethical price of reconciliation was high, but not higher than the moral and strategic benefits that came from outmaneuvering Moscow and winning the Cold War.

The real trouble came later. The Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union two years later should have promoted a fundamental re-evaluation of US policy and an end to the marriage of geopolitical convenience that had been sealed in 1971.

Instead, the heady atmosphere of the unipolar era led the US to triple down on engagement with China, in hopes that the forces of globalization and liberalization would eventually transform a brutal, tenacious regime that had no interest in being transformed. And the inertia of that policy, plus the fact that the US got hooked on trade with China, caused it to persist for at least a decade after its flaws were clear.

Right now, there is no hope for a near-term improvement in US-China relations. The search for a major diplomatic breakthrough could actually be dangerous if it distracts Washington from urgent measures to shore up its defenses in the military, technological and economic realms of the competition. But the Kissinger-Nixon opening to China is, if nothing else, a reminder that the bitterest enemies do occasionally reconcile — even if it takes many years and a lot of turmoil for that to happen.


Other opinion articles

Editor Picks