Lü Xiang: 50 years after Kissinger’s secret trip to China, does US have same ability to correct its mistakes?
23 Jul, 2021  |  Source:Global Times  |  Hits:1178

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger's secret visit to China. 

Back in 1971, the US was in a white-hot rivalry against the Soviet Union, and it got bogged down in Vietnam because of its own mistakes. Washington wanted to pull itself out of the dilemma and meanwhile it wished to change the world's power structure by getting closer to China. 

It was a time when the US was under the Nixon administration, who appointed politicians as knowledgeable as Kissinger and who did what was right for the US. 

At that time, the US had a comprehensive understanding of global affairs and those of its own, and the ability to correct its mistakes. This allowed Washington to create a relatively favorable strategic environment by easing China-US relations. Thus, Kissinger made his famous visit and more than half a year later US president Richard Nixon himself visited China. On departure from the White House for the state visit to China, Nixon said, "We [the US and China] will have differences in the future. But what we must do is to find a way to see that we can have differences without being enemies in war." 

In contrast, the US is now again in crisis, which is the result of its chronic diseases. The US is now in the grip of gerontocracy rarely seen on the world stage. These two factors have led to hesitations in US policymaking and the reaching of an internal consensus. Even if there is a so-called anti-China consensus on the surface, there are still great differences in the specific steps and strategies on how to carry them out.  

At present, there are clear contradictions between the president's aides and staff and the cabinet's staff. From the recent remarks of Kurt Campbell, a senior advisor to Biden, that the US does not support Taiwan independence, it can be said there is still opportunity in months to come for the US to come up with a relatively stable China policy. But it will not be as clear and mature as the one carried out by Kissinger. 

In a speech in 1971, Nixon said, "We now face a situation where four other powers" - the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Japan and China - "have the ability to challenge us on every front." Yet this "can be a constructive thing." 

A few months later, he told Time magazine: "I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other."

Kissinger is a master of the balance-of-power theory. He advocated checks and balances among several forces to maximize US interests. Five decades have passed, and due to the significant changes in countries' national strengths, US strategists believe it is time to unite other powers to counterbalance China. 

But today, due to US chronic domestic diseases, the country may find it hard to reach the goal. Therefore, Biden needs help. 

On the one hand, he is borrowing some time from the future. In other words, he is overdrawing US strength from the future, via measures such as raising an infrastructure plan paid for by $2 trillion in tax increases on US corporations spread out over 15 years. 

On the other hand, he wants to gain strength from US allies. But the recent virtual summit among China, Germany and France shows that though there are indeed divergences between China and Europe, there are not irreconcilable contradictions. What Biden can get from allies will be very limited. If the US doesn't have enough domestic political resources, he might not obtain more than empty support from the global arena. 

The US is now like an old man standing in a stadium, who wants to ace the game, but is running out of breath. During Nixon's era, the country could quickly cure its acute illness, such as ending the Vietnam War. But it is helpless in dealing with its current chronic diseases. Worse, it has no sophisticated politicians like Kissinger. 

Although US ability to correct errors is confined by its domestic factors, which has led to today's China-US ties, China will never be the one to exacerbate the situation. China will always play the role of a stabilizer and mitigate possible consequences that may be brought by uncertainties of the US. 

In 1971, Biden was 29 years old, and was itching to try out politics. The next year, he was elected to the US Senate. It can be argued that his political career completely overlaps the engagement and the deepening of relations between Beijing and Washington. But I am curious today - after the 50 years, what kind of China-US relationship does Biden expect? Destroy it, or make it better?

(Lü Xiang, research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The views don't necessarily represent those of this platform.)