In Beijing, they have come to the conclusion that the United States will do anything to keep China at bay. In Washington, they insist that China is plotting to wrest from the United States the place of first world power. For a sober analysis of this growing antagonism, you need to visit the 33rd floor of an art deco building in the heart of Manhattan, Henry Kissinger's office.
Kissinger will be 100 years old on May 27. No one alive is more experienced in international affairs: first as a scholar of 19th-century diplomacy, later as national security adviser and US secretary of state, and for the past 46 years as an adviser and emissary before monarchs, presidents and prime ministers.
At the end of April, The Economist spoke with him for more than eight hours about how to prevent the fight between China and the United States from becoming a war. His body is hunched over and he walks with difficulty, but his mind remains sharp and clear.
He is troubled by the growing competition from China and the United States for technological and economic preeminence. At a time when Russia is sliding into China's orbit and war is clouding Europe's eastern flank, he fears that artificial intelligence will fuel Sino-US rivalry. "We are in the classic situation prior to the First World War - he says -, in which neither side has much room for political concession and in which any alteration of the balance can bring catastrophic consequences".
Kissinger gives some initial advice to aspiring leaders: “Identify where you are. Cruelly". Following this principle, the starting point for avoiding war is to analyze China's growing nervousness. He acknowledges that many Chinese thinkers believe that the United States is in decline and that, "therefore, as a result of a historical evolution, they will eventually supplant us."
He believes that Chinese leaders resent Western policymakers talking about a rules-based world order, when what they mean is based on the rules and order of the United States. Indeed, some in China suspect that the United States will never treat the country as an equal, and that it is absurd to imagine that they could treat it that way.
However, Kissinger also warns of the danger of misreading Chinese ambitions. In Washington, "they say that China wants to dominate the world... The answer is that they want to be powerful", he says. "They are not headed for world domination in the Hitlerian sense. This is not how they think or how they have ever thought about the world order".
In Nazi Germany, war was inevitable because Adolf Hitler needed it, he continues, but China is different. Kissinger has met many Chinese leaders, starting with Mao Zedong. He never doubted the ideological commitment of any of them, but the commitment was always combined with a keen sense of the country's interests and capabilities.
Kissinger says the Chinese system is more Confucian than Marxist. This teaches leaders to achieve the maximum strength of which the country is capable and to try to be respected for achievements. "If they achieved a superiority capable of being really used, would they take it to the point of imposing Chinese culture?", he asks. "I do not know. My intuition tells me no..., (but) I think we have the capabilities to prevent a similar situation from occurring through a combination of diplomacy and force."
China “is trying to play a global role. We must assess at every moment whether the conceptions of a strategic role are compatible". If they are not, then the question of force will arise. “Is it possible for China and the United States to coexist without the threat of all-out war between them? I thought and continue to think that yes it is".
The pressing test is the behavior of China and the United States in relation to Taiwan. Kissinger recalls that, on Richard Nixon's first visit to China in 1972, only Mao had the authority to negotiate on the island. "Every time Nixon raised a specific issue, Mao replied: 'I am a philosopher. I don't deal with these issues. Let Zhou (Enlai) and Kissinger talk about this'... However, regarding Taiwan, he was very explicit. He said: 'They are a handful of counter-revolutionaries. We don't need them now. We can wait 100 years. Someday we will claim it. But there is still a lot to do."
Kissinger believes that the understanding forged between Nixon and Mao was annulled by Donald Trump when only 50 of those 100 years had passed. Trump wanted to enhance the image of toughness by extracting concessions from China in matters of trade. In its policy, the Biden government has followed Trump's example, albeit with a liberal rhetoric.
Kissinger would not have chosen this path with regard to Taiwan, because a Ukrainian-style war will destroy the island and devastate the world economy. The war may also set China back nationally.
Kissinger's way out of this impasse is based on his experience in public office. I would start by lowering the temperature and then gradually build trust and a working relationship. Instead of making a list of all the grievances, the President of the United States should say to his Chinese counterpart: "President, right now the two greatest dangers to peace are the two of us, because we have the ability to destroy the humanity".
Kissinger's second advice to aspiring leaders is: “Define objectives that can gain support. It finds means, describable means, to achieve these goals”. Taiwan would only be the first of the areas in which the superpowers could find common ground and promote world stability.
In a recent speech, Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, proposed to include climate change and the economy among these areas. Kissinger is skeptical about both issues. Although he is "fully in favor" of action on the climate, he doubts that this issue can contribute to building trust or establishing a balance between the two superpowers. With regard to the economy, the danger is that the commercial agenda will be hijacked by the hawks who are not prepared to leave China any room for development.
Some Americans believe that a defeated China would become democratic and peaceful. Kissinger sees no precedent for such a result. A collapse of the communist regime would most likely lead to a civil war that would escalate into an ideological conflict and do nothing but increase global instability.
Instead of walling off, the United States must recognize that China has interests. A good example is Ukraine.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently contacted Volodymyr Zelensky, his Ukrainian counterpart. Many observers have called Xi's call an empty gesture. Kissinger, on the other hand, considers that it is a serious statement of intentions that will complicate diplomacy, but which can also generate mutual trust between the superpowers.
Kissinger condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Ultimately, Putin has made a catastrophic error of judgment." However, the West is not without blame. "The decision to leave Ukraine's accession to NATO open was very wrong". It has been destabilizing.
The task now is to end the war. Kissinger says he wants Russia to cede as much of the territory it conquered in 2014 as possible, but the reality is that in any ceasefire Russia is likely to keep at least Sevastopol (main Russian naval base on the Black Sea). An agreement of this kind could leave both Russia and Ukraine dissatisfied. It would be a recipe for future confrontation.
For lasting peace in Europe it is necessary for Ukraine to join NATO as a means of containing it, as well as protecting it. Europe also needs to reach a rapprochement with Russia and create a stable eastern border.
Many Western countries will oppose one or the other of these goals. And, with China as Russia's ally and NATO opponent, the task will be even more difficult. China has a priority interest that Russia emerges intact from the war in Ukraine. Xi fears that a collapse of Moscow would be a problem for China, as it would create a power vacuum in Central Asia that would risk being filled with a "Syrian-style civil war".
He doubts that China and Russia can work well together. They share a suspicion of the United States, but he also believes that they instinctively distrust each other. "I have never met a Russian leader who spoke well of China. And I have never met a Chinese leader who spoke well of Russia."
The Chinese refuse to consent to the destruction of Russia, but recognize that Ukraine must remain an independent country and have warned against the use of nuclear weapons. They may even accept Ukraine's desire to join NATO. "China does this, in part, because it does not want to enter into conflict with the United States", he says. "They are creating their own world order, to the extent that they can create it."
The second area that China and the United States need to talk about is that of artificial intelligence. “We are at the beginning of a capacity in which machines could impose a global plague or other pandemics; not just nuclear destruction, but any kind of human destruction”. He compares its disruptive potential with the invention of the printing press, which spread ideas that played a role in the outbreak of the devastating wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Artificial intelligence cannot be abolished. China and the United States will have to use their military power as a deterrent. Although they could also limit the threat it poses, just as arms control talks limited the nuclear threat. "I think we have to start the exchanges about the consequences of technology on the other. We have to take small steps towards gun control."
Kissinger's third piece of advice for aspiring leaders is: "Link all of this to internal goals, whatever they may be." For the United States, this means learning to be more pragmatic, focusing on leadership qualities and, above all, renewing the country's political culture.
The transactional approach is not something that comes naturally to the United States. The running theme of Diplomacy, Kissinger's monumental history of international relations, is that the United States insists on describing all major foreign interventions as expressions of its manifest destiny to remake the world in its own image as a free society , democratic and capitalist.
The problem, for Kissinger, is that moral principles too often override interests. It recognizes the importance of human rights, but does not place them at the center of politics. “We tried to impose them on Sudan. How is Sudan now?”.
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Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix