In July 1971, the American national security adviser Henry Kissinger embarked on a secret mission in China, then America’s sworn enemy. This 48-hour ice-breaker journey paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Chairman Mao a year later. Nixon’s visit changed the strategic geometry of the Cold War and influenced Washington’s subsequent move towards detente with Moscow.
Half a century later, as Joe Biden arrived in Cornwall to attend the G7 meeting, there was once again a sense of history looming – one that involves the speech of allies (a group of democracies sharing the same ideas) and adversaries (notably Russia and China). It’s also the one that evokes memories of the Cold War in the 1970s, when strategists like Kissinger shaped the art of balancing power between major geopolitical players.
As Biden prepared for his trip, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved the Innovation and Competition Act, a rare show of unity between Democrats and Republicans. Beijing responded, calling it “filled with the zero-sum mentality of the Cold War.”
Some seasoned observers of Sino-US relations say that while it is important to grasp the nature of the competition between the great powers, the analogy with the 20th century Cold War is unnecessary. They believe that the nature of the relationship between the United States and China today is fundamentally different from that between the Soviet Union and the West.
“I think it’s better not to use the Cold War analogy,” Stapleton Roy, a Soviet expert turned US ambassador to China, said in a statement. new BBC World Service documentary which explores the legacy of Kissinger’s clandestine visit in 1971.
Roy fears that if journalists, pundits and policymakers continue to casually talk about the approach of a Cold War 2.0, they run the risk of being engulfed in a self-fulfilling prophecy that would end up seeing a military confrontation. Chinese-American becoming inevitable – with dire consequences.
“What is happening in the world today is no different from what has happened throughout history, when great countries had disputes with other great countries. And history sometimes shows that it leads to war, sometimes that leads to dead ends, ”he added.
In November 2019, a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, Henry Kissinger, 96, spoke on this subject in Beijing. He told his biographer, historian Niall Ferguson, who interviewed him on this occasion, that we were “at the foot of a cold war.”
“Kissinger saw some possibility, in fact, of improving relations between the United States and China and between the United States and Russia. And that didn’t happen, ”Ferguson recalls. “Things went in a different direction than he would have preferred as [Donald] Trump… launched a trade war and a technology war. Vice-president [Mike] Pence raised the rhetoric in his Hudson Institute speech in October 2018. ”
In Beijing, although Foreign Ministry spokespersons often use “Cold War” vocabulary when responding to Western critics, Yan Xuetong, one of China’s most respected foreign policy thinkers, stated that he considered the expression to be misleading.
“I would prefer to use [the] term “a difficult peace” to describe the current competition between China and the United States rather than “a new cold war”, because the [20th century] the cold war was motivated by this ideological expansion of the United States and the Soviet Union and by proxy wars, ”Yan said.
The stakes are high. But whatever definition of the current interactions between Beijing and Washington, many now fear that individuals on both sides of the Pacific, as well as middle powers around the world, will sooner or later be caught in the crossfire.
Countries like Australia may have already decided which side to take. But many smaller and less powerful Asian states, for example Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia, have repeatedly warned the two sides not to force them into a situation where they will not. no choice but to choose a side.
In China, the US-Chinese rapprochement and the subsequent opening of Beijing in the late 1970s changed the lives of millions of people. But it’s also something many experts and strategists often overlook when talking about “grand strategy” in a 21st century geopolitical struggle.
In July 1971, upon learning that Nixon was coming to China as a result of Kissinger’s secret trip, 12-year-old Beijing resident Zha Jianying knew her life would change as well. “I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, but I had a vague feeling this was the start of something,” she said.
In the early 1980s, Zha was among the first Chinese students to study in the United States. It was there that she began her writing career. With a unique perspective fusing Chinese and American perspectives, his essays for The New Yorker magazine enlightened many people in the English-speaking world and opened a window on the contradictions of his country of origin.
“Fifty years later, we are again on the cusp of massive change,” she said. “As competition between the great powers intensifies, I fear that innocent souls on both sides of the Pacific will be caught in the cracks of history and the nuances will be lost. Conflicting rhetoric makes everything darker. There may not be going back. “
Vincent Ni is the Guardian’s Chinese affairs correspondent. It also presents the new BBC World Service documentary When Kissinger went to China