Kissinger: China, U.S. Must ‘Lead in Cooperation’

By Hu Shuli

Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State and the architect of former president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, has continued to influence the shaping of the two countries' relations and America's foreign policy long after leaving office.

On a recent trip to China, the 92-year-old Kissinger met with President Xi Jinping in his capacity as chairman of Kissinger Associates Inc., a consulting firm in New York. In September, Xi will make a trip of his own after accepting an earlier invitation from U.S. President Barack Obama to head to Washington for a state visit—the first of its kind since he became president in 2013.

The upcoming meeting of the two leaders will give the U.S. government an opportunity to hear from the Chinese leadership about the country's sweeping reforms and its development, Kissinger told Caixin in an exclusive interview on March 18, one day after talking with Xi.

"I'm very confident President Xi, when he comes to the United States, will present a picture of what is going on in China that will be very significant," he said.

Kissinger said China is bound to rise despite some down periods, and its influence will make the United States feel uneasy in certain regards. However, it is very important that the world's two biggest powers "lead in cooperation," as they did in a recent agreement on climate change, he said.

The United States' former top diplomat also said both countries should "remember that whatever their differences, their common interests are greater." He also talked about a wide range of other issues, including Russia and the crisis in Ukraine, landscape-changing events occurring in the Middle East, and how diplomacy should work in an age where it is harder to keep secrets.

The following are excerpts from his interview.

Caixin: In your book The World Order you mentioned that the United States and China can learn a lesson from World War I. What is that lesson?

Henry Kissinger: The lesson is that countries can be drawn into a conflict by doing things that look perfectly reasonable on a day-to-day basis and then suddenly find themselves in a position where they don't know how to extricate themselves. I believe that none of the leaders who started the first world war would have done so had they known what the end would look like. So China and the United States have to be careful not to get into situations where even if they act reasonable, they create tension that, over a period of time, will be difficult to manage.

Both should remember that whatever their differences, their common interests are greater. So when issues arise, they should deal with it by compromise and without pressure. They should be settled on the basis of remembering that the need for peace is greater than the immediate tension.

Your book also says that "concepts of partnership need to become, paradoxically, elements of the modern balance of power." Why is this paradox necessary? What should both countries' leaders do to manage the paradox?

It's understandable that China wants to keep foreigners from approaching its borders and it therefore undertakes a defense effort to that end. I particularly understand it in light of China's history. It's also understandable that the United States doesn't want any region dominated by a superpower, so that creates a certain balance. On the other hand, the two elements in that balance, namely, China and the United States, also have to lead in cooperation, as has been shown in the agreement on climate change. I'm sure that President Xi's forthcoming visit to the United States will lead to other positive understandings, so both of these tendencies have to go on side by side.

What trajectory do you think China might follow in rising to become a strong power?

Historically, a rise has always had some ups and downs. I remember China in 1971, and if anyone had shown me a picture of what Beijing looks like and said in 25 years Beijing will look like this, I would have said that's absolutely impossible. But up to now the rise of China has been, to all purposes, uninterrupted. That has never happened before for such a long period of time. It's possible there are some down periods, but when one looks at the evolution of China in the last 30 to 40 years, I think the long-term trend will be upward, and especially will be so if the reforms that are now being undertaken are carried through.

China has been seeking greater influence in the current global financial order and has been leading efforts to create some new institutions that may potentially rival the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. What is the strategic implication of these moves?

It is not clear yet. There's a dialogue going on between the United States and other countries and China. Some people in the United States have interpreted it as an attempt to create an alternative financial system to the existing financial system, and maybe ultimately, to replace it. I'd say, let history decide. There is a need for development and there's a need for capital for development. There must be a way of dividing the responsibilities in institutions and we will see what happens later. I don't think any country can create an international system by itself and I'm sure Chinese leaders realize that.

Is it possible that the U.S. government has felt strategically threatened by the recent attempt by a Chinese businessman to build a canal across Nicaragua?

There are a lot of people that say whenever China does something in Africa or Latin America, it's damaging to us. Why should a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific be damaging to the United States? The relationship of China to the United States will be determined by the purposes of the leaders and the ability of the leaders to deal with each other. We ought to understand, both of us, we are now great countries, we will both operate around the world. We will be in some places side by side, some places not side by side. I don't think that is the issue, and if China wants to spend resources on building a canal in Nicaragua and doesn't make it a naval base, which is inconceivable, why should that concern me?

Is there another triangular game on display again between China, Russia, and the United States?

In the evolution of China, Russia, and the United States, when I was in office, our theory was we would have good relations with both countries and we would not choose. We made it very clear that we had a strong interest in a peaceful solution between China and Russia. China knew we would oppose a Russian attack on China.

In the present situation there is no particular threat of war between any of the three countries that we are talking about. Russia is undergoing and has created a crisis in Europe and as a result it has moved closer to China. This does not damage the United States and I cannot conceive that China will engage in a formal alliance, so we will have to take the issues as they arise. So far most of the issues concern energy supply and other matters that do not directly affect the United States.

Do you see a cold war emerging from the Ukraine crisis?

I thought a year ago, and I think today, that the Ukraine crisis should be settled peacefully and by negotiations. The basic issue has been whether Ukraine should be part of a military alliance or whether it should belong to a Russian sphere of military influence. My view has been Ukraine should be in neither camp, that it should be a meeting place and not an outpost. If that advice had been taken, I think a peaceful solution would have occurred. I believe that this is what should still be done and the continuation of conflict will weaken every party.

On President Xi Jinping

You've known all the Chinese supreme leaders since Mao Zedong. What's your impression of Xi Jinping and how do you assess his foreign policy in terms of strategic change?

President Xi has undertaken an enormous task. He is attempting to and succeeding in transforming a nation of over a billion people and to change patterns that have been established for many generations, to do this at a time when there is also a change of population from the countryside to the cities and when the world economy is becoming more complex. So I think that President Xi will be recorded in history as a leader who's brought about very major changes, some of the most dramatic changes in Chinese history.

What expectations do you have for Xi's upcoming visit to the U.S.?

This will be the first state visit of President Xi to the United States and he's coming in a period when the United States is preparing for an election next year. So it contributes enormously to the continuity of Chinese-American relations, to see that the foreign policy that has already existed for, I think, nine presidential terms, is now being carried on toward the end of the current administration and I'm sure it will be supported in the new administration. Also, Americans have not really had the opportunity to hear an explanation from the top Chinese leaders about the reform program and development of the country. I'm very confident President Xi, when he comes to the United States, will present a picture of what is going on in China that will be very significant.

On Islamic Conflicts

How do you view the emergence of the Islamic State? Is it a game-changer?

In the Middle East, we are seeing three or four revolutions going on simultaneously. There is the dissatisfaction with the existing government; there is the religious split between Shia and Sunni; there are the different ethnic groups; and, finally, there is the disintegration of the international system as it was created at the end of World War I, when we are now observing Iranian troops participating in wars inside Iraq and occupying territory in Iraq, something that, 10 years ago, would have produced the gravest international crisis. Now countries are disregarding borders. All these crises are occurring simultaneously and each has a somewhat different origin.

As you said, the Islamic world has now come to a crossroads. Where is it headed?

What the Islamic State represents is a very early expression of Islamic reality, which is that the world is treated as a religious organization and that it is governed by a caliph who is both the religious leader and a secular leader, and that world does not recognize borders. It does not make any distinction between various Islamic countries and it has no difficulty in its mind crossing into Afghanistan, China, Russia, and America. So if this becomes the dominant form of Islamic expression, then the world will have an extremely difficult period and no nation that has any Muslim population will be safe from it until they learn that their methods are unacceptable and not tolerable.

The Islamic State is a symbol of a theocratic world. How it is defeated depends on a number of things. One, how outside countries react, but secondly how the Muslim populations react because they are the ones that are directly affected and in the Middle East. It should not be that difficult to get a grouping of Muslim nations to fight against the group. But it has the additional complication that the Islamic State is a Sunni phenomenon, so if we use Shia forces to defeat it, then we are in a way, making the conflict even more complicated in the long term.

This brings us to the question of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. How do you think the Iranian nuclear issue should be dealt with?

In the administration of President Nixon, we were very friendly with Iran when the shah was there. That was true in previous administrations. If Iran conducts itself as a nation state, with recognized borders, it can make a great contribution to national order and peace. It has its own distinct culture. It is the only country conquered by Islam in the beginning that did not adopt Arabic as a language.

The problem with Iran is when it becomes an imperial power, either in the sense of Shia domination of the world or in the sense of the history of the Persian Empire, which went from even parts of current China across all of North Africa. So that is the challenge that is posed by Iran. The problem is: Can Iran behave like a nation state? If it does, good relations between it and the rest of the world will be almost automatic.

On Technology

Your book also mentioned social media. Do you think social media is becoming a force in shaping international politics?

I hate to embarrass myself, but I don't use social media and I don't have the need to tell everyone what I'm doing. But certainly networks have totally changed the world. They have created a degree of interconnection between people that didn't exist, but they have also produced a self-consciousness. When you are so dependent on the approval of other people, how confident are you on your own judgment? That is one of the challenges of our time.

You have been an advocate of quiet diplomacy. How do you think that works today, especially in light of the impact of the Snowden affair, which gives people the impression that everything that can be leaked will be leaked?

There are two levels of quiet diplomacy: keeping your objective secret and, secondly, keeping your conduct a secret. Sometimes it is necessary.

For example, when we accepted the invitation of the Chinese leadership to come, we thought it was best to do it secretly. Because if we had done it publicly, we would have had to give so many assurances and the Chinese would have to explain their purposes. We thought it was best for leaders to meet and come to an understanding of the direction of where they were going to go, and then to publish it. We have published, with the approval of the Chinese, the records of the conversations. But for the moment, for the year, in which we established contact and we didn't know each other, we thought it was best to keep it secret. I still think there are important things that need to be done that way.

On Lee Kuan Yew

What's your opinion of Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew?

Lee Kuan Yew is one of the great men of our period. He took a run-down seaport and built a country based on his belief in the intellectual ability of his largely Chinese population. He established a competitive advantage based on the discipline and intelligence of his society. He has acted, in addition, as a conscience all over the world. It is an amazing performance, that a mayor of a middle-sized town has had such an influence around the world. He is a great man and a good friend of mine.

What will a post-Lee Singapore look like?

He has created a modern society. The per capita income when he came in was US$ 600 a year. It is now over US$ 40,000 a year. He has done it with discipline perhaps considered excessive by Western countries, but I think it will gradually evolve into a more participatory country. He is one of the men who have created a society that can continue to grow and we'll continue to be inspired by him.

Politics, Society