Kissinger's Journeys To China: Contrasting 1971 And 2023

The United States is the second country having diplomatic relations with Nepal after the United Kingdom. Welcoming King Birendra at the White House in 1983, President Ronald Reagan described “Nepal as a neighbor on the other side of the world.”

Aug. 12, 2023, 4 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL. 17, No. 03, August.18,2023 (Bhadra,01. 2080) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75


In July 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger made a secret visit to China. The visit was in line with President’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article in which he wrote, “it was unwise to leave the largest country out of the international mainstream for too long.” During the secret visit, Kissinger discussed reestablishing and normalizing diplomatic ties between the United States and the Communist China. In his opening remarks to the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger said, “Reality has brought us together, and we believe that reality will shape our future.” Welcoming Kissinger back home from Beijing, President Nixon called the visit “the most significant foreign policy achievement in this century” and termed it as “the week that changed the world.” President Nixon visited China in 1972. Prof. Stephen Sestanovichat the Columbia University writes, “In making the opening to China, Nixon and Kissinger had ignored the experts and bureaucrats, who preferred a gradual, step by step attempt to address long standing bilateral problems between Beijing and Washington. (Kissinger derided these as a “shopping lists of mutual irritations.)” The duo “had also ignored the moralists, who opposed dealing with blood-soaked totalitarians.” They accepted “ideological truce,” with China and wanted to show what could be achieved by “a hard-boiled, quid pro quo approach to foreign policy.” Both boasted Chinaas a supporter of America’s power, influence and global presence.

The August 1969 border rift between the Soviet Union and China opened up the possibility of an American-Chinese deal—a partnership of opposites that could signify a ‘triumph of realism over idealism and pragmatism over ideology.’ Kissinger worked to widen the potential and exploit the border clashto American advantage. America used Pakistan as a conduit to go to China, and turned a blind eye to the “genocide” happening in the then East Pakistan.With Sino-American rapprochement, Kissinger “played on Russian fears,” and offered “a lifeline to strengthen the balance of power.” Going by today’s standards of toxic populism, he didn’t care about his appearing “soft on communism and indifferent to American values.” He assured Chinese leaders that America “will never collude with other countries against the People’s Republic of China, either with our allies or with some of our opponents. The US will not take any major steps affecting your interests without discussing them with you and taking your views into account.” Kissinger’s diplomacy was rooted in “an unrelentingly realistic assessment of the world and all its unbeautiful complexities,” as the leading realist Hans Morgenthau once noted, “the very act of acting destroys our moral integrity. Whoever wants to retain his moral innocence must forsake action altogether.”

Kissinger’s biographer Niall Ferguson writes “no American statesman has been as revered or as reviled as Henry Kissinger.” Kissinger spent his childhood in Hitler’s Germany, and grew up as a Jewish refugee in America. His hard work and deep study propelled him from his refugee origins to a leading geo-strategist and to power corridors in Kathmandu. Kissinger worked to bring an end to the Vietnam War.His policy of realpolitikwas instrumental in opening to China which in turn transformed the global geopolitical dynamics. He was appointed Nixon’s Secretary of State in 1973.


Kissinger turned centenary on May 27, 2023. He travelled to Beijing in July 2023. He is said to have made no less than hundred visits to China. He met Chinese President Xi Jinping in the building where he had met Chinese leaders way back in 1971. President Xi showered fulsome praise on Kissinger, commending his pivotal role in "normalizing diplomatic relations between the US and China" some fifty years ago. He added, “The Chinese people never forget their old friends and Sino-US relations will always be linked with the name of Henry Kissinger.” Chinese media hailed centenarian’s intellectual brilliance. Global Times described Kissinger with a “razor sharp” mind. Kissinger told his host that he was a “friend of China.”Xinhua quoted himas saying that “the relationship between our two countries is a matter of world peace and the progress of human society.” Kissinger emphasized the importance of upholding Shanghai Communique valuing“One China principle,” referring to Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. President praised the “splendid strategic vision” of Kissinger’s diplomatic effortand expressed hope that, “you and other insightful Americans will continue to play a constructive role in bringing US-China relations back on the right track.” Kissinger was also received by Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu, who had refused to meet his US opposite Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2023. Chinese Premier called on Washington to adopt the “correct strategic judgment” and he still held out hope for improved relations. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Kissinger, “has made historic contributions to breaking the ice in China-U.S. relations, and played an irreplaceable role in enhancing understanding between the two countries. The US’s China policy requires the diplomatic wisdom of Kissinger and the political courage of President Nixon.”

State of Sino-US relations

The US-China tensions are a stark realityrevolving over the future of Taiwan which China considers as its own. President Biden has repeatedly said that Washington would intervene, should China invade Taiwan. This is taken as a signal to end US “strategic ambiguity.” Citing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, enhancing support to Taiwan, and a trade war with China have lately emerged in the U.S. foreign policy arsenals. A lot of bitterness and hostility has developed against China in the USA for over a decade. When President Xi metPresident Obama in California in 2013, they acknowledged the existence of “areas of tensions” between their countries. Even in a “fluid and polarized” American politics, there has appeared a rare “bipartisan consensus viewing China as a rival rather than a partner.” Relations are at the “historic lows” since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979.

The Biden administration’s policy seems no differentfrom his predecessor. The first high-level meeting between Chinese and U.S. officials in Anchorage, Alaska in March 2021 manifested strategic competition more seriously. China considers the QUAD, AUKUS, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, even the US grant assistance to Nepal under Millennium Challenge Corporation -Nepal Compact clearly designed to counter and contain China.

The Biden administration appears to be aiming to re-establish high-level contacts with China's leadership after an incident involving a Chinese balloon scandal. High-ranking officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and presidential envoy for climate change and most recent Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing to resurrect diplomatic talks. None of them were extended the level of reception and treatment by China than to Kissinger. Kissinger’s visit made more news than the rest.

Daniel W. Drezner writes in Politico that “Great power politics, however, remains the one area where even Kissinger’s bitterest critics acknowledge that he had some juice,” amidst the deteriorating US relations with China. Even at 100, Kissinger has the ability to maintain privileged access to the corridors of powers both in Washington and Beijing. At a time when there is an inhospitable political climate for China, Drezner writes, “Both Xi and Kissinger’s preference for a bygone era of Sino-American comity will matter little inside the Beltway.”

The BBC suggested that, “given his outsized stature in China,” Kissinger“could act as a backchannel for U.S.-China negotiations.”However, Department spokesman Matthew Miller was reported to have told the press,” We are aware that Henry Kissinger was travelling to China. He was there under his own volition, not acting on behalf of the United States Government.” Analysts interpret Kissinger’s visit in various ways: Chinese appearing desperate to use the centenarian to mend ways-sending message that Sino-American relations would be much better “if Washington reverts back to the foreign policy of a decade ago,”a part of Washington’s efforts to restore official communications, and as unique due to the unprecedented warm reception and treatment at the hands of the Chinese compared to previous visits. Kissinger was projecting a bright future for China-U.S. relations through the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, in order to eliminate ‘misunderstanding, co-exist peacefully, and both sides not work to isolate the other side.’

Nepal in geopolitical lenses

China is Nepal’s immediate neighbor, close friend and development partner. Nepali Prime Minister BP Koirala made forceful plea before the 15th UN General Assembly for the restoration of China’s rightful place in the United Nations on September 29, 1960, at a time when the Western world called it a “Red China.” Nepal’s proximity to China’s autonomous Tibetan province, attracts Western’s geopolitical interests and attention. Nepal consistently maintains One China policy, not allowing any hostile activitiesfrom itssoil.

The United States is the second country having diplomatic relations with Nepal after the United Kingdom. Welcoming King Birendra at the White House in 1983, President Ronald Reagan described “Nepal as a neighbor on the other side of the world.” This underscores the value of Nepal for the US, despite geographical distance.President extended US support to Nepal's peace zone proposal and advised working closely with neighbors to make it a reality.After meeting the king, Henry Kissinger described Nepal as “a little country between two elephants,” emphasizing the need for a "Zone of Peace." In his book "World Order," Kissinger notes Nepal's historical ability to balance relations with China and India, ensuring its independence.

Big powers are rebalancing. Geopolitics is back in focus, marked by a significant shift with India as an "indispensable" partner for the US in the intricate geopolitical landscape of the 21st century.China and Russia, once at distant during the Cold War, now share“friendship with no limits.” India appears cautious about Russia moving too closer to China, and expanding its ties with Islamabad. During the Cold War, the US sided with Pakistan. Kissinger didn’t say very much to the liking of India in the past. According to The Economist, (June 15, 2023), Kissinger as the US National Security Adviser to President Nixon, is known in India as “the former enabler of a viscerally anti-Indian President.” Kissinger praises for the way, “the Indians conduct their foreign policy, now because it shows balance,” and calls India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar “the practicing political leader that is quite close to my views,” (The Economist, June 15, 2023).

1972 opening helped China rise to prominence, transforming and shaping the world, but not without seismic effects. China’s rise reverberates worldwide, fundamentally altering the geopolitical landscape.Positioned at the crossroads of competing and conflicting geopolitical interests,Nepal must exercise heightened care and vigilance to shield itself from the unpredictable impacts of these waves on its stability, sovereignty and development.As a steadfast non-aligned nation, Nepal can play the pivotal role of a balancer on the global stage.

Dinesh Bhattarai, Ph.D., Faculty Member Institute of Crisis Management Studies (ICMS) Tribhuvan University. He also served as a foreign relations advisor to Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. He is a career diplomat.

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