IIn July 1971, US national security adviser Henry Kissinger embarked on a secret mission to China, then a sworn enemy of the United States. This 48-hour icebreaker trip paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Chairman Mao a year later. Nixon’s visit altered the strategic geometry of the Cold War and influenced Washington’s subsequent move toward detente with Moscow.
Half a century later, when Joe Biden arrived in Cornwall to attend the G7 meeting, there was a sense of history in the making again, one involving the conversation of allies (a group of like-minded democracies) and adversaries (especially Russia). . and China). It’s also one that evokes memories of the Cold War in the 1970s, when strategists like Kissinger created the art of balancing power between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union.
“He is not flying across the Atlantic to wallow in nostalgia for the alliances that won the first cold war. He’s recruiting for the second, ”a Guardian columnist commented on Tuesday. On the same day, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed the Competition and Innovation Act, a rare show of unity between Democrats and Republicans. Beijing responded, calling it “full of cold war zero-sum mentality.”
Some veteran observers of Sino-US relations say that while it is important to understand the nature of great-power competition, the 20th-century cold war analogy is useless. They think that the nature of the current relationship between the United States and China is fundamentally different from that between the Soviet Union and the West.
“I think it’s best not to use the cold war analogy,” Stapleton Roy, a Soviet expert-turned-US ambassador to China, said at a new BBC World Service documentary exploring the legacy of Kissinger’s clandestine visit in 1971.
Roy was concerned that as journalists, experts and lawmakers continue to casually speak of the Cold War 2.0 approach, we risk being engulfed in a self-fulfilling prophecy that would eventually see an inevitable, and undoubtedly disastrous, US-China military confrontation. . .
“What is happening in the world today is no different from what has happened throughout history, when the main countries have had differences with other important countries. And history shows that sometimes that leads to war, sometimes that leads to confrontations, “he added.
In November 2019, a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, 96-year-old Henry Kissinger spoke on this topic in Beijing. He told his biographer, historian Niall Ferguson, who interviewed him on that occasion, that we were “in the foothills of a cold war.”
Kissinger saw some possibility of, in fact, improving relations between the United States and China and between the United States and Russia. And it didn’t happen, ”Ferguson recalled. “Things went in a different direction than he would have preferred when Trump… launched a trade war and a technology war. Vice President Pence raised the bar for rhetoric in his October 2018 Hudson Institute speech. “
In Beijing, while Foreign Ministry spokespersons often use “cold war” vocabulary when responding to Western criticism, Yan Xuetong, one of China’s most respected foreign policy thinkers, said he saw the phrase “war cold “as misleading.
“I would rather use [the] the term ‘an uncomfortable peace’ to describe the competition between China and the United States rather than a new cold war, because the new cold war is driven by that ideological expansion of the United States and the Soviet Union and through indirect wars, “he said Yan.
The stakes are high. But regardless of how the current interactions between Beijing and Washington are defined, many now fear that individuals on both sides of the Pacific, as well as middle powers around the world, could sooner or later be caught in the crossfire.
Countries like Australia may already have decided which side to take. But many smaller and less powerful Asian states, for example Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations, have warned both sides not to force them into a situation where they will have no choice but to choose sides.
For many people in China, the rapprochement between the United States and China and the subsequent opening of Beijing in the late 1970s changed the lives of millions. But this is also something that, many say, experts and strategists often neglect when talking about “grand strategy” in a “new cold war” of the 21st century.
In July 1971, upon learning that Nixon was coming to China after Kissinger’s secret trip, 12-year-old Beijing resident Zha Jianying knew that her life would change as well. “I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I had a vague feeling that it was the beginning of something,” he said.
In the early 1980s, Zha became one of the first groups of Chinese students to study in the United States. It was there that her writing career began. With a unique perspective that fuses Chinese and American points of view, his long-form writing for New Yorker magazine it illuminated the English-speaking world and provided a window into the many contradictions of its home country.
“Fifty years later, we are again on the cusp of massive change,” he said. “As the conversation about a ‘new cold war’ prevails, I worry that some innocent souls on both sides of the Pacific will be trapped in the cracks of history and nuances will be lost. The confrontational rhetoric makes everything seem darker. There may be no going back. “
Vincent Ni is the Guardian’s China Affairs Correspondent. It also features the new BBC World Service documentary. When Kissinger went to China.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism