The US-China conflict

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By GILBERTO LOPES*

A history of the complex and strained relations of the world's two largest economies, which could escalate into armed confrontation

"'This will shake the world!' said Prime Minister Zhou Enlai as we agreed on the joint communique we were preparing for President Nixon's visit to China in February 1972." “It would be fantastic if, 40 years later, the United States and China could join efforts, not to shake the world, but to build it”, would say Henry Kissinger in the last line of his extensive On China, published in 2011, a long journey of his experience in building relations between the two nations. There is no doubt that this book best captures the aspiration to establish his legacy on the world political scene.

It is a remarkable book, by one of the minds that best understands how to defend his interests and the political challenges of the world in which he had to live. And certainly, among American political leaders, he is the most experienced and knowledgeable about Chinese political culture. Henry Kissinger speaks at length about his experience, the political contacts initiated during the Nixon administration, when he negotiated with Chinese leaders to restore Washington's relations with the government in Beijing.

What would come to be known as the "Shanghai Communiqué" was a carefully crafted document on Henry Kissinger's second visit to Beijing in October 1971, following an earlier visit in which the two countries began negotiating the restoration of their relations. A communiqué that expressed, to the satisfaction of both parties, their positions on the sensitive topic of Taiwan.

Henry Kissinger negotiated it with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai until, when reviewing the drafts, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered a change in tone and content. He didn't want it to be just another document. He ordered them to abandon the draft they had been working on and to prepare another document, in which each country would freely express its position on Taiwan. Naturally, divergent. With different emphases. A final section of the document would contain the common views.

In this way, says Henry Kissinger, “each side was proposing an ideological truce and highlighting the points where positions converged”. The most important one seemed to him to be the one that referred to the concept of hegemony: “Neither party should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and both oppose the efforts of any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony” .

It was a clear allusion to the Soviet Union, which both confronted. A common enemy at the time, which facilitated an understanding between the two sides. But Kissinger did not escape the fact that the sustainability of this strategy depended on the progress that could be made on the Taiwan issue, where the margin for concessions was narrow.

An ambiguous balance between principle and pragmatism was expressed in the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the United States recognized that “all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait hold that there is one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The US government does not dispute this position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves”.

The position of the United States was defined in five principles: ratification of the policy of recognition of the existence of only one China; reaffirmation that the United States would not support independence movements in Taiwan; that they would not support any policy by Japan to restore its influence on the island, where it had been a colonial power; support for any peaceful attempt at a deal between Beijing and Taiwan; and the commitment to continue normalizing relations.

Two other communiqués between Washington and Beijing were signed in 1979 and 1982. They reiterated the “one China” policy and recognized the Beijing government as the representative of that China. The communiqués added that the United States would not maintain official ties with Taiwan. But they did not exclude unofficial dealings, including the sale of weapons, such as the 150 F-16 fighters sold to Taiwan during the George Bush administration.

Notes on Richard Nixon and his delegation's dealings with Chinese officials during the February 1972 visit, held in the National Security Archive (but declassified), indicate that Prime Minister Zhou expressed concern not only over the possibility of a renewed Japanese influence over its former colony, but also with the eventual independence of Taiwan. He wanted assurances that Washington would not support any move inconsistent with the "one China" concept that the United States had recognized.

Richard Nixon replied – according to the declassified notes – that the “United States would not support 'any' independence movement in Taiwan and reiterated that Taiwan was 'part of China', but also that Washington supported 'a peaceful solution to Taiwan's problems'” .

Henry Kissinger ends the chapter – the ninth of his book, titled “Resumption of relations: first encounters with Mao and Zhou” – with two questions and an observation: Can the interests of the two parties really become congruent? Can you separate them from your own ideological views, so as to avoid being contaminated by conflicting emotions?

“Richard Nixon's visit to China opened the door to dealing with these challenges,” says Henry Kissinger. But he notes that they are still here with us in 2011 when he published his book.

In his view, despite occasional tensions, the Shanghai Communiqué has served its purpose. The United States has insisted on the importance of a peaceful solution to the problem, and China has emphasized the imperative of unification, without excluding, as it has repeatedly stressed, the possible use of force should independence tendencies develop in Taiwan.

 

Tiananmen protests

Less than a decade later, after the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1979, relations between the two countries are back to practically square one. Things did not seem to go where Henry Kissinger intended, if we stick to the aspirations expressed at the conclusion of his book.

Jiang Zemin became General Secretary of the Communist Party in June 1989. The Tiananmen Square protests had begun on April 15 and were crushed by the army on June 4.

“In November, Jiang invited me to talk,” says Kissinger. He did not understand how an internal problem in China (the Tiananmen crisis) could cause a break in relations with the United States. “There is no serious problem between China and the United States, with the exception of Taiwan,” he said. But even in this case, he added, the Shanghai Communiqué sets out an appropriate formula for dealing with it.

In the 40 years since its signing, neither China nor the United States has allowed the difference over Taiwan to detract from efforts to normalize relations, Kissinger believes. But it is clear that the issue could today, as rarely before, derail decades of carefully constructed diplomatic filigree, the outcome of which could threaten the very destiny of humanity.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out in his long telephone conversation with his US counterpart on July 28, whoever plays with fire ends up getting burned. He asked Biden to respect, in words and actions, what was stipulated in the three communiqués on which relations between the two countries are based.

Against the background of renewed tensions, there was the announcement of the visit of the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, as part of a tour of Asia. Xi's warning is just the latest in a series that includes the Chinese foreign ministry and military, and naturally there can be none at a higher level.

 

Building your own pyramid

A pyramid, where the remains of great men are kept for posterity. An idea that haunts me as I read On China. I find it impossible not to think that the idea was not, from the beginning, in Henry Kissinger's head. Nor do I find it absurd to think that it is so.

This compels me to read the book carefully, with a warning light always on. I note, at the end of chapter 9: “a chapter in which Kissinger's qualities as an observer, diplomat and narrator acquire special relevance”. Naturally, when Nixon takes the stage, he takes a slight step to the side. But it is his book and it is his figure that shines the most.

Richard Nixon's visit to China, he argues, was one of the few in which a state visit sparked seminal changes in international relations. In his opinion, “China's return to the global diplomatic game and the increase in strategic options for the United States have given new flexibility to the international system”.

It should be noted here – as we have already highlighted, although it is not possible to delve into the subject further – that the international scenario was characterized by tensions between China and the Soviet Union, which facilitated rapprochement with the United States. Japan's rapid economic development has also revived old misgivings in China, rooted in relatively recent memories of the occupation of its territory by the Japanese army.

Henry Kissinger observes that “the Sino-US rapprochement began as a tactical aspect of the Cold War, but it has evolved to become central to the development of a new global order”. Neither of them sought to change the other's convictions (and perhaps that was what made the dialogue possible), “but we articulated common goals that survived both his and Zhou's time in office – one of the highest distinctions to which a state politician can aspire”.

It is the same idea that is repeated at the end of the book. “When Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and I agreed on the communiqué announcing the secret visit, he said, 'This will shake the world.' To which Kissinger added his hope that he too would help build it.

 

An impossible unipolar order

After the Tiananmen crisis in June 1989, the United States imposed sanctions on China and suspended all high-level contacts between the two countries. Just five months later, the Berlin Wall would fall. Shortly thereafter, with the end of the Soviet Union, the Cold War would come to an end. For the United States, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was seen as a form of permanent and universal triumph of democratic values. Chinese leaders rejected this prediction of a universal triumph of Western liberal democracy.

George Bush had taken office in January 1989. Jiang Zemin was then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of his country. In his speeches, Jiang reiterated the importance of relations between China and the United States. “The cooperation between the two countries is important for the world. We will do whatever it takes to make that happen.” But he added: the main problem between China and the United States is the situation in Taiwan. We often talk about a peaceful solution to this problem and the “one country, two systems” formula. “I usually only talk about these two aspects. However, I sometimes add that we cannot rule out the use of force”. “This is the most sensitive part of our relationship,” he reiterated.

The end of the Bush administration was approaching and Kissinger was visiting China again. Upon his return, he had a message from the Chinese government for Bush. It was an attempt to reorient relations. And although Bush has sent his secretary of state, James Baker, to Beijing for talks (although high-level contacts have been suspended since Tiananmen), negotiations have not advanced. His government had entered a period of end of term, which did not allow the development of major initiatives.

Bush's term ended in January 1993. During the 1992 election campaign, Clinton had criticized his administration as being too lenient with China. “China will not be able to resist the forces of democratic change forever. One day it will follow the path of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.”

Upon taking office in January 1993, he announced his intention to bring democracy to the entire world as the main objective of his foreign policy. At congressional confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared that the United States would seek to facilitate China's peaceful transition from communism to democracy by supporting political and economic forces favorable to liberalization.

The Chinese saw it differently. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen ("one of the ablest foreign ministers I have ever met," Kissinger would say) assured Henry Kissinger that "the international order would not remain unipolar indefinitely." “It is impossible for such a unipolar world to come into being. Some peoples think that, after the Gulf War and the Cold War, the United States can do whatever it wants. I think this is not correct,” Qian added.

Few articles express this unipolar scenario more starkly than The unipolar moment, by the late American conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, published in the magazine Foreign Affairs in 1991. “The most striking feature of the post-Cold War world is its unipolarity,” said Krauthammer. “There is nothing more than a first class power and no prospect that, in the immediate future, any new power will emerge”.

The article abounds in similar expressions. There is not a single reference to China's role in this scenario, precisely when Kissinger highlighted that the 90s were characterized by its astonishing economic growth and the transformation of its role in the world. He well understood that a new international order was about to emerge. If in 1994 Taiwan's military budget was larger than China's, today China's is 20 times larger. If in the mid-1990s the economic relations between the two were relatively insignificant (Taiwan's exports to China were less than 1% of its total exports), today this number is close to 30%.

Today it is clear who had a more adjusted view to the development of events. The end of the Soviet Union and of socialism in Eastern Europe meant Washington's triumph in the Cold War, which then reached the summit of power. But it was also the beginning of his declining role, both economically and politically, on the world stage. Many analysts failed to predict the pace of Chinese development, nor the onset of American decline.

Consistent with this rhetoric, in May 1993, Bill Clinton conditionally extended Most Favored Nation status to China for one year. The executive order was accompanied by more pejorative anti-China rhetoric than any administration since the 1960s, says Henry Kissinger, commenting on Secretary Christopher's visit to Beijing: "It was one of the most hostile diplomatic encounters since the United States and China began its approximation policy”.

 

The last thing the Chinese would be thinking

Henry Kissinger reiterated the risks of a policy that emphasizes, in increasingly strident tones, the aspects of a confrontation that cannot become armed without threatening human life on the planet. It has manifested itself repeatedly in recent months.

In interview with Bloomberg in July, he warned that a Cold War between the two countries could end in a global catastrophe. Biden must be careful not to let domestic politics interfere with his vision of China. It is important to avoid Chinese (or any other country's) hegemony, but that cannot be achieved through endless confrontations, he said. Asked by Judy Woodruff of The PBS News Hour, on the lessons that China can draw from the current war in Ukraine in relation to an eventual attack on Taiwan, Kissinger estimated that “this would be the last thing the Chinese would be thinking about at this moment”.

“Wouldn't it be better for us to drop all ambiguity in our policy towards Taiwan and declare that we will defend the island against any attack?” the journalist asked. “If we abandoned our policy and Taiwan declared itself an independent country, China would be practically obliged to adopt military measures, because this has been very deeply part of its internal problem. So this ambiguity has avoided conflict. But deterrents must also be strong,” said Henry Kissinger.

In his book, Henry Kissinger refers to the position of human rights activists for whom their values ​​were considered universal. For these sectors, international human rights norms must prevail over the traditional concept of state sovereignty. "From that point of view," he says, "a long-term constructive relationship with undemocratic states is unsustainable almost by definition."

“China's human rights policy does not concern it,” Prime Minister Li Peng had told Secretary Christopher during their meeting in Beijing, noting that the United States had many human rights problems to resolve.

What is certain in this matter is that the United States does not accept the jurisdiction of international human rights organizations and has ended up transforming the issue into a political instrument against those who do not share its interests. A policy promoted especially in Latin America, where the United States supported regimes responsible for serious human rights violations, including the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, which Kissinger himself promoted and encouraged during the Nixon administration.

 

in favor of ambiguity

At the same time, independence forces in Taiwan, led by President Lee Teng-hui, were emerging with renewed momentum. In 1995, Lee received permission to visit Cornell University, where he had studied. His speech, with repeated references to "country" and "nation" and discussion of the imminent end of communism, proved unacceptable to Beijing, which recalled its ambassador in Washington, delayed approval for the new US ambassador in Beijing and canceled high-level contacts with the US government.

It was July 1995 and Henry Kissinger was back in China. The United States must understand that “there is no room for maneuver in the Taiwan issue,” Qian Qichen told him. “I asked Chairman Jiang whether Mao's assertion that China could wait a hundred years to resolve the Taiwan issue still held, and he told me that it did not. The declaration was made 23 years ago, Jiang said, so there are only 77 years to go.”

As this conversation is already 27 years old, 50 years have passed and we would now be exactly halfway through the deadline given by Mao. Thus, time is running short and Xi's warning that those who play with fire will get burned should not be seen as a repetition of past warnings. It seems to me that this is not Chinese logic.

Years later, Bill Clinton's wife Hillary served as Secretary of State (2009-2013) during Barack Obama's first term. Her opinion on Henry Kissinger, expressed in an interview with the national editor of the Financial Times, Edward Luce, published June 17, could hardly be harsher.

Luce is referring to Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the government of Jimmy Carter, a Polish political scientist killed in 2017, Kissinger's “rival and friend”. "Kissinger recently said that Ukraine should give Putin territory to end the war," Luce declared, reiterating a claim Kissinger denies. It is, in any case, a rather generalized interpretation of statements made by Kissinger in Davos, although he explicitly denied them in the interview with journalist Woodruff. Perhaps they are part of the necessary “ambiguity” that you referred to earlier as essential to avoid a war between the United States and China, provoked by the Taiwan issue.

Luce takes sides and claims that, in her opinion, Brzezinski had a more accurate understanding than Kissinger of the Soviet Union's weaknesses. “I completely agree,” Hillary responded. “I never thought that Brzezinski had a romantic view of Russians like Kissinger. He values ​​his relationship with Putin too much.” And she added a lapidary sentence: “You have to give Kissinger credit for his longevity, at least. He just keeps going.”

In his judgment, NATO should have continued to expand eastwards; the arguments against it were, to say the least, naive. The memory of an old anecdote that took place in a London restaurant where guests were discussing the desirability of NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War illustrates his ideas. “I am from Poland (said the person serving them) and before I take your order, let me tell you one thing: never trust the Russians”. Hillary approved. She also thinks that Putin “has no soul” and that he intervened in the 2016 election against her by supporting Trump. “If Trump had won in 2020, he would undoubtedly have abandoned NATO,” she said in the interview with Financial Times.

 

Formation of exclusionary blocks

After a long journey of more than 500 pages, in a final appendix with reference to the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington in January 2011 in the Obama administration, Kissinger declares: “The structural danger to world peace in the XNUMXst century lies in the formation of excluding blocs between East and West (or at least with its Asian part), whose rivalry could replicate on a global scale the zero-sum calculation that produced the conflagrations in Europe in the twentieth century”.

The end of Jiang Zemin's presidency in March 2003 marked the end of an era in Sino-US relations. The two countries no longer had a common adversary (Russia), nor did they share the concept of a new world order. In the United States, George W. Bush had assumed the presidency in January 2001, while in China, Hu Jintao succeeded Zemin in office. Kissinger remembers that Bush came to the presidency after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the midst of triumphalism and the belief that his country was capable of redesigning the world in its own image and likeness, as we have seen, based on its vision of democracy and of human rights.

The Taiwan issue remained on the agenda and was discussed by Bush with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during his visit to Washington in December 2003. Jiabao reiterated that Beijing's policy remained one of promoting peaceful reunification under the rule of "one country – two systems”, as applied in Hong Kong.

In 2005, in a speech at the UN General Assembly, Hu Jintao referred to a harmonious world with lasting peace and shared prosperity, the Chinese vision of the world stage. Clearly, this was not the path followed. In January 2011, Hu visited the United States. Complex issues remained on the agenda, such as relations with North Korea or freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. What is pending, says Kissinger, is whether we can move from crisis management to defining common goals. Can the US and China develop true strategic trust?

Henry Kissinger looks back at the scenario that led to the First World War, to the unification and growth of Germany's military capabilities. He quotes an English analyst, official of the Foreign Office, Eyre Crowe, in whose opinion, regardless of intentions, if Germany achieves naval supremacy, the existence of the British Empire will be at stake and there will be no way to find ways of cooperation or trust between the two countries. Translating this criterion into an analysis of the risks that China's growth implies, this would be incompatible with the position of the United States in the Pacific and, by extension, in the world.

Added to this vision of Eyre Crowe, in the North American debate, is that of neoconservative groups and others, for whom the pre-existence of democratic institutions is a requirement for the establishment of relationships of trust between countries. In this case, regime change would be the ultimate goal of US policy towards countries it considers “non-democratic”.

If ideological differences are emphasized, relations could become complicated. Sooner or later, one side or the other could make a miscalculation... the result would be disastrous, Kissinger believes. To avoid this, the relationship between China and the United States must not be zero-sum. The competition, more than military, should be economic and social. How to achieve this balance is the challenge for each generation of new leaders in both countries.

Any attempt by the United States to organize Asia to isolate China, or create a bloc of democratic states to launch an ideological crusade, is doomed to failure. If we consider that the two countries are condemned to clash, creating blocs in the Pacific, the road to disaster will be paved, says Henry Kissinger. Instead, he suggests, as an alternative, that Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and Australia form part of a system that, far from being seen as an instrument of confrontation between the United States and China, is seen as a joint development effort.

It is evident that this did not happen that way, and it cannot be ruled out that the path taken leads to a major catastrophe.

 

The end of ambiguity?

It looks tempting. There is no shortage of people in the United States who think that the time has come to confront China and end the ambiguity with which the Taiwan issue has been handled. Amidst the turmoil caused by Nancy Pelosi's announcement of her intention to visit Taiwan, David Sacks, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, published an article on the subject in July in Foreign Affairs: How to survive the next Taiwan Strait Crisis.

A much more dangerous era is approaching for cross-strait relations, he argues in his article. He supports his assertion with remarks by CIA Director William J. Burns, a diplomat and former secretary of state in the Obama administration, who believes that President Xi's determination to reassert Beijing's control over Taiwan should not be underestimated.

Faced with this reality, it is to be expected that it would be prudent to maintain the policy defined in the joint communiqués signed with China and the policy of a certain ambiguity advocated by Henry Kissinger, as a means of avoiding a disastrous confrontation.

This is not David Sacks' view. His proposal is that, to face the dangers of this new phase, Joe Biden should promote a complete review of US policy towards Taiwan. His suggestion is that this policy is based on deterrence and that, to that end, the United States should make it clear that it will use force to defend Taiwan.

The whole view of the problem is centered on a military response. In addition to what has already been suggested, he also defends the increase of Taiwan's combat capacity; advising on reforms to reserves and territorial defense forces; the insistence that the island government increase its military spending and invest in missiles, sea mines and man-portable air defenses. US cooperation is expected to increase in the coming years, but he recommends not making it public.

This type of analyst's opinion is informed by how China has reacted in the past to Washington's overtures to Taipei. It recalls the trip of Pelosi's predecessor as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, in 1997 to meet with President Lee Teng-hui, or Lee's visit to the United States two years earlier.

David Sacks refers to the reaction of President Jiang Zemin, whose protest was expressed – as we have already seen – in the diplomatic arena. But Henry Kissinger, who was in China again during this period, quotes Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen. “China,” said Qian, “attaches great importance to its relations with the United States, but Washington must be clear that we have no room for maneuver on the Taiwan issue.”

David Sacks derives from this experience the conclusion that history will repeat itself, despite the course of events he lists. There have been significant changes in US policy toward Taiwan in recent times, he says. Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State in the Trump administration) sent congratulations to President Tsai Ing-wen when she took office in 2020; the Trump administration has hosted Taiwanese diplomats at the State Department and other official offices, a pattern the Biden administration has followed; Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly refers to Taiwan as a country; Joe Biden invited a delegation from Taiwan to his inauguration and Democracy Summit; it was announced in the press that the US military was training Taiwanese forces.

The list is perhaps not exhaustive, but it does give an idea of ​​the nature of US relations with Taiwan and the significance of Xi's demand, in his telephone conversation with Biden, that the commitment to the signed declarations be not only in words but also in acts.

David Sacks seems to conclude from this list that China will continue to accept this. He doesn't imagine that maybe he'll end up spilling the glass of patience. A conclusion that does not seem far from reality, if we add that the warning that those who play with fire can get burned has now come from President Xi himself, after having been made, in the same tone, by the Chinese army and foreign ministry. Not seeing the importance of this escalation would be a mistake with possibly priceless consequences.

 

What to do?

The world is certainly watching this escalation with concern and horror at the possible consequences of measures that hardly seem to fit into a necessary cooperation policy to face the common challenges of humanity. As the United States and European countries did at the recent NATO meeting in Madrid, where they adopted a futile military response to face the situation in Europe, there is no lack of voices suggesting a military escalation to deal with Taiwan.

For David Sacks, Nancy Pelosi's visit would be a last opportunity to express his support for Taiwan as speaker of the House of Representatives, as she is likely to step down after the November elections. She could thus leave a clear sign of her determined opposition to the Chinese regime on her CV. But her vanity could be disastrous for humanity.

If the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an international problem, the situation in Taiwan is seen by Beijing as an internal Chinese problem. “And sovereignty is non-negotiable,” Qian recalled Henry Kissinger. It's hard to believe that Washington doesn't clearly understand the difference. But you might be tempted to try your luck.

And the rest of the world has nothing to say? Can Latin American political leaders not speak up and claim legitimate human rights? Wouldn't it be useful for leaders of the region - I'm thinking of Lula, Fernández, López Obrador, Petro, Boric, Arce, Mujica, Correa, Morales, in short, representatives of important sectors of public opinion in the region to join others, such as senator Bernie Sanders and a group of US congressmen who oppose the war, and European politicians such as Merkel, Schroeder, Corbin, Mélenchon and certainly many others – move to fight a battle in front of public opinion, highlighting the What dramatic consequences will such a path of armed confrontation have for humanity?

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

 

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