Column | High time for detente, but how do you do that?

Column | High time for detente, but how do you do that?
Column | High time for detente, but how do you do that?

When China was at odds with the Soviet Union in 1969, party chairman Mao was advised to seek help from the United States. That was a bold proposal: the US and China had had no contact with each other since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

The US was open to rapprochement because, Washington thought, it is wise to support the weaker party in a conflict between Moscow and Beijing. So National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger secretly flew to China.

The trip marked the beginning of new relations between China and the US, the greatest success of the deep-spoken man who had been born in Bavaria in 1923 and fled to the US in 1938.

Henry Kissinger. Academic, minister, advisor. There is currently no one in the world with more diplomatic experience than he, wrote The Economists about the man who turns 100 on Saturday. The uber diplomat is also highly controversial. He has been maligned as a war criminal by human rights activists for years, including for his role in the Vietnam War.

After the rapprochement with China, Kissinger bet on détente with the Soviet Union. He sought a balance of power between the great powers in such a way that the US had better relations with Moscow and Beijing than between Moscow and Beijing. Thus, the US had the most influence.

It is the most important triangular relationship in the world. And it is precisely now that triangle is once again looking for new relationships. Balance-of-power thinking is back and Kissinger is making a comeback, wrote his biographer Niall Ferguson.

Not a week goes by without a skirmish between the West and China. On Sunday, the G7 countries concluded their summit in Hiroshima with a statement critical of China. They denounced China’s actions in the South China Sea, condemned human rights violations and warned of economic coercion. Beijing had heard that before. Worse, perhaps, was the G7’s anti-China message in Japan, China’s main adversary in the region. On Monday, Beijing called the Japanese ambassador to account.

On Tuesday, irritations bubbled up between the foreign ministers of the Netherlands and China. During a press conference in Beijing with Wopke Hoekstra, Qin Gang denounced the intelligence service AIVD, which China has called a “threat”. Ministers also differed on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, under the pressure of the war, Russia is moving further and further towards China – Moscow does not have much choice.

How does Kissinger rate the shifts? The Economiststalked to him for eight hours. “We are headed for a confrontation between the great powers…both sides are convinced that the other is a strategic threat. […] In such a situation, it makes sense to try to get ahead, technologically and materially. This can create a situation in which an issue develops into a confrontation about the relationship as a whole. That is the biggest problem at the moment. And with an issue like Taiwan, where concessions are very difficult because fundamental principles are involved, the situation becomes even more dangerous.”

The question is, of course, how disaster can be averted? Immerse yourself in China, he says. The country is not out for Hitlerian conquest of the world. However, it can quickly become stronger than the US and the US must prepare for that.

To maintain a balance between the two superpowers, the US has to test again and again how far China’s ambition goes. The superpowers can coexist peacefully, he thinks, but success is not guaranteed. The US must therefore be strong enough militarily to withstand a confrontation.

Perhaps his most important advice is to recognize that China has its own interests, although that will be hard for China hardliners to digest. In addition, he suggests restoring trust and not listing differences of opinion over and over again. Taiwan should discuss the major powers in permanent diplomatic working groups.

Henry Kissinger. Sometimes to his credit, he says obvious things very clearly, with the weight of decades of experience and the knowledge that he is being listened to. And it doesn’t hurt that a man of stature is looking for a way out of the escalation. Who will fill that role in the future?

Geopolitics editor Michael Kerres writes here every other week about the tilting world order.

A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 26, 2023.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Column High time detente


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