Frustrated by Biden, China courts ‘old friends’ like Kissinger
By David Pierson, Vivian Wang and Edward Wong
The red carpet welcome in Beijing for Henry Kissinger, the 100-year-old former secretary of state, included China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, telling him that “the Chinese people will always remember you.” It featured praise from China’s top diplomat for his wisdom. And it involved a meeting with the Chinese defense minister, who has rebuffed multiple requests to engage with his American counterpart.
China’s enthusiastic reception for Kissinger this week is the latest example of how Beijing is reaching outside official diplomatic channels to broaden the reach of its message and try to influence Washington’s thinking. Beijing has turned to those it deems more aligned with its position as it has become more skeptical toward, and at times openly frustrated with, the Biden administration.
With the visit by Kissinger, whom Xi and other officials called an “old friend,” Beijing has sought to emphasize cooperation and mutual respect between the powers. With visits by business leaders like Bill Gates — also dubbed an old friend by Xi — and Elon Musk, China has tried to highlight the long-standing economic relationship and the perils of untangling global supply chains.
Such efforts may become increasingly significant as Beijing pushes back against what it sees as the Biden administration’s efforts to contain China geopolitically, militarily and technologically. China is also watching as Republicans and Democrats unite in wanting to remain tough on Beijing, and a U.S. presidential election approaches in which candidates will likely be more critical of China.
“This looks very much like a deliberate Chinese strategy” to court individuals who might help change opinions in Washington, said Dennis Wilder, former head of China analysis at the CIA. “The Chinese are energizing those with a vested interest in the Chinese economy and the overall relationship.”
After several months of a deep chill, the two countries have started reengaging on issues like trade and climate change. But progress has been limited, with President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, coming out of talks this week in China with no new agreements, and Beijing arguing that troubles in the relationship hinder its cooperation with Washington on fighting global warming.
While the meetings may have succeeded in building a “floor” in the relationship, tensions remain high. China wants the United States to lift restrictions on technology, curb its support for Taiwan, and stop what Beijing sees as a containment strategy centered on building security ties with U.S. allies and partners around Asia. Ties could fray further if the Biden administration imposes new restrictions on American investments in Chinese companies involved in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and semiconductors.
Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said Kissinger’s visit pointed to “Beijing’s anxiety about how to influence and persuade American policy elites to reduce their strategic suppression of China,” at a time when voices like his were increasingly rare in Washington.
Beijing often evokes the time when Kissinger served as secretary of state and helped pave the way for a historic visit to China in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, as an example of a golden era in bilateral relations. That trip led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between Washington and Communist-ruled China seven years later.
As relations have soured in recent years, Chinese officials have said U.S. officials should learn from Kissinger and his pro-engagement stance.
To drive that point again, China highlighted the historical significance of the venue for Xi’s meeting with Kissinger on Thursday. Chinese officials chose Villa No. 5 of the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, the same building where half a century earlier Kissinger had met Zhou Enlai, China’s premier at the time.
“China and the United States’ relations will forever be linked to the name ‘Kissinger,’” Xi said in a video released by CCTV, the state broadcaster, as the two men sat side by side in plush cream-colored armchairs. “I express my deep respect to you.”
In an official summary of the meeting, released by Chinese state media, Xi was quoted as saying: “I hope you and people of insight in the United States will continue to play a constructive role in bringing China-U.S. relations back to the right track.”
Wang Yi, China’s top foreign affairs official, a day earlier had told Kissinger that U.S. policy needed “Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom, and Nixon-style political bravery,” according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
China has also been courting American business leaders. Aside from Gates and Musk, Apple CEO Tim Cook and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon have visited China this year — some given the kind of high-level meetings with Chinese officials that senior officials from foreign nations also get. The visits by business leaders are also an opportunity for China to send a message domestically about foreign confidence in the economy, which has faced an uncertain recovery.
During his trip to Beijing in March, Cook took selfies with admirers at an Apple store and attended a government development forum — then seen as an important signal as China was just emerging from three years of strict coronavirus restrictions.
Two months later, Musk traveled to China and met with senior ministers and Shanghai’s top leader. In Chinese media reports, Musk, the head of Tesla and Twitter, was hailed as a proponent of open trade between the United States and China.
“Musk’s trip to China showed U.S. businesses’ firm confidence in the Chinese market despite ‘decoupling’ noises from some Western politicians,” said the Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid.
With these meetings, Xi appears to be trying to highlight the importance of business ties between the two nations, and signal that growing tensions in the relationship could jeopardize those links.
That messaging has become even more important for Beijing to emphasize after Chinese officials raided the offices or interrogated the staff of American consulting firms such as Bain & Co., spooking many foreign businesses, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“China overall wants to retain foreign investors, and the ones they have been appealing to are large high-tech companies that may still see the appeal of the Chinese market,” Sun said.
“The Chinese do believe these business leaders enjoy more freedom to act outside the political correctness,” she said. “But another piece of it is that China wants to showcase that cooperation with China, and following Beijing’s rules, will be rewarding.”