Henry Kissinger has proposed a unique solution to the problem of deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing: a U.S.-China condominium. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he called on the two countries “to build an emerging world order as a joint enterprise.”
Kissinger observed that while each considers itself exceptional and its “national values” system superior, “the overriding reality is that neither country will ever be able to dominate the other.” Therefore, he reasons, they must learn to “subordinate national aspirations to a vision of a global order.”
In order to pursue their “common long-term objectives,” the two governments should “coordinate their positions at international conferences.” Kissinger believes the goal is achievable because, already “on most contemporary issues, the two countries cooperate adequately.”
That surprisingly benign assessment ignores the deep and growing differences over trade, Taiwan, Tibet, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, the South China Sea, development in Africa, WMD proliferation, environmental degradation, and, of course, human rights.
Kissinger cites the North Korean nuclear issue as simply a matter of “differences in perspective” between Washington and Beijing. He asserts, as he has for two decades, that “China has more to fear from nuclear weapons there than we.” But, while we are worried about proliferation, China “emphasizes propinquity.” He repeats China’s mantra of “concerns about the turmoil that might follow if pressures on proliferation lead to the disintegration of the North Korean regime.”
Yet the North Korean people are hardly likely to revolt if Pyongyang agrees peacefully to scrap its nukes in exchange for increased economic aid from Beijing, Seoul, Washington, and the international community. Conversely, what would ensure the regime’s demise would be a war its reckless actions could trigger with South Korea and the U.S.
Kissinger’s argument unabashedly confirms that China prefers a dangerously volatile, nuclear-armed Communist ally to a unified, democratic, peaceful Korean Peninsula. That reality illustrates the profound moral and ideological divide between the Chinese Communist regime and the West. It also precludes the kind of dual hegemony relationship he envisions.
Classically erudite and clinical, the article implicitly strives to make the case for a rough moral, political, and strategic equivalence in the U.S.-China relationship that would justify continued U.S. accommodation to China’s “peaceful” rise.
Kissinger rules out honest criticism of China’s failure to meet its responsibilities to the international system that greatly benefits it. “The proposition that China must prove its bona fides is grating” to Chinese leaders and is seen as more “condescension” and “lack of respect.” (Beijing suffers no such inhibition in attacking Western policies, both verbally and by punitive actions.)
“The test of world order is the extent to which the contending can reassure each other.”
But China’s increasingly aggressive behavior has done little to assuage either U.S. concerns or those of countries throughout the region. Kissinger is silent on the troubling aspects of China’s emergence and seems to believe the old U.S. policies have worked well enough so far.
More than any living American, Kissinger personifies U.S. policy toward China in the contemporary era, as the co-architect of President Nixon’s historic opening and as a decades-long practitioner of intellectual and commercial engagement with China. When he gives its Communist leaders a pass, it has consequences for U.S.-China relations and for the Chinese people.
He warns that “Care must be taken lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophecies.” But it is actually the lack of clear-headed analysis of Chinese motives that has brought us to this fraught place.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.