An article by: Tommaso Baronio

The meeting between Xi Jinping and Henry Kissinger is an important sign of the rapprochement between the two countries, but also an attempt to avoid institutional paths and to contact those who can bring Chinese arguments to the Biden administration.

Who knows what Henry Kissinger had in mind when on Thursday, at the advanced age of 100, he again stepped through the threshold of the State Diaoyutai Guest House, the same building where half a century ago he met Zhou Enlai, the then China’s prime minister. This time, President Xi Jinping was waiting for him in a completely different context. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, introduced himself in Beijing as a private citizen and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception, to put it mildly.

Leader Xi himself rolled out the red carpet for the historic diplomat, saying “the Chinese people will always remember you.” But that was not all. Kissinger received praise from senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi for his wisdom and for succeeding in what the Biden administration failed to do: meet with the Chinese defense minister, who had previously turned down all requests for dialogue with his American counterpart.

It was to emphasize the historic significance of the meeting with Xi on Thursday that Kissinger was invited to Villa No. 5 of the State Diaoyutai Guest House. In a video released by state broadcaster CCTV, the President of China said, “Relations between China and the United States will forever be associated with the name of Kissinger,” and also “I express my deepest respect.”

History certainly helps to understand the reasons for such a warm welcome. The Chinese call the hundred-year-old diplomat “old friend.” Beijing often recalls the time when Kissinger, as Secretary of State, helped pave the way for President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 – a trip that then led to the establishment of important diplomatic relations between the USA and China. It was a golden age in bilateral relations that Chinese officials are infernally nostalgic for, suggesting that current US officials should learn from Kissinger and his pro-work stance.

But it has not yet been explained why a visit by a now private American citizen is preferable to an institutional meeting with top US officials.

Dennis Wilder, former head of China analytical department at the Central Intelligence Agency, as reported by New York Times, has clear ideas about this. “This appears to be a deliberate Chinese strategy to attract people who could help change opinion in Washington,” Wilder explained, adding that “the Chinese are stimulating those who have a personal interest in China’s economy and relations in general.”

And the important visits by Bill Gates, also considered an old friend, and by Elon Musk fit as well into this context, the meetings where China tried to highlight a long-standing economic relationship by emphasizing the risks of global supply chains disappearing. Tim Cook and Jamie Dimon also met with important Chinese officials, and the message that the Dragon wants to send seems clear: our economy is strong.

There were also contacts between the relevant officials. Let’s recall the trip by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to the East and recent trips by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, as well as Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry. Everything is beneficial in terms of starting to build the basis for dialogue, but there was no dialogue. Kerry, for example, walked out of the talks without a new deal, while Beijing reiterated that relationship problems were preventing cooperation with Washington in the fight against global warming.

The situation has stalled even on the economic and commercial front. China wants the USA to lift restrictions on technology, reduce its support for Taiwan, and stop what Beijing considers a containment strategy. In addition, relations could further deteriorate if the Biden administration imposes new restrictions on American investment in Chinese companies working with quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors.

The frustration of the US administration is easily detectable in the words by US National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby who explained that the Biden administration had known about Kissinger’s trip for some time, stating, “Unfortunately, an individual can meet with the secretary of defense and communicate with him, while the United States cannot do this. This is the problem we want to solve.”

With these meetings, Xi seemingly wants to highlight the importance of commercial ties between the two countries and signal that rising tensions could compromise those ties in an effort to retain and attract as many foreign investors as possible.


Tommaso Baronio