On July 18, Henry Kissinger met with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu in Beijing. This encounter stands in sharp contrast with Minister Li’s refusal to meet with US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum in Singapore in late May. Unsurprisingly, that event followed the unwillingness of Li to answer a telephone call from his Pentagon counterpart at the height of the great balloon crisis in early February.
Kissinger, of course, gets special treatment in China—and deservedly so, given his decisive role in establishing the modern framework of US-China engagement. I have witnessed this treatment first-hand on several occasions when I happened to participate in an event in China that featured Dr. Kissinger. For the Chinese, he is more than just an “old friend,” as they tend to dub foreigners who have made a difference to them. In China, Henry Kissinger is the ultimate rock star.
For several years, Kissinger has expressed great concern over the worrisome state of the US-China relationship. As far back as late 2019, he warned that that the United States and China were already in the “foothills of a new cold war.” Given the trajectory of conflict escalation in the ensuing four years, there is a new urgency to his concerns. In the Chinese readout of this week’s meeting with Li Shangfu, Kissinger is reported to have said. “Neither the United States nor China can afford to treat the other as an adversary. If the two countries go to war, it will not lead to any meaningful results for the two peoples.”
From the Chinese perspective, there is no dark secret to Li’s unwillingness to meet with his official US counterparts. Li Shangfu was personally sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for the role he played in his former capacity in heading up weapons procurement as Director of Equipment Development Department for China’s Central Military Commission; both EDD and Li were sanctioned for 2017 purchases of combat aircraft and missile defense systems from Russia’s main arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. The transactions in question occurred a year before the US initiated a trade war with China and fully five years before Russia’s illegal war with Ukraine.
As I wrote this week in the Financial Times, often times diplomacy gets bogged down in matters of face—putting pride ahead of more pragmatic considerations of realpolitik. This is a classic example of that. The Chinese do not feel it is appropriate for its defense minister to meet with officials of a US government that insists on maintaining personal sanctions for what is by now a dated transgression. The US has responded by cavalierly dismissing Chinese concerns and insisting it’s no big deal for sanctioned foreign officials to meet with US government officials.
Henry Kissinger, long the grandmaster of realpolitik, underscored the absurdity of the US position in meeting with Li Shangfu this week in Beijing. It’s one thing to wage a trade war, another matter to fight a tech war. But as the consummate cold war warrior knows full well, every conceivable effort should be taken to prevent a cold war from turning hot. Lifting the personal sanctions on Li Shangfu would not only be an important gesture in defusing military risks, but it could also be a real olive branch in restoring some semblance of trust between two conflicted superpowers.
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