Nov 17, 2020 03:35 PM

Kissinger Warns Biden of Potential for U.S.-China Catastrophe

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Photo: Bloomberg
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Photo: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) — Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said the incoming Biden administration should move quickly to restore lines of communication with China that frayed during the Trump years or risk a crisis that could escalate into military conflict.

“Unless there is some basis for some cooperative action, the world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to World War I,” Kissinger said during the opening session of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. He said military technologies available today would make such a crisis “even more difficult to control” than those of earlier eras.

“America and China are now drifting increasingly toward confrontation, and they’re conducting their diplomacy in a confrontational way,” the 97-year-old Kissinger said in an interview with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait. “The danger is that some crisis will occur that will go beyond rhetoric into actual military conflict.”

The diplomat who paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China said he hoped that the shared threat of the Covid-19 pandemic would provide an opening for political discussions between the two countries when Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

“If you can look at Covid as a warning, in the sense that in practice it is dealt with by each country largely autonomously, but its long-term solution has to be on some global basis,” Kissinger said, “it should be dealt with as a lesson.”

U.S.-China relations are at their lowest in decades, despite the two sides reaching a “phase one” trade deal at the start of the year. Since then, the virus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, has gone global, killing more than 1.3 million people and crushing economies around the world.

“Trump has a more confrontational method of negotiation than you can apply indefinitely,” Kissinger said. Early in Trump’s term, “it was important for him to emphasize the deep concerns Americans have about the evolution of the world economy that is not balanced. I think that was important to emphasize. But since then, I would have preferred a more differentiated approach.”

The swift erosion in ties this year means China and the U.S. are edging toward a new Cold War, Kissinger said, adding that the two sides should “agree that whatever other conflict they have, they will not resort to military conflict.”

To achieve that, the U.S. and China should jointly create “an institutional system by which some leader that our president trusts and some Chinese leader that President Xi trusts are designated to remain in contact with each other on behalf of their presidents,” he said.

Xi used a speech last week to call for countries to strengthen cooperation and avoid conflict, even as his policies set China on a collision course with the U.S. And China last week congratulated Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their election victory.

“The United States and China have never faced countries of a magnitude that is roughly equal with the other,” Kissinger said. “This is the first experience. And we must avoid its turning into conflict, and hopefully lead to some cooperative endeavors.”

Ultimately, Kissinger said, the two nations’ leaders need to recognize that they see the same issues very differently, and that colors their approach to talks.

“Americans have had a history of relatively uninterrupted success,” he said. “The Chinese have had a very long history of repeated crises. America has had the good fortune of being free of immediate dangers. Chinese have usually been surrounded by countries that have had designs on their unity.”

Europe will increasingly find itself caught in a tug-of-war between the U.S. and Eurasia, Kissinger added.

“Europe has been an anchor of American foreign policy in the entire post-World War II period,” he said. “The question for them now is whether, in the evolution of relations with other parts of the world, they will attempt to play a totally autonomous role.”

Contact editor Yang Ge (

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