Under US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, bilateral relations plunged into the abyss. Image: AFP

With the White House set to change hands in the coming weeks, Henry Kissinger has warned of “a catastrophe comparable to World War I” in the absence of a new strategic understanding between the US and China.

The veteran American diplomat, who co-engineered the Richard Nixon administration’s historic détente with Mao Zedong’s China in the 1970s, called on the incoming Joseph Biden administration to adopt a “more differentiated approach” than the incumbent Donald Trump.

In a veiled criticism of Trump’s China policy, the 97-year-old grand strategist emphasized that the incumbent’s “more confrontational method of negotiation” can not be applied “indefinitely” but that “it was important for him to emphasize the deep concerns Americans have about the evolution of the world economy that is not balanced.”

Over the past four years, US President Trump has ramped up tensions with Beijing through a protracted trade war, immigration and investment restrictions on Chinese nationals and companies, an expanded US naval presence in China’s peripheries and by provocatively referring to the Covid-19 pandemic as the “China plague.”

There are reasons to believe Trump, who has refused to concede electoral defeat, could escalate tensions with China in the remaining weeks of his term. Indeed, the 11th-hour appointment of Trump loyalists and hardliners to top Pentagon positions as well as an expansion of targeted sanctions against Chinese officials signals a harder line.  

Experts and analysts suggest that the Trump administration’s last-minute actions could box in his successor Biden and legally constrain the latter’s ability to restore functional ties with China. Moreover, Trump’s moves could poison bilateral relations for years to come, dramatically raising the prospect of a great power conflict.

A US-led joint naval operation in the South China Sea in November 2018. Photo: US Navy

John Ullyot, Trump’s National Security Council spokesperson, has told the media, “Unless Beijing reverses course and becomes a responsible player on the global stage, future US presidents will find it politically suicidal to reverse President Trump’s historic actions.”

Reports suggest that the US Department of Defense, now controlled by China hawks such as newly-installed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, is set to expand sanctions against Chinese companies deemed to have links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Trump administration is also exploring additional sanctions on human rights-related issues, including the use of forced labor in the fishing industry as well sanctions against Chinese officials reputedly involved in repression of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang where ethnic Uighurs are held in camps.

China is preparing for a fight. During a high-profile visit to a PLA military base in the southern province of Guangdong last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the country’s troops to “put all (their) minds and energy on preparing for war.”

Having earlier warned of “a period of turbulent change” and existential risks to China, Xi told the PLA soldiers to “maintain a state of high alert” and called on them to be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure and absolutely reliable,” according to state media reports.

Although historically an advocate of “strategic empathy” among the big powers, President-elect Joseph Biden has also taken an increasingly tough stance on China in the past year.

The incoming American leader has lambasted Xi as a “thug”, criticized the ruling communist regime as a “dictatorship”, and warned of “swift economic sanctions” against human rights violations in Chinese territories.

“The United States does need to get tough on China,” Biden wrote back in the spring in an essay in Foreign Affairs

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden (R) speaks as his visiting Chinese counterpart Xi Jingping (L) looks on during a meeting of governors in Los Angeles, on February 17, 2012 in California. Photo: AFP/Frederic J Brown

In recent weeks, Biden and his top advisers have also reiterated their commitment to support Taiwan as well as regional allies such as Japan and the Philippines, which have been at loggerheads with Beijing over maritime and territorial disputes. 

Taking notice of this escalating and dangerous dynamic between the two superpowers, Kissinger warned “America and China are now drifting increasingly toward confrontation, and they’re conducting their diplomacy in a confrontational way.”

“The danger is that some crisis will occur that will go beyond rhetoric into actual military conflict,” the veteran diplomat said, reiterating the necessity for  “an institutional system” whereby trusted presidential advisors can regularly communicate and defuse tensions before they boil over.

As Cambridge historian Christopher Munro Clark observed in his classic account of the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, “On both sides, they imagined that ‘bluffing’ would suffice to achieve success. None of the players thought that it would be necessary to go all the way. The tragic poker game had begun.”

Even though none of the major powers expected nor desired war, “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world,” the historian added.  

As Barbara Tuchman observed in The Guns of August, the crucial month in 1914 that saw the beginning of a years-long global conflict, empires can sleepwalk into cataclysmic wars, since “in the midst of … crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight”

As Clark observes, the end of Cold War “invites comparison with the Europe of 1914” because of “a more complex and unpredictable array of forces”, including the rise of China and the relative decline of the US.

A Biden administration, however, is expected to heed Kissinger’s advice for “some cooperative endeavors” in order to “alleviate” tensions to a manageable level.

US and Chinese troops during a joint disaster management exercise in a file photo. Image: USPACOM

The president-elect has consistently signaled his preference for a more “differentiated” approach, including a drawdown in the Trump-initiated and ongoing trade and tech wars as well as cooperation with China on climate change, Covid-19 vaccines and global economic recovery.

Even on contentious issues such as the South China Sea disputes and Taiwan, Biden is expected by some to “speak softly and carry a big stick” in order to avoid unnecessary and dangerous escalations with China.

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