The red carpet welcome in Beijing for Henry A. Kissinger, the 100-year-old former secretary of state, included China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, telling him that “the Chinese people will always remember you.” It drew praise from China’s top diplomat for his wisdom. And it involved a meeting with China’s defense minister, who declined multiple requests to engage with his American counterpart.
China’s enthusiastic reception for Mr. Kissinger this week is the latest example of how Beijing is reaching outside official diplomatic channels to broaden the reach of its message and try to influence Washington’s thinking. Beijing has turned to those it sees as more aligned with its position as it has grown more skeptical of, and at times openly frustrated with, the Biden administration.
With the visit by Mr. Kissinger, whom Mr. Xi and other officials called an “old friend,” Beijing sought to emphasize cooperation and mutual respect between the powers. With visits from business leaders such as Bill Gates – also called an old friend of Mr Xi – and Elon Musk, China has tried to highlight the long-standing economic relationship and the dangers of unraveling global supply chains.
Such efforts may become increasingly significant as Beijing pushes back against what it sees as the Biden administration’s efforts to contain China geopolitically, militarily and technologically. China is also watching as Republicans and Democrats unite to stay tough on Beijing, with a US presidential election approaching in which candidates are likely to be more critical of China.
“This looks very much like a deliberate Chinese strategy” to court individuals who could help change opinion in Washington, said Dennis Wilder, former head of China analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency. “The Chinese encourage those who have a vested interest in the Chinese economy and the overall relationship.”
After several months of deep cold, the two countries began to refocus on issues such as trade and climate change. But progress has been limited, with President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, walking out of talks in China this week without new deals, and Beijing arguing that problems in the relationship are hampering its cooperation with Washington to fight global warming.
While the meetings may have succeeded in building a “floor” in the relationship, tensions remain high. China wants the US to end restrictions on technology, curb its support for Taiwan and end what Beijing sees as a containment strategy centered on building security ties with US allies and partners around Asia. Ties could fray further if the Biden administration imposes new restrictions on US investments in Chinese companies involved in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and semiconductors.
Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said Mr Kissinger’s visit pointed to “Beijing’s anxiety about how to influence and persuade US political elites to reduce their strategic suppression of China”, at a time when voices such as his were increasingly rare. in Washington.
Beijing often evokes the time when Mr. Kissinger served as secretary of state and helped pave the way for President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China as an example of a golden age in bilateral relations. That trip led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between Washington and Communist-ruled China seven years later.
As relations have soured in recent years, Chinese officials have said American officials should learn from Mr. Kissinger and his pro-engagement stance.
To drive home that point again, China emphasized the historical significance of the location for Mr. Xi’s meeting with Mr. Kissinger on Thursday. Chinese officials chose Village No. 5 of the Diaoyutai State Guest House, the same building where half a century earlier Mr. Kissinger had met Zhou Enlai, then China’s premier.
“China-US relations will forever be linked to the name ‘Kissinger,'” Mr. Xi said in a video released by CCTV, the state broadcaster, as the two men sat side by side in plush cream-colored armchairs. . “I express my deep respect to you.”
In an official summary of the meeting, published by Chinese state media, Mr. Xi was quoted as saying: “I hope that you and wise men in the United States will continue to play a constructive role in bringing China-US relations back to the country on the right track.”
Wang Yi, China’s top foreign official, told Mr. Kissinger a day earlier that American policy needed “Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom, and Nixon-style political bravery,” according to China’s foreign ministry.
China has also wooed US business leaders. In addition to Mr Gates and Mr Musk, Tim Cook and Jamie Dimon have visited China this year – some giving more high-level meetings with Chinese officials than Biden administration officials have had in months. The visits by business leaders are also an opportunity for China to send a message domestically about foreign confidence in the economy, which has faced an uncertain recovery.
During his trip to Beijing in March, Mr Cook took selfies with fans at an Apple store and attended a government development forum – then seen as an important signal as China had just emerged from three years of strict coronavirus restrictions.
Two months later, Mr. Musk traveled to China and met with senior ministers and the top leader of Shanghai. In Chinese media reports, Mr. Musk, the head of Tesla and Twitter, has been hailed as a proponent of open trade between the United States and China.
“Musk’s trip to China showed the firm confidence of American businesses in the Chinese market despite ‘decoupling’ noises from some Western politicians,” said the Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid.
With these meetings, Mr. Xi seems to be trying to highlight the importance of trade ties between the two nations, and to signal that growing tensions in the relationship could endanger those ties.
That messaging has become even more important for Beijing to emphasize after Chinese officials raided the offices or questioned the staff of American consulting firms such as Bain & Company, scaring many foreign businesses, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in. washington
“China generally wants to retain foreign investors, and the ones they have invited are large high-tech companies that can still see the appeal of the Chinese market,” Ms Sun said.
“The Chinese believe that these business leaders enjoy more freedom to act outside of political correctness,” she said. “But another part of it is that China wants to make a case that cooperation with China and following Beijing’s rules will be rewarding.”
Olivia Wang contributed research.