The next few weeks will be filled with remembrances, fulsome appreciations, and harsh criticism of Henry Alfred Kissinger, who died on Wednesday at 100. His prominence is well deserved. The only modern secretaries of state who rank with him are George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson, who constructed the architecture of Cold War containment in the late 1940s.
Kissinger’s central achievement was updating that architecture to include China, less as an American ally than as a Russian adversary. Until the late 1960s, Washington and Beijing had seen each other as bitter foes, not only because they had fought each other in the Korean War but because they represented the era’s two opposed ideologies. What Kissinger and his boss, president Richard Nixon, recognised is communist ideology alone was not enough to keep China tied to the Soviet Union as a subordinate ally, or enough to prevent America from seeking mutually beneficial ties with Beijing.
Kissinger and Nixon, himself an incisive international strategist, saw that Maoist China faced a serious security threat from the Soviet Union and viewed it as a rival in spreading communist ideology. They knew that America could exploit the deepening cleavage between the USSR and People’s Republic of China and that Mao had good reasons to accept America’s offer of warmer relations.
The relationship Kissinger and Nixon forged with China yielded real strategic benefits for Washington. It kept a significant portion of the Soviet Army pinned down on the border with China, easing the military pressure Moscow put on America’s allies in Western Europe.
This limited partnership between the US and China came at a price, paid, in part, by Taiwan. Since 1949, that island had been governed by the losing side in the Chinese Civil War. The island’s government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, maintained that Taiwan was still very much part of China and that Chiang and his party were the legitimate rulers of the entire country.