BEIJING - Both the United States and China are "in the foothills of a cold war", former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said on Thursday (Nov 21) at a global forum in Beijing, urging both sides to have political discussions to limit the fallout from any potential conflict.
Such a conflict would be catastrophic, and could even be worse than World War I, as both countries exceed the magnitude of the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, and possess more sophisticated weapons, said Dr Kissinger.
"We do not yet have this degree of rivalry, but we also don't have formal negotiations to reduce the political conflict... a discussion of our mutual purposes, and an attempt to limit the impact of conflict seem to me essential," he said.
"It is far from being too late for that because we are still in the foothills of a cold war."
At a special session on US-China relations at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Dr Kissinger sounded the warning against the increasingly polarising rivalry between the US and China, pointing out that views in Washington had changed rapidly to become more hawkish since three years ago.
Dr Kissinger, 96, was the secretary of state who helped pave the way for Sino-US rapprochement in the early 1970s, when he flew to Beijing on secret diplomatic missions.
"It is, in my view, especially important that a period of relative tension is followed by an explicit effort to understand what the political causes are, and a commitment by both sides to try to overcome those," he said.
Tensions have escalated in various areas including technology and trade, with analysts saying that the trade war is just one symptom of a greater strategic rivalry between the two powers.
Dr Kissinger noted that the trade negotiations now have "become a kind of substitute" for the much needed political discussion.
While both countries in recent weeks have shown signs that they might be close to a "phase one" trade deal, US President Donald Trump suggested on Wednesday that such an agreement would not be inked before the end of the year because Beijing was dragging its feet.
"But everyone knows the trade negotiations, which I hope will succeed and which success I support, can only be a small beginning to a political discussion, that I hope will take place in the years ahead."
Former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky said the West's response to China's quest for greater global influence has been "feeble".
"The West retreats from global leadership, or long-term vision, imposes protectionist tariffs that hamper growth, and fails to invest in domestic infrastructure or its people and then blames China," she said.
Forum co-chair Henry Paulson, a former US treasury secretary, pointed out that both countries were headed in the wrong direction.
"We are headed for more decoupling, not less - despite the various professions of constructive intent from both Washington and Beijing," he said.
He added that while some "strategic decoupling" in sensitive areas such as communications technology and Internet governance will be necessary, guard rails must be put in place "to keep the competition around sensitive and complex technologies from spinning out of control".
"The delusions of a wholesale and comprehensive decoupling will leave our countries, and the world, worse off," he said.