Bloomberg New Economy Forum

There can't be victor in US-China rivalry without harming humanity: Kissinger

While the United States and China view each other as technological and economic competitors, both sides must realise that a victor is not possible without risking the destruction of humanity.

They must move away from this posture towards attempting to mitigate disputes, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore yesterday.

Hence, Tuesday's virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden is a "good beginning", he added.

During a conversation moderated by Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait which Dr Kissinger attended virtually, he acknowledged that public opinion in the US has shifted towards seeing China as a rival.

But the world will be better off if it deals with pressing issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence (AI) and economic relationships in a mutually beneficial way, he said.

"Both the United States and China have to accept that major (technological) powers of comparable capacities must attempt to compose their differences to a level in which co-existence becomes not only possible, but essential."

He noted that both sides had made progress on climate change, and there are other issues such as nuclear proliferation where cooperation is of the greatest importance.

The US and China, the world's top two greenhouse gas-emitting countries, made a surprise announcement at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last week that they had agreed to cooperate to limit emissions.

To Mr Micklethwait's question on whether he thought the Chinese had good intentions and wanted to cooperate, Dr Kissinger said it was not his job as a student of foreign policy to "psychoanalyse" the Chinese regime.

The task of Americans and non-Chinese, he added, is to understand what they need to do to make sure there is at least equivalence, and no subordination, in key areas of interest.

"I am assuming that China will operate at a high level of its capacity because it is a Confucian tradition and it is inherent in Chinese history," Dr Kissinger said.

"It is our obligation to work at an equivalent level of capacity, and then to ask ourselves whether the world will not be better off if we deal with the outstanding issues... from the point of view that leads to benefit for both sides."

As for Europe's role in today's geopolitics, he said the problems of the US-Europe Atlantic partnership had on the whole to do with Russian challenges, and the Chinese challenges today are of a different cultural and substantive nature.

"So, we cannot automatically apply all the lessons of Europe to the conditions of Asia. But I would expect that, in a general sense, Europe would look at America's problems in other parts of the world with sympathy and with understanding," Dr Kissinger said.

"The overall lines of policy should be that Europe and the US cooperate, with allowances for specific conditions that may exist by country or region."

On US-China rivalry in AI, he cautioned that there are risks to dealing with this in entirely competitive terms: "If we try to determine who is superior, and if we don't even know how to define what a level of superiority is which is strategically useful, we could be engaging in a race which, as a result of accidents, leads to consequences which we cannot foresee."

Dr Kissinger expressed the hope that a way can be found in which the US and China adjust how they approach the issue of economic competition.

"Neither side will accept a permanently inferior standing, but both sides have to understand that the other will not concede a permanently superior standing," he said.

"So, a dialogue that starts from these realities is essential."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2021, with the headline 'There can't be victor in US-China rivalry without harming humanity: Kissinger'. Subscribe