Endless U.S.-China Contest Risks 'Catastrophic' Conflict, Henry Kissinger Warns

Veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger has warned that the U.S. and China must come to an understanding on international affairs or risk "catastrophic" conflict that will benefit neither nation.

Speaking with former British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt in a Chatham House webinar on Thursday, Kissinger said that "endless" competition between the world's two largest economies risks unforeseen escalation and subsequent conflict, a situation made more dangerous by artificial intelligence and futuristic weaponry.

Kissinger, now aged 97, served as both secretary of state and national security advisor under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Kissinger was one of the most influential Cold War figures and is credited with thawing relations with both the Soviet Union and communist China.

He has also been vilified for his role in the disastrous Vietnam War and American interventions in South American nations to topple democratically elected leaders in favor of far-right dictatorships.

Few people are as well connected or have more diplomatic experience than Kissinger, particularly when it comes to America's bilateral ties with China. Beijing is not "determined to achieve a world domination," Kissinger said Thursday, but rather "they're trying to develop the maximum capability of which their society is able."

China's rise is challenging U.S. hegemony, prompting nerves in Washington, D.C. and among American allies in Europe and elsewhere. China's economy is on course to eclipse America's within the coming decades, and Chinese military investment, nuclear arms, and technological advances have set it firmly on the path to superpower status.

American voters are increasingly concerned about China's rise and its unashamed authoritarianism. In Washington, there is now bilateral agreement that China presents a challenge to be addressed rather than a commercial opportunity to be exploited.

President Joe Biden has vowed to be tough on China, following on from four years of U.S.-China simmering conflict under former President Donald Trump. Biden's team have framed their strategy as competition rather than conflict, seeking to challenge Beijing from a position of strength and with the support of American allies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others have accused China of threatening the U.S.-led international order, and undermining democratic nations around the world. But Kissinger said Thursday that Washington and Beijing must learn to live with each other to maintain peace.

"Is it necessary to have a coherent view of governance in order to have a peaceful order?" Kissinger asked. "Or is it possible to work out an international order in which the fundamental domestic principles vary to some extent, but there's an agreement on what is needed to prevent a breakdown of the international order?"

Kissinger continued: "And if you add to it the element of technology, of...the revolutionary explosion of democracy, the development of artificial intelligence, of cyber and so many other technologies.

"And if you imagine that the world commits itself to an endless competition based on the dominance of whoever is superior at the moment, then a breakdown of the order is inevitable.

"And the consequences of a breakdown would be catastrophic," Kissinger added.

America now, for the first time, has to decide "whether it is possible to deal with a country of comparable magnitude—and maybe in some respects marginally ahead—from a position that first analyzes the balance that exists," Kissinger said.

The U.S. must also remember, he said, that international problems do not have "final solutions," and that each apparent solution "opens the door to another set of problems."

"Is it possible for us to develop a foreign policy thinking together with allies and understood by other countries that looks for world order at the basis of that sort of analysis?" Kissinger asked.

"if we don't get to that point and if we don't get to an understanding with China on that point, then we will be in a pre-World War One-type situation," he warned, "in which there are perennial conflicts that get solved on a immediate basis but one of them gets out of control at some point."

The situation now is "infinitely more dangerous," Kissinger said, given the advanced weapons available to both the U.S. and China.

"A conflict between countries possessing high technology with weapons that can target themselves and that can start the conflict by themselves without some agreement of some kind of restraint cannot end well," Kissinger warned. "And that's an understatement."

Henry Kissinger pictured in Berlin in 2020
Henry Kissinger is pictured at an awards ceremony on January 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Adam Berry/Getty Images