Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met China’s top diplomat in Beijing on Wednesday following a meeting with the country’s US sanctioned defense minister the day before.
The meetings with Wang Yi and Defense Minister Li Shangfu were announced by the Chinese government as the US looks to reset relations with Beijing after months of tension, but US officials say that Kissinger is acting in his capacity as a private citizen and not as an messenger for the Biden administration.
Kissinger, who turned 100 this year, played a key role in the US rapprochement with China while serving as national security adviser under the Nixon administration.
His trip to the Chinese capital comes following a period of immense friction between the United States and China, and as the US government has undertaken efforts in recent months to stabilize the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies. Multiple senior administration officials have traveled to China in the past month.
The Chinese government has rebuffed US efforts to engage in high-level military to military communications. They rejected a meeting between Li and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year, although the two officials did speak briefly at the summit in Singapore.
According to the Chinese readout, Kissinger said he was in Beijing “as a friend of China,” and that “the United States and China should eliminate misunderstandings, coexist peacefully, and avoid confrontation.”
“History and practice have repeatedly proved that neither the US nor China can afford to treat the other as an adversary,” the centenarian said, according to the Chinese readout.
Li told Kissinger that “some people in the United States did not meet China halfway, causing China-US relations to hover at the lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations,” according to the readout.
He urged the US to make the “correct strategic judgment” and said he hoped Beijing and Washington could still work together to promote “healthy and stable development” of the relationship between the countries and their militaries.
Wang, during his meeting with Kissinger, relayed a message that reflects Beijing’s concerns over American policy toward it: “Trying to transform China is impossible, and blocking and containing China is even more impossible,” he said, according to China’s readout.
The Chinese diplomat also appeared wistful for the tenor of earlier relations, telling his guest that “US policy toward China requires Kissinger-style diplomatic wisdom and Nixon-style political courage.”
The Chinese brought up the visit when Blinken was having dinner with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, citing the fact that that they were dining in the same room that Kissinger had during his famous 1971 trip to China, a senior State Department official said.
Blinken also already knew about the planned visit by Kissinger, with the former Secretary of State’s team telling the Biden administration about their plans in early June, the official said.
Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesperson, said that Chinese officials told Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Kissinger’s travel plans during his his own meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing last month.
“We were aware that Henry Kissinger was traveling to China,” Miller said at a State Department briefing. “It actually came up in the meetings that Secretary Blinken had when we were in China.”
Miller said he wasn’t aware of any planned conversations with Kissinger to debrief the trip, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point he briefs officials here on his conversations.”
“He’s done that a number of times going back decades,” he said.
Asked if it was problematic that Kissinger met with the defense minister, who is under US sanction, Miller said, “We would object to anyone violating our sanctions, but it’s not my understanding that a meeting violates those sanctions.”
“In fact, we have said that we believe our own secretary of defense could meet with the sanctioned defense minister, and that would be appropriate,” he said.
Beijing cut high-level military communications with the US last August in retaliation for a visit from then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, the self-governing democracy China’s ruling Communist Party claims but has never controlled.
Restoring that communication has been a key focus for Washington, including during Blinken’s recent visit to Beijing, when the American diplomat was unable to secure China’s agreement to do so.
Beijing has pointed to America’s “unilateral sanctions,” as an “obstacle” that needs to be removed before such dialogue can resume.
Li has been under US sanction since 2018 over China’s purchase of Russian weapons. He assumed his role as defense minister earlier this year.
CNN’s Beijing bureau and Simone McCarthy contributed reporting.