A tribute to Henry Kissinger

Feb 2, 2024By Kishore Mahbubani

The highest point of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic career was probably his secret visit to Beijing in July 1971. It set in motion a series of geopolitical shifts that further isolated the Soviet Union and led, two decades later, to the United States’ great victory in the Cold War. All this is well known and well recorded.

What is not well known is that this visit also triggered several economic and geopolitical shifts that led Asia to enjoy decades of peace and prosperity. None of that would have happened had China remained isolated and cut off from its neighbors. When Kissinger went to China in 1971, most of America’s friends and allies—including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand)—had no diplomatic relations with Beijing. Trade was virtually nonexistent. To draw a modern parallel, China then was as cut off from its Asian neighbors as Russia is today from its European neighbors. And who launched the process that changed this? Kissinger.

The story is a complex one, and the best way to illustrate its complexity is to focus on China’s relations with ASEAN, since many of the steps taken to lower distrust between the countries in this bloc and Beijing apply to China’s other neighbors in the region. The results of the ASEAN-Chinese thaw have been spectacular: in 2000, Japan’s economy was eight times as large as ASEAN’s; today, it is only 1.2 times larger. By 2030, ASEAN’s economy will be larger than Japan’s. And even more astonishingly, between 2010 and 2020, the $3.6 trillion ASEAN economy added more to global economic growth than the $16.6 trillion EU economy did. Kissinger deserves some of the credit for this surge.

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Kissinger and the North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho in 1973 for negotiating a cease-fire in Vietnam is universally regarded as one of the most controversial peace prizes ever awarded. No peace followed from it—and it recently came to light that the prize committee knew all along that the accords were unlikely to hold. Indeed, all of Vietnam fell to communist rule on April 30, 1975, and Kissinger offered to return the prize the next day. But the committee was right to refuse to take it back, as Kissinger’s diplomacy in China and Southeast Asia eventually paid off in decades of peace and prosperity for Southeast Asia. So how did that happen?

When Kissinger visited China in 1971, relations between Beijing and the five founding members of ASEAN were marked by suspicion and distrust. This was natural. China was then supporting the communist parties trying to overthrow the ASEAN governments, including by broadcasting radio propaganda that attacked them relentlessly. Not surprisingly, when ASEAN was founded on August 8, 1967, China denounced it as a neoimperialist creation. Suspicion and distrust could have remained the norm, but Kissinger’s visit changed everything.

In the years immediately following his visit, several ASEAN governments established diplomatic relations with China, led by Malaysia in 1974 and the Philippines and Thailand in 1975. While the conventional wisdom at the time was that the rest of Southeast Asia, especially the five ASEAN countries, would fall like dominoes following the collapse of South Vietnam, the opposite occurred. In fact, the ASEAN countries benefited from the era of close relations between China and the United States that Kissinger did so much to engineer.

Of course, had China and the newly triumphant North Vietnamese regime worked closely together in 1975, noncommunist Southeast Asia would have been in trouble. But one of the unintended consequences of Kissinger’s 1971 visit to China was that it sowed deep distrust between Hanoi and Beijing. The leaders of North Vietnam felt, with some justification, that they had been stabbed in the back by Beijing when it aligned with their enemy. After all, China had laid out the red carpet for an American leader at a time when U.S. warplanes were ferociously bombing their country.

This suspicion between the two communist neighbors may explain a fateful mistake soon made by Vietnam. Hanoi decided to ignore explicit warnings from Beijing that it would support the communist revolutionaries in Cambodia, and in December 1978, Vietnam proceeded to invade the country and remove Pol Pot from power. Since Hanoi enjoyed the full backing of Moscow, it assumed it would be safe from any Chinese retribution.

But the Vietnamese leaders underestimated the degree of trust and confidence that China and the United States had developed in each other since Kissinger’s pathbreaking visit. Even though Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai had been replaced by Deng Xiaoping, and even though President Jimmy Carter was fundamentally different from President Richard Nixon, the implicit alliance between Beijing and Washington that Kissinger had forged remained in place. Indeed, Deng cleverly engineered an appearance of support from Washington before invading Vietnam in February 1979—a ploy that convinced the much more powerful Soviet Union to sit on the sidelines.

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and, later in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered a honeymoon decade in U.S.-Chinese relations. The partnership grew so close that Beijing allowed the CIA to set up listening stations in China’s Xinjiang region to eavesdrop on the Soviet Union. Equally important, the United States and China worked together to arm the mujahideen fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge fighting against the pro-Vietnamese regime in Cambodia.

Kissinger wasn’t in office then. He was, however, good friends with many in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, especially Secretary of State George Shultz. Kissinger was also good friends with Lee Kuan Yew, who was then prime minister of Singapore. And Lee was a good friend of Shultz’s, too. “They’re both stable, they’re comprehensive in their approach,” Singapore’s leader said about the two Americans to the journalist Tom Plate. “Kissinger has the advantage of being more expressive with words. Shultz hasn’t quite got the same literary style. He’s very precise. So he hasn’t got the free-flowing, colorful, contrapuntal balance of Kissinger’s rounded, long phrases.”

The closeness among Kissinger, Shultz, and Lee paid off. Despite the honeymoon in U.S.-Chinese relations in the 1980s, the two sides still had different views on some major issues—most notably Taiwan. Yet these three leaders prevented that controversy from becoming a major irritant; most likely, Kissinger and Lee—who knew full well how important Taiwan was to China—briefed Shultz on the sensitivity of the matter.

One key point needs to be emphasized here. Kissinger, Shultz, and Lee were all big-picture thinkers. They never looked at key strategic issues in isolation but tried to figure out how to fit them into the larger global strategic chessboard. They understood well that no country—not even one as powerful as the United States—could achieve all its objectives. Tradeoffs had to be made. If compromises were needed on Taiwan to achieve larger strategic goals, compromises were made. For example, the Reagan administration decided to limit its arms sales to Taiwan—a significant concession to China. A joint communiqué released by Washington and Beijing on August 17, 1982, stated that U.S. “arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed … the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that [the United States] intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan.”

A decade of conversations largely held in an atmosphere of trust and confidence produced a certain resilience in U.S.-Chinese relations. As a result, the relationship survived three big shocks at the end of the 1980s, any one of which could have derailed it. These were China’s suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the end of the Cold War, and the election of President Bill Clinton in November 1992. China’s violent response to the Tiananmen protests put enormous pressure on President George H. W. Bush’s administration to cut or reduce its links with Beijing. But Bush had served in Beijing as the chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China from September 1974 to December 1975, and he had developed a deep understanding of the country and its importance. It also helped that his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft—another Kissinger ally—retained close ties with his Chinese counterparts. The importance of strong personal relationships is often underestimated in modern diplomatic analyses, but they matter a great deal. Even when China became less useful to the United States after the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of 1991, the Bush administration didn’t reduce its ties to Beijing.

U.S.-Chinese relations went through a bigger crisis when Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential election. The Arkansas governor had run on a campaign of not “coddling” the “butchers of Beijing.” When I attended the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in November 1993, however, I saw Clinton do plenty of “coddling” of Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Hence, despite a few subsequent ups and downs—such as the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996 and the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999—U.S.-Chinese relations remained steady in the 1990s.

All this was hugely important to ASEAN’s development. As long as the United States and China sustained a relatively harmonious relationship, ASEAN wasn’t divided by their rivalry. Instead, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the bloc developed close ties with both. When I served as the permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1994 to 1998, I led my country’s delegation of senior officials to regular meetings with both U.S. and Chinese officials. In these meetings, I could see that the close ties forged after Kissinger’s visit to China continued in the post–Cold War era.

The ability of ASEAN—which had grown to include 10 members in the 1990s—to develop close economic ties with both the United States and China contributed significantly to the bloc’s economic growth in the twenty-first century. The United States helped by encouraging its companies to invest more in Southeast Asia. As a result, by 2021, as Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan put it, “U.S. investments in Southeast Asia … exceed what the U.S. has invested in India, China, Japan and [South] Korea combined.”

In November 2000, meanwhile, China took the surprising step of proposing a free trade agreement with ASEAN. Although ASEAN had been set up as a pro-American organization, none of its Western (or pro-Western) partners ever proposed an FTA. But China did—and the agreement was negotiated and concluded in record time. It was signed on November 4, 2002.

The impact on ASEAN-Chinese trade was phenomenal. In 2000, U.S. trade with ASEAN was $135 billion—more than three times China’s trade with ASEAN, then just $40 billion. By 2022, however, although U.S. trade with ASEAN had almost trebled to $385 billion, China’s trade with ASEAN had increased almost 25 times to reach $975 billion—the largest trade relationship between any two economic entities in the world.

The massive U.S. investment in ASEAN and the huge trade relationship between China and ASEAN now stand like two giant oak trees in Southeast Asia. We know that oak trees never stop growing, and the strongest ones grow when the right seeds are planted. This is what Kissinger did with his historic trip to Beijing in 1971. He planted seeds that led to a relationship between the United States and China that remained strong for several decades. And this lasting relationship provided the geopolitical environment that allowed the 10 ASEAN states to grow and thrive.

The recent, massive downturn in U.S.-Chinese relations, beginning with President Donald Trump’s trade war in 2018, is now confronting ASEAN with many challenges. But thanks to several decades of relative peace and prosperity, ASEAN is now a sturdier and more resilient organization and thus in a stronger position to deal with these trials.

There’s no question that the destiny of Southeast Asia would have turned out differently if Kissinger hadn’t launched the reconciliation between the United States and China. Indeed, conditions in the region would be far worse than they are today. ASEAN, therefore, owes Kissinger a debt of gratitude for triggering a process that has showered many blessings on our region.


Kishore Mahbubani is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. He is a veteran diplomat who has held numerous senior positions in Singapore’s Foreign Service, including serving as permanent representative to the United Nations from 1984 to 1989 and again from 1998 to 2004. He is the author, most recently, of The Asian 21st Century and Has China Won?