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How China’s ‘old friend’ diplomacy may be hurting more than helping improve its US ties

When former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger visited China earlier this month, it was a massive affair.

Besides being treated to a lavish lunch by the Chinese government, the 100-year-old diplomatic heavyweight met Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who had declined earlier meetings with his American counterpart.

Kissinger also held talks with President Xi Jinping, unlike some US officials on recent trips to China.

Xi described Kissinger – who paved the way for the normalisation of US-China relations in the 1970s and has been to the country more than 100 times – as an “old friend”.

“We never forget our old friends, nor your historic contributions to promoting the growth of China-US relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples,” he was quoted by state media as saying.

The same “old friend” term was also extended to another American, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, when he visited Beijing in June.

Xi told the billionaire philanthropist: “I always believe that the foundation of China-US relations lies in the people. I place my hopes on the American people.”

Beijing’s use of its “old friend” diplomatic strategy was aimed at rallying influential Americans who were more receptive towards China’s views, observers said, even as the two rival superpowers recently made efforts to resume high-level interactions and mend ties.

But they suggested its success could be limited, with the tactic hinting at a possible growing disconnect between Chinese and American officials.

Victor Shih, an associate professor of political economy at the University of California San Diego, said this form of diplomacy involved providing “selective incentives” for these “old friends” to lobby on behalf of China or talk about the country positively.

“The leadership apparently has come to realise that these intermediaries are still needed in China’s diplomatic efforts,” Shih said, suggesting that it could stem from the strong post-pandemic rebound in the US economy.

The purpose of Kissinger’s recent China trip was as a fact-finding mission, with him expected to share details with US officials upon his return. But the State Department stressed he was travelling as a private citizen and not on behalf of the US government.

China has typically reserved the “old friend” term for foreign individuals who contribute to its development and are concerned about Chinese interests.

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