[BEIJING] As he's done for decades, Henry Kissinger is again shuttling between the US and China to defuse tensions, this time as President Xi Jinping tries to figure out how much of President-elect Donald Trump's China-bashing will follow him to the White House.
The 93-year-old former secretary of state, who secretly brokered former president Richard Nixon's watershed visit in 1972, returned to Beijing to meet with state leaders, just two weeks after huddling with Mr Trump in New York.
While little about Mr Kissinger's closed-door talks has been disclosed, Chinese officials are trying to assess whether the incoming administration will prompt greater confrontation over trade and territory disputes, as Mr Trump promised on the campaign trail.
On Thursday, Mr Kissinger met with Wang Qishan, who oversees Mr Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign and ranks sixth in the Communist Party hierarchy, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Mr Kissinger said that he hoped to contribute to the healthy development of US-China relations, according to Xinhua.
Mr Kissinger's endurance as China's preferred go-between more than four decades after leaving office highlights communication gaps between the world's biggest economies even as their fates grow increasingly entwined. That's particular acute in the wake of Mr Trump's shock election victory last month, which has sent US allies and rivals alike scrambling to assess how the billionaire real estate developer plans manage diplomatic ties.
"It's important for China and the US, with minimal mutual trust, to have an unofficial conduit to expand mutual interests and avoid miscalculation," said Gao Zhikai, an interpreter to China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who has met frequently with Mr Kissinger over the years. "Mr Kissinger has a unique position in the relationship between the two major powers as a messenger."
Whereas former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a known quantity to China, Mr Trump lacks a public service record for the country to evaluate. While campaigning, the Republican accused China of "raping" America of jobs, while vowing to levy tariffs on Beijing and label it a currency manipulator. He's also pledged to add scores of ships to the US Navy, which China could view as destabilising should they end up in the Pacific, where the two sides have sparred over navigation rights.
Chinese leaders were expected to clarify their stance on major issues with Mr Kissinger, with Mr Xi telling Mr Trump in a telephone call Nov 14 that cooperation was the only correct choice for relations. The former secretary of state had several phone conversations with Mr Trump before a face-to-face session in New York on Nov 18.
Afterwards, Mr Kissinger told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that people "should not insist in nailing him to positions that he had taken in the campaign on which he doesn't insist." "This president-elect, it's the most unique that I've experienced in one respect: He has absolutely no baggage," Mr Kissinger said. "He has no obligation to any particular group because he has become a president on the basis of his own strategy and a program he put before the American public that his competitors did not present. So, that is a unique situation."
Mr Kissinger, who published his history On China in 2011, has visited the country more than 80 times since a clandestine 1971 trip to pave the way for restored relations, meeting every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, according to Xinhua.
State media heap praise on him during each visit, describing him as an "old friend of Chinese people." Mr Kissinger was among select US experts - including former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Elaine Chao, Mr Trump's nominee for transportation secretary - whom Mr Xi met in February 2012 before taking power. The group advised Mr Xi that frequent communication with his US counterpart was more important than repeat formal visits, according to a person familiar with the meeting who asked not to be identified because the talks were private.
China's continued reliance on the aging ex-diplomat as an interlocutor shows that Communist Party leaders haven't yet found a substitute.
"No one could replace him," Mr Gao said. "No other Americans could get the same respect from the Chinese leaders or have as honest exchanges with Chinese leaders."