(Nov 21): Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said the US and China were in the “foothills of a Cold War,” and warned that the conflict could be worse than World War I if left to run unconstrained.

“That makes it, in my view, especially important that a period of relative tension be followed by an explicit effort to understand what the political causes are and a commitment by both sides to try to overcome those,” Kissinger told a session of the New Economy Forum. “It is far from being too late for that, because we are still in the foothills of a cold war.”

Kissinger said China and the US were countries of a magnitude exceeding that of the Soviet Union and America, and that the world’s two largest economies, who are locked in a protracted trade war, “are bound to step on each other’s toes all over the world, in the sense of being conscious of the purposes of the other.”

“So a discussion of our mutual purposes and an attempt to limit the impact of conflict seems to me essential,” he said. “If conflict is is permitted to run unconstrained the outcome could be even worse than it was in Europe. World War 1 broke out because a relatively minor crisis could not be mastered.”

Kissinger, 96, said he hoped trade negotiations would provide an opening to political discussions between the two countries.

“Everybody knows that trade negotiations, which I hope will succeed and whose success I support, can only be a small beginning to a political discussion that I hope will take place,” he said.

Kissinger spoke hours after Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan addressed the NEF, saying his country was committed to peace and would follow through on policy changes despite facing challenges at home and abroad.

“Between war and peace, the Chinese people firmly choose peace. Humanity cherishes peace,” he said. “We should abandon the zero-sum thinking and cold war mentality.”

The US and China are trying to assemble a partial trade agreement amid wider tensions ranging from human rights concerns over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the detention of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region to strategic competition in the South China Sea. Kissinger said he thought a solution to the unrest in Hong Kong was possible, if not likely, and that he hoped it would be resolved via negotiation.

The New Economy Forum is being organized by Bloomberg Media Group, a division of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. Other guests include Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.