A black limousine rolled into the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich. Surrounded by security guards in dark sunglasses, Henry Kissinger emerged, his gravelly voice filling the silence as he greeted the welcoming crowd.

More than 300 guests gathered in the hotel's ballroom Friday morning to hear the 88-year-old Kissinger discuss his latest book, "On China." During the talk, the highlight of a luncheon benefiting Family Centers, a Greenwich-based nonprofit, the former secretary of state touched on the global impact of China's emerging economy and the battle for supremacy in U.S.-China relations.

"We have never in our history had to deal with a country of comparable capacity," Kissinger said of China. "And so it is tempting to build all this into a contest with China ... but I think it would be a great misfortune if this were to happen."

The author of 19 books, Kissinger served as national security adviser and secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He was instrumental in opening diplomatic relations with China, led the American strategy of detente with the Soviet Union, and championed the philosophy of realpolitik, which favored a pragmatic, rather than idealistic approach to international relations. In 1973, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a ceasefire during the Vietnam War.

Despite his many accolades, Kissinger has also been a controversial figure. Over the years, he has been pursued in several international inquiries and lawsuits surrounding the 1973 ouster of President Salvador Allende of Chile. Others have criticized the positions he took as secretary of state on conflicts in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam.

One Stamford resident made it a point to protest Friday's event, carrying a sign outside the hotel calling Kissinger a "war criminal." The protester, Charles Glaser, said he was there to call attention to the diplomat's role in the "atrocities" of the Vietnam War.

"When I saw this ad in the Advocate that Henry Kissinger was coming to this area, my backyard, it kind of struck me," said Glaser. "I guess people don't have a clue about the war criminal they are sponsoring."

Bob Dilenschneider, a main sponsor of the event and president of the Dilenschneider Group, took a starkly different view, emphasizing the humanity of the man behind the history.

"I see Henry Kissinger as a man who cares deeply about the human condition," Dilenschneider said.

In his address to the audience, Kissinger claimed he is not pessimistic about the future of Asia's relationship with the West, but urged that the U.S. face the reality of a partnership with China. He advocated the formation of a pacific community, a partnership of nations, including the U.S. and China, that could promote "peaceful development" in the region.

Kissinger advised current and future administrations to be wary of China's historic sense of its own cultural superiority as they continue to develop a partnership with China.

"This idea of China as the center of the universe is built into the Chinese way of looking at the world," Kissinger said. "The key challenge is that we are dealing here with a society of a different history, and it is important for us to understand. But I would also say that they have the same obligation."

Qian Wu, a University of Illinois sophomore from China who traveled from Chicago exclusively for the discussion, said Kissinger is just as influential in China as he is in the United States.

"He is a huge person in Chinese history," said Wu, who plans to return to China and take a job in government after completing his studies. "He opened up our relationship with the U.S., and we have become closer ever since. But, still, the Chinese people know more about Americans than Americans know about China."

Greenwich resident and former WWE executive Linda McMahon, among those in the audience Friday, agreed that the marriage of China and the U.S. demands an acute awareness of Chinese diplomatic philosophy and culture.

"It is important for us to have an understanding of our global `associates,' if you will," said the U.S. Senate candidate, toting a copy of Kissinger's book. "I welcome the opportunity to listen to someone like Dr. Henry Kissinger speak from his knowledge of international policy on China. He is someone who clearly is an incredible statesman."

Robert Arnold, president and CEO of Family Centers, the luncheon's host, said the group was grateful for the attention Kissinger brought for the organization's services supporting education and human services in lower Fairfield County.

"He is a world player, and yet he is such a caring, charitable person to come here and support us and promote our efforts to help our neighbors in southwestern Connecticut in distress," Arnold said.