April 10 marked the 50th anniversary of the US and China’s “Ping-Pong diplomacy.” Washington and Beijing issued statements to mark the occasion, which betrayed a sense that both sides, like lovers apart, still hold a fondness for their previous relationship. The US should not at all be sentimental, as Ping-Pong diplomacy was a trap — a triumph of deceit and subterfuge for Beijing, and a five-decade strategic disaster for Washington.
It began in 1971 when Beijing extended an invitation to US table tennis players to visit China. It was the first time that the People’s Republic of China had shown goodwill to what it had hitherto castigated as “evil American imperialists.” The visit was a harbinger of a major strategic shift in Chinese foreign policy that would culminate in a visit by then-US president Richard Nixon two years later.
Two years prior to the beginning of this relationship, in March 1969, China and the Soviet Union had clashed over Zhenbao Island (珍寶島), known as Damansky Island in Russia, during what later became known as the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict. In April of that year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to hold its Ninth National Congress, but due to internal fissures caused by the Cultural Revolution, the conference looked to be beset with problems.
Then-party chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) engineered an armed border conflict to create a common enemy that would act as a cohesive force to unite the party’s rival factions. Mao turned the border conflict into a propaganda coup and labeled the conference a “unity conference” and “victory conference.”
Faced with the prospect of huge losses should the conflict escalate into all-out war, the Soviet Union discretely sounded out Washington to see if the US would remain neutral in a pre-emptive attack on China’s nuclear weapons facilities.
Who would have thought that Nixon and his then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger would, after deliberating over the issue, opt to stand by China. Washington used a suspended communications channel to warn Beijing, which immediately took measures to thwart a surprise attack.
Mao became increasingly uneasy over the threat posed by the Soviet Union and determined to enter into a strategic alliance with the US to defeat the Soviets. Observers took Beijing’s expression of goodwill entirely at face value, but did not realize that it was the Nixon administration that moved first by leaking military secrets to save China’s and Mao’s bacon. Despite the US saving China, over the past five decades, Beijing has repeatedly kicked its benefactor in the teeth, and today the CCP even tells the public that the US is China’s No. 1 enemy.
Following the success of its Ping-Pong diplomacy, Beijing extended its victory further by introducing the slogan: “friendship first, competition second.” What Chinese leaders really meant was “politics first, competition second,” conceding points at international sporting competitions and events to buy China the friendship of other countries.
During the 1987 World Table Tennis Championships in New Delhi, Chinese table tennis player He Zhili (何智麗) was ejected from the national team after disobeying orders to throw a match and going on to the win the championship. She later married a Japanese national and settled in Japan, taking the name Chire Koyama, and represented Japan at international competitions.
After defeating Chinese competitors, Koyama was branded a traitor in her country of birth. When I spoke up for her while living in Hong Kong I was also branded a traitor.
To mark the Ping-Pong diplomacy anniversary, Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) released a recorded speech in which he called on both sides to carry forward the spirit of Ping-Pong diplomacy and seek common ground.
Xinhua news agency also called on Washington to draw from the historic wisdom in its efforts to resolve today’s knotty problems.
In doing so, Beijing unintentionally revealed its deep anxiety over the current US-China relationship — the CCP would like to deceive Washington once again to solve its problems.
In stark contrast, US Charge d’Affaires to China Robert Forden, who was previously deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, issued a low-key statement looking back on the role of athletes in the establishment of US-China relations.
With US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry visiting China for talks last week, could this be the beginning of “climate diplomacy” between the US and China? Officials in Washington should understand that Beijing would not let go of any opportunity to deceive and sow discord in the US, and the wider democratic world.
The global order bears an uncanny resemblance to ancient China’s Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志). China constitutes the greatest threat to the US, and Washington should maintain a high level of vigilance against attempts by CCP proxies to mislead with prevarications and deliberate falsehoods.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Edward Jones
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