40 Years Ago: Ping-Pong Diplomacy & China's Rise

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 7/14/2011 12:01:00 AM
Regard a ping-pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat and you have won the point for the fatherland - Mao Zedong

Here's a timely scenario for you given the fortieth anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy between the US and China: What if the Cold War never ended, the Iron Curtain never fell, and the US failed to exploit the growing ideological divide between China and Russia? In general, international relations scholars treat counterfactual ("what might have been") research the same way Vogue magazine treats those with normal body weight: with complete and utter contempt. Still, prominent American IR scholar and rat-choice critic Ned Lebow encourages such research when conducted in an intellectually rigorous manner. See his recent work which I have on my virtual bookshelf, Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (the PUP site has excerpts of chapter 1).

An obvious point you can raise is that the Iron Curtain was inherently flawed and bound to collapse anyway regardless of developments in China. However, you can also argue that the budding economic renaissance of China in the mid- to late-nineties opened the eyes of many socialist regimes to the possibilities of co-opting some capitalistic activity. At any rate, I merely sketch out here the important international political economy implications of the counterfactual absence of a US-China detente circa 1971. That is, would Chinese development have progressed so far so fast had conditions not been laid out for Western firms experimenting with transferring their manufacturing operations to mainland China when Mao "Death to Capitalist Roaders" Zedong met his end (real Communists don't believe in makers)?

It's certainly a question manufacturing-obsessed and -romanticizing leftists would avidly ponder. Had China not become an FDI destination because MNCs shunned it during the time period in question due to still-lukewarm US-China relations, would it have developed quickly or meaningfully at all? As my erstwhile LSE IDEAS colleague Niall Ferguson likes to point out, Henry Kissinger has literally thousands of critics who froth at the mouth upon hearing his name. LSE IDEAS being a centre for researching strategy, however, give credit where credit is due.

Ping-pong diplomacy was an artful way of publicizing to the world the idea that the (then) arch-capitalist and the not-so-arch-communist had more than a few strategic interests in common. Inarguably, it served both countries' purposes. As early as 1967, Nixon already envisioned "Asia After Vietnam" in the pages of Foreign Affairs by allowing PRC involvement in world affairs. However, it took an accidental bus ride by a hippie US table tennis team member with his PRC counterparts to set things in motion. From there it is not at all a long stretch to trace the rise of modern China. Nixon's Secretary of State Kissinger prepared for such a fortuitous opening and never looked back.

While we can certainly quarrel with the eventual results--did the US dig its own grave by encouraging China's emergence, for instance--modern-day American international relations lacks similar grand strategy. Witness Hillary Clinton's laughingstock "Internet freedom" of an idea and compare it to a time when, to paraphrase Sidney Sheldon, real masters of the game still existed in the United States. In the 21st century world economy, they in all likelihood reside in the PRC with its long-term vision of how to shape the world to their advantage.

In any event, I much recommend a recent LA Times article that touches on the political significance of sport as well as how ping-pong diplomacy set the stage for US recognition of the PRC as China instead of American crony Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek's Taiwan:
"It's hard for us to really understand just how little direct contact Americans and Chinese had with each other," said Clayton Dube, associate director of USC's U.S.-China Institute. "It was a place that was much talked about, and it was a place where the imagination ran wild."

In the years leading up to 1971, however, leadership from both countries was sending signals that they might wish to normalize relations. Secret meetings were held in Warsaw in the 1950s, and before his presidency, Nixon had written that "China needs to be brought into the world community."
US and China table tennis teams interacting eventually led up to diplomatically significant gestures such as the former lifting trade restrictions on China:
What happens next is unclear. But officials from both teams expressed interest in a visit, and an invitation and acceptance came quickly. On April 10, nine [American] players plus officials, spouses and journalists crossed a bridge from Hong Kong to China. The group spent a week playing table tennis and sightseeing.

The visit paved the way for Henry Kissinger to conduct a secret visit to China in July, which set up Nixon's historic visit in February 1972. The U.S. then formally recognized that there was only one China and thereby set the Taiwan question aside to normalize relations.

Nixon called it "the week that changed the world," but Wei Wang remembers the words of Chairman Mao. She was a child in the early 1970s and says she doesn't recall much about the events. But the former U.S. Olympian and current Westside Table Tennis Center instructor does remember one thing clearly. "The prime minister [sic] said, 'The little ball moved the big ball' — a pingpong ball moved the earth,' " she said. "That was the metaphor. China opened up from that — from table tennis."
The Nixon Foundation also has a comprehensive and entertaining primer on this momentous occasion if you have some time to spare. Table tennis is renowned as the world's fastest sport, and international relations is probably not far behind in terms of pace. It seems to me and probably most of the rest of the world except for America#1-style flunkies, Palin acolytes, and other gullible Yankee toadies that the US has long since lost the ability to serve up something that befuddles, let alone outpaces, China. Those who succeeded Kissinger who were largely bereft of grand strategy did not fully realize what the consequences of integrating China into the world economy were for the US.

The great game has moved on and left slow-moving and slow-witted America behind.