Ping-pong diplomacy in peril anew

By Alex P. Vidal

“In the world of diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid.”

—Lincoln Chafee

THERE we go again. Hardly had the tension brought by U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit in Taiwan two weeks ago simmered down, a five-member U.S. congressional delegation arrived in Taiwan on August 14, or less than two weeks after Pelosi’s contentious visit that infuriated China and drew intense Chinese military drills off the island’s coast.

Led by Democrat Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, the bipartisan delegation was welcomed by Taiwanese officials who said they appreciated the show of solidarity during the escalating tensions with Beijing.

Analysts said the presence of the five American lawmakers so quickly after Pelosi’s visit was likely to provoke a sharp reaction, possibly of more military exercises, although there was no immediate response from Beijing as of this writing.

Now that tension has again escalated between China and the USA, all the efforts put forward in the past to improve diplomatic relations between the two countries through sports, are in danger of being put to waste once more.

When the war was raging in Vietnam and the Cold War was entering its 26th year in April 1971 or 51 years ago, a Pan Am 707 landed in Detroit, Michigan, carrying the People’s Republic of China’s world champion table tennis team for a series of matches and tours in 10 cities around the United States.


The era of Ping-pong diplomacy had begun 12 months earlier when the American team– in Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championship–got a surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues to visit the People’s Republic.

Time magazine called it “The ping heard round the world.” And with good reason: no group of Americans had been invited to China since the Communist takeover in 1949.

Why had they been invited? Smithsonian’s David A. DeVoss said the Chinese felt that by opening a door to the United States, they could put their mostly hostile neighbors on notice about a possible shift in alliances.

The United States welcomed the opportunity; President Richard M. Nixon had written: “We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations.”

Soon after the U.S. team’s trip, Nixon, not wanting to lose momentum, secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Peking to arrange a Presidential visit to China.

Nixon’s journey seven months later, in February 1972, became one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese Premier Chou En-lai.

For Nixon, it was “the week that changed the world.”

In February 2002, President George W. Bush, in his second trip to China, recalled the meeting that came out of Ping-Pong diplomacy, telling President Jiang Zemin: “Thirty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon showed the world that two vastly different governments could meet on the grounds of common interest and in a spirit of mutual respect.”

Despite its critical diplomatic relationship with Iran, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sent a delegation of 12 Americans, including eight female athletes, coaches, and managers representing USA Badminton, to Tehran, Iran, from February 3-9, 2009.


The team competed in the Fajr International Badminton Tournament at the invitation of the Iranian Badminton Federation.

From pingpong, U.S. had embarked on another peaceful mission through badminton in the hostile territory in a bid to improve its relationship with the Islamic country which has blamed the West for its various problems.

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and USA Badminton also hosted the Iranian Badminton Federation for the U.S. Open in July 2009.

The visit was reportedly part of the US’s “people-to-people” exchanges with Iran.

Since 2006, the US has included Iranians in a range of educational, professional, and cultural exchange programs.

In the past two years, over 250 Iranians, including artists, athletes, and medical professionals, have participated in exchange programs in the United States.

Through its Sports United program, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has brought the Iranian National Teams for Basketball, Water Polo, Weightlifting, and members of the men’s and women’s National Table Tennis teams to the United States.

The US also sent 20 members of USA Wrestling to Iran to compete in the prestigious Takhti Cup in January 2007.

(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo.—Ed)