As ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ Completes Fifty Years, ‘Diplomacy’ is Missing in the US-China Ties


Before the anti-China consensus became fashionable among the bipartisan US political elite during the Trump years, headwinds against Beijing were blowing in Washington by the first half of President Obama’s first term. As a result, diplomacy had started becoming a casualty in the US-China relations. Many view the unfolding of “Pivot to Asia” policy a decade ago as Obama’s “gift” to Trump. Under Biden, according to analysts, “diplomacy is back” is aimed only at the US allies. Or else, why is the new US president pushing ahead with his two predecessor’s enduring legacy of “no diplomacy” in the US-China relation? And why even after five months in the White House, President Biden’s China envoy and China policy are both missing?


During the past two hundred years, relations between China and the US/West have mostly been troubled and far from being smooth. Like in a Shakespearean tragedy, “the catastrophic events and unfolding misfortunes” in the relationship have always seemed more inevitable than accidental. And just like in a Shakespearean tragedy, here too the various ups and downs and crises have been mostly, if not always, caused by the side characters. As historians are now telling us, the “diplomatic snafu” between Qianlong Emperor and King George III’s famous Macartney Mission was actually caused not by the Qing ruler’s arrogance but by the man who translated King George III’s letter of state into Chinese – José Bernardo de Almeida, a Jesuit priest living in Beijing.

Let me hasten to clarify, as in a Shakespearean tragedy the ignorance and heartlessness of some side characters made the destruction inevitable, by citing historians to blame the individuals, or just like some scholars have tried to put the blame on the worsening US-China relations under President Trump on his largely “inexperienced” and shockingly “unqualified” China team, one is not trying to undermine or altogether ignore the importance of the role of social forces. Mark the words of a Chinese scholar who recently said: “The ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ which opened the door to the bilateral diplomatic relations between China and the US in 1971 was mere accidental, not inevitable. The two countries would have found other ways to gradually normalize their ties.”  

In foreign policy literature, various definitions of diplomacy, the noun, are offered to satisfy everyone’s needs. However, the practice of diplomacy in recent decades, especially as witnessed following the end of the Cold War, is increasingly acquiring a definition of “a cyclic trap in which measures and countermeasures” determine how countries behave with one another. Therefore, countries tend to label other country’s behaviour according to their own success or lack of it while dealing with each other. Hence, we have been exposed to a good range of such labels, namely “wolf warrior diplomacy,” “tough diplomacy,” “coercive diplomacy,” “amoral diplomacy,” “aggressive diplomacy,” “porcupine diplomacy” and so on. The latest addition in the ever evolving diplomacy neologism is “equal-footing diplomacy.”

Also called “equal diplomacy,” the term owes its birth to Professor Zhang Weiwei of the China Institute of Fudan University in Shanghai. Zhang is an immensely popular current affairs commentator and enjoys a ‘rock star’ like celebrity status in China. When asked on a recent TV show if there was any change in China’s diplomacy in the “new era” [meaning Xi Jinping era], Zhang said: “The answer is ‘equal diplomacy,’ meaning the time of US interfering in China’s domestic issues is gone.” Invoking the example of the Qianlong Emperor during the Qing dynasty, Zhang warned the US of meeting similar fate if it does not drop its sense of superiority in keeping up with the new era of “equal-footing” diplomatic engagement with other countries [read China].           

In sharp contrast, the unprecedented scenes of exchange of angry sparks between the secretary of state Antony Blinken and the CPC’s highest-ranking diplomat Yang Jiechi three months ago, speak of the sad saga of “substandard or no diplomacy” left between Beijing and Washington. In a recent piece, I had characterized the highpoints of the two-day drama in Anchorage – the first top level diplomatic meeting between China and the US since Biden became the president – as that of “hungry visitors, purple hair, and Blinken and Yang ‘going purple in the face’.” A Bloomberg opinion piece caricatured the Alaska dialogue between the US and China respectively as “brawl between ‘diplomatic fox’ and ‘hedgehog’.”

Speaking of the “missing” diplomacy in Sino-US relations, it is fair to say the Chinese have been consistently urging the US not to let “the differences turn into conflict” and to “maintain dialogue, communication and coordination between the two nations.” Earlier in March this year, following the “disastrous” Alaska dialogue, President Biden in his first wide-ranging press conference since stepping into the White House, had accused China of “seeking superpower supremacy.” Rejecting Biden’s characterization of China’s goal as being to replace the US as the next superpower, Cui Tiankai, China’s longest serving ambassador in the US had said: “Our goal is not to compete with or replace any other country. Hopefully, people will better understand this.”

On the other hand, instead of hearing phrases like “cooperation,” one has only heard   Washington of pushing “strategic rivalry and competition” with China – since March 2018 under the Trump administration and subsequently under President Biden. The skeptics of the US foreign policy claim, Biden took office promising a new era of “American international leadership and diplomacy.” Barring few exceptions – such as America returning to the Paris Agreement, the new (extended) deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan, and more recently a sudden kneejerk summit with Putin, the US foreign policy during the past five months has been the policy of reassertion and not reversal of military action over diplomacy.

Furthermore, Biden’s failure to keep his promise to prioritize diplomacy as the primary instrument of foreign policy is more strikingly and starkly manifested in the US attitude towards Beijing. It is “diplomacy as (un)usual.” In addition to the Trumpian “anti-China” campaign comprising democracy protests in Hong Kong, accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, and undermining “One China” policy using Taiwan to continue war preparations aimed at mainland China, the Biden administration’s two most recent offensive against communist China within past few weeks are the Senate’s $250 billion Innovation and Competition Act and the President’s maiden trip to Europe for G7, NATO and US-EU summits, respectively. 

The Act, also being called by the US media as “China competitiveness bill,” is aimed at countering the chief US strategic competitor’s growing economic influence. Whereas the key focus of the European tour was to attempt to strong-arm the European allies into fully aligning behind Washington’s increasingly aggressive sanctions and other economic and political measures against China. According to the Financial Times, Biden had already lined up the governments of Japan, South Korea and Australia, but now faced his “most delicate task yet—trying to coax a wary Europe to work more closely with Washington on China.”

It is in this mutually hostile atmosphere, China’s passing of Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law in May should be seen as a clear signal that the era of dialogue and diplomacy between the two rival powers has broken down. Many Chinese observers in fact have long warned that the quick erosion of trust between Washington and Beijing was the result of “loss of diplomacy.” Moreover, at least some analysts have also pointed out the bilateral relationship is increasingly defined by “slander, propaganda, and misinformation.” A CX Daily opinion analysis, in reaction to Biden administration’s relentless vitriol against China did predict not long ago that “in Biden era and beyond we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington.”

As far back as in June last year, Professor Wang Jisi of the Peking University, one of China’s most influential US watchers had forewarned: “Unfortunately, both Beijing and Washington see each other as ‘political virus.’ China-US relations, with or without the end of the pandemic era, will continue to deteriorate.” It is pertinent to recall, Joseph Biden opened his presidency, as also his maiden visit abroad as president, by declaring “America is back” and “diplomacy is back.” Immediately, questions started being asked: America or diplomacy is back where? Some skeptics explained the US was trying to “reclaim” its lost world leadership; while others thought the phrase was meant to convey that the “US has returned to working with the allies.”

Be that as it may, one thing is clear that as far as China goes, the meaning of Biden’s twin phrases “America is back” and “diplomacy is back” is “the Trump era has not ended.” It is indeed intriguing that some Chinese have again placed high hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough on the Tokyo Olympics this month. Both Chinese and the US athletes will be competing at the Summer Olympics. In 1971, it was in Nagoya in Japan where the table tennis players from China and the US “accidentally” ran into each other and paved the way for what scholars now celebrate as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” Just as Biden was telling the European leaders last month “America is back” and “let us focus on China,” a GT opinion piece surprised many by asking: Can US, China repeat “ping pong diplomacy”?

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.


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