Ping-Pong Diplomacy in Sino-American Relations


As Avery Brundage, one of the former presidents of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), once stated, “sports is completely free of politics” (Goldberg, 2000, p. 63). Nevertheless, that can hardly be considered true. The history shows countless examples of situations when sport, as the most important and popular type of leisure activity throughout the world, was used for political and diplomatic purposes. One of the most prominent examples is the so-called Ping-Pong diplomacy, which broke the ice in diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, changing the context of the Cold War.

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A Brief Description of Sports Diplomacy

Sports diplomacy can be defined as any diplomatic practice observed in the sports industry. Since sport belongs to those rear activities that attract billions of people and affect their day-to-day lives, changing beliefs, values, and attitudes, it is very easy to influence individuals through sports activities (Keys, 2004).

The origins of sports diplomacy go back to 776 BCE, where Greeks held the first Olympic festival, which they described as “a vehicle to unify the civilized world in spite of political differences” (Goldberg, 2000, p. 64). Since then, history has known a lot of examples of using sport for diplomatic purposes. For instance, during the medal ceremony at the Olympics in 1968, dark-skinned American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos posed for photos with raised fists in black gloves to show their appreciation of racial equality in sport (Goldberg, 2000).

However, sports activities have seen a lot of confrontation, as well. As a prime example, during the Cold War, the battle between communism and capitalism spread to the Olympics. As Goldberg (2000) states, for such countries as the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the sport was “the only medium in which they were able to compete with, and beat, economically advanced nations” (p. 64-65). Still, even if used for confrontation, the sport does people a favor because it is better to have battles on the playing field than the battlefield.

Aim of the Cultural Diplomacy Project: Ping-Pong

The central aim of Ping-Pong diplomacy was to improve the diplomatic relations between the USA and the People’s Republic of China. The controversy between these two countries began in the 1940s when the Civil war in China ended, and communism was established in the mainland of the country (Rapprochement with China, 2013). The US did not support that and recognized the Republic of China (located on the island of Taiwan) as a legitimate government. By the time when Ping-Pong began, this diplomatic estrangement between the US and the PRC continued for thirty years. However, starting with the late 1960s, both countries began to realize that the rapprochement between them would be useful.

Scenario: The Context of Ping-Pong Diplomacy

The diplomatic relations between The United States and the PRC during the late 1960s and the early 1970s should, first of all, be considered in the context of the ongoing Cold War. By the time Ping-Pong diplomacy started in 1971, both of the countries had already considered the possibility of rapprochement.

The USA was ready to reopen diplomatic negotiations with the People’s Republic of China because it would undermine alliances between Communist governments of different countries, particularly between the PRC and the USSR, which, in turn, would make the USSR weaker (Rapprochement with China, 2013). Additionally, it would diplomatically isolate North Vietnam, which was essential because of the war escalation at that territory. The Chinese government, in its turn, considered the possibility of rapprochement with the US mainly because Sino-Soviet relations became too strained (Rapprochement with China, 2013).

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Program Activity

Ping-Pong diplomacy started in 1971 when the US Ping-Pong team was in Japan at the World Table Tennis Championship (Ping-Pong Diplomacy, 2009). That is when the team received an unexpected invitation from their Chinese colleagues to pay a visit to the People’s Republic of China. As the Time magazine described it then, “The ping heard round the world” (Ping-Pong Diplomacy, 2009, par. 1).

The invitation came on April 6, and four days later, the team of nine players, together with several official representatives, entered the territory of the PRC, starting the era of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Some of the American journalists were invited as well.

Since 1949, when communism was established on the territory of the Chinese mainland, and the US stopped negotiations with this country, that was the first group of Americans who were called to visit China. On April 14, the Premier Chou En-lai welcomed Americans at the banquet in the Great Hall and stated that “new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people” began at that moment (Ping-Pong Diplomacy, 2009, par. 3). He also said that more journalists could visit the PRC. On April 17, the team left for the USA. After that, the President’s Assistant, Henry Kissinger, flew to Beijing two times in order to discuss the conditions of relations normalization. Finally, a year later, President Nixon also paid a visit to the People’s Republic of China.

Analysis of Ping-Pong Diplomacy

The events that took place between April 6 and 17, 1971, became a turning point in Sino-American relations. As has been mentioned earlier, people from the US Ping-Pong team invited to the PRC on April 6 were the first Americans who were welcomed to enter the territory of mainland China since 1949. That marked the beginning of a wide range of negotiations between these two countries. For example, the trade between the United States and the PRC was renewed since the US abolished its embargo on trade with the People’s Republic of China (Ping-Pong Diplomacy, 2009). Additionally, President Nixon finally removed all restrictions that prevented US citizens from traveling to the PRC (Rapprochement with China, 2013).

Both American and Chinese Ping-Pong teams continued to visit each other’s countries for matches. When Nixon visited China in 1972, the governments of the PRC and the US signed the Shanghai Communiqué, which contained agreements regarding one of the most substantial obstacles to normal relations between the two countries, that is, the Taiwan issue (Rapprochement with China, 2013). On the global scale, Ping-Pong diplomacy had a significant influence too because it caused some “détente” between the USA and the Soviet Union, and altered the course of the Cold War significantly (Rapprochement with China, 2013, par. 6).

To conclude, both the events of April 1971 and the visit of the US President to the People’s Republic of China had a significant influence on international relations. Ping-Pong diplomacy removed the tension in Sino-American diplomatic relationships and slowed down the pace of the Cold War.


Goldberg, J. (2000). Sporting Diplomacy: Boosting the Size of the Diplomatic Corps. The Washington Quarterly, 23(4), 63-70.

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Keys, B. (2004). Spreading Peace, Democracy, and Coca-Cola. Diplomatic History, 28(2), 165-196.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy. (2009). Web.

Rapprochement with China, 1972. (2013). Web.

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