Video: Pingpong diplomats look back

updated 1/7/2009 12:50:43 PM ET 2009-01-07T17:50:43

A senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that relations with China have deepened over the past decades and would strengthen further, as the countries played a friendly game of table tennis to commemorate 30 years of ties warmed by "pingpong diplomacy."

Among the players was Judy Hoarfrost, the youngest member of the original 1971 American team.

"Our mantra was 'friendship first, competition second,'" said Hoarfrost, now 50, of Portland, Ore. "I didn't know what impact it would have on the world. I was just playing table tennis. But I'm thrilled that pingpong and my part in pingpong has played a small role in diplomatic relations between China and the USA."

In 1971, a long-isolated China invited a U.S. table tennis team to visit Beijing — the first friendly overture in decades. The move helped pave the way for a historic visit by President Richard Nixon the following year. Washington and Beijing established formal ties on Jan. 1, 1979.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte attended the match, which was a reminder of the initial thaw in the countries' relations more than three decades ago.

"Of course now, after 30 years, we have a very broad and deep relationship," Negroponte said. "And I'm sure the next 30 years will be even better."

Negroponte, flanked by his Chinese counterpart Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya and U.S. Ambassador to China Clark T. Randt, watched Chinese and U.S. players play several matches.

At the end of the games, Negroponte was given a small gift — autographed pingpong paddles — by Liang Geliang, one of the original Chinese team members, who told reporters later that he hoped "US-China relationship would continue in the future."

'Twists and turns'
Then Negroponte headed to private discussions with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

"Looking back, there have been some twists and turns in this relationship, but the China-U.S. relationship has on the whole moved forward," Yang said.

U.S. observers say the most serious strain came with China's 1989 crackdown on student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Hundreds are believed to have been killed, and a horrified U.S. backed away from — but did not entirely break ties with — the communist country. Taiwan, Tibet and human rights are also sources of tension.

Earlier in the day, Negroponte and Wang held talks. Wang thanked him for helping to stabilize ties and establish a regular economic dialogue between the countries, Xinhua said.

As relations with China improved, Washington cut diplomatic ties with Beijing's rival Taiwan, although it continues to maintain close informal relations with the self-governing island, providing it with armaments to counter Chinese threats.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing considers the self-governed island a part of its territory and countries must choose which capital to recognize.

In the years since ties were established, U.S.-China contacts have expanded in several fields, from booming economic ties and student exchanges to close consultation on international issues, such as North Korea's nuclear program and climate change.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was originally scheduled to attend, but asked Negroponte to take her place so she could closely follow the Gaza crisis.

More on China | diplomacy

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